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Blaming Teachers


Dear Diane,

You've caught me remembering what wasn't there. I reread A Nation at Risk, and—you are right-- it didn't claim that teachers were the enemy within. It even gave a few kudos to hard working teachers. It's interesting (to me) that I should misremember it.

So how did we get from 1983 to 2008? I think that, in some ways, the argument put forth by A Nation at Risk is part of the problem.

First. The enormity of the crisis that they perceived and the sole focus on schools as the cause and solution eased the way into teacher bashing. While the authors of A Nation at Risk specifically avoiding naming scapegoats for the school crisis, unlike the Bold and Broad argument they took little (or no) note of other obstacles. They failed to ask questions about other institutional and systemic failures that need to be addressed.

Secondly, the report was inaccurate in claiming a "period of long term (school) decline" and tying that to the "15 year decline in industrial productivity." First of all it takes 15-20 year for the products of schooling to reach the market—become employees! So which historic period should have been "blamed"? It quotes one Paul Copperman approvingly saying "Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country this generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach those of their parents." That was inflammatory nonsense, only the last—"economic attainment" (wages)—is proving true.

Al Shanker defended these misstatements to me as necessary to awaken a smug public. But calling "fire" in a crowded theater can be dangerous. Dealing with "an unfriendly foreign enemy" easily slipped into seeing the people who ran our schools as in cahoots and demand a quick fix. Since the narrative of decline coincided with the growing unionization of teachers, a period of collective empowerment, it was a quick and easy step to seeing the unionization and empowerment of teachers as the enemy within. It struck a bell that had been used a few years earlier by the leaders in the Black power struggle in the late 60s, searching for their own empowerment and seeing teacher empowerment as an obstacle rather than an ally.

Third. The report notes that we have "lost sight of basic purposes." But no where does it take up "basic purposes" except for outstripping our foreign competitors. It's their rising tide, not our rising mediocrity that in fact is the problem. Was it the workers in the auto industry, or its union, that led to Japan and Germany's rising competition? Or was it judgments made by those who had competitive scores? The fact that we put such enormous numbers of our low-income youth in prison—at rates and for crimes none of our competitors match—goes unnoted. In fact, since 1983 those numbers have soared.

No nation—with high or low scores—comes anywhere close. These nonproductive youth have an impact on both our economy, their families and our future. What can we learn from our competitors about "get tough" imprisonment policy?

Fifth. If the economy is the only dilemma, why does the report focus on "academic" skills? How do we connect such academics to the needs of the work world? Is there something else also at stake?

Bloomberg in his Florida speech rests his arguments on the same distortions. The Texas miracle, the Chicago miracle, and now the NYC miracle. I'm glad to see that Bloomberg didn't claim that Wall Street's woes are the fault of the NYC teacher's union. Bloomberg is one of many that view anything that isn't built around a harsh competitive spirit, with easy to count winners and losers, and money at stake can't work. Maybe even shouldn't work. Further, if you believe that nothing worthwhile happened prior to the arrival of one's own new bold plans little attention need be paid to those "on the ground." Crisis thinking has that inevitable downside—one has no for serious thought, for persuading or being persuaded by the reluctant in face of imminent danger. * All independent power blocs that stand in the way (like parents and teachers) must be immobilized so that swift and inflexible action can be taken from the top. (Bloomberg should reread War and Peace.) For noble ends, short cuts in truth-telling are allowed. We remember (and disremember) best what proves our point. (Mea culpa too.)

I've been reading new books about the Civil Rights struggles of the late 60s and early 70's, and struck by an irony which I want to explore. Given that I shifted my work from the civil rights movement to teaching in 1965 I should be delighted with the slogan that "education is The Civil Rights issue of the 2lst century". But I'm not.


P.S. It was similar over-stated alarms over literacy that paved the way for the scandals of Reading First—anything was better than the bad old days, and criticism of the new was tantamount to being anti-reform.


Nice essay about the nature of quick fixes. My own approach is to be wary of any policy paper which uses superlatives in either direction. Few things can be described as the worst, best, smartest, dumbest, most rigorous, laziest, etc. when either context is introduced, or things are looked at across time. Not even Finland, perched as it is at the top of the PISA rankings, will be there forever. This is not to say that nothing can be learned from Finland's example, but copying Finland without attention to the broader context is inherently short-sighted (but not the most short-sighted!).


You ask: "If the economy is the only dilemma, why does the report focus on 'academic' skills? How do we connect such academics to the needs of the work world? Is there something else also at stake?"

First, I don't see any argument or statement in A Nation At Risk that the economy is the only dilemma. The report states in several places that education is essential not only to career and economy, but to overall quality of life. Here's part of a paragraph (italics mine):

"In a world of ever-accelerating competition and change in the conditions of the workplace, of ever-greater danger, and of ever-larger opportunities for those prepared to meet them, educational reform should focus on the goal of creating a Learning Society. At the heart of such a society is the commitment to a set of values and to a system of education that affords all members the opportunity to stretch their minds to full capacity, from early childhood through adulthood, learning more as the world itself changes. Such a society has as a basic foundation the idea that education is important not only because of what it contributes to one's career goals but also because of the value it adds to the general quality of one's life."

Second, I question any perceived incompatibility between "academics" and "real life" (including the workplace). Or perhaps I misunderstood your point. If we want to write a persuasive letter to a supervisor, public leader, or anyone else with power over our lives, we need good grammar and style--and we also need to know something about the topic. If we are writing to the landlord to propose structural improvements, we may need an understanding of physics, electronics, finances, and zoning, for starters. How do academics not connect with the needs of the work world, or with everyday life?

In America there is a perceived gulf between academics and the "real world." (Academia, with its often indecipherable lingo, is partly responsible for this problem--but in any case it seems quite entrenched.) The reversal of this problem is not easy. The effect of learning on quality of life may not be instant--and here I like your point about lag time, as well as Tony's point about hyperbole.

In my reading, A Nation At Risk is quite subtle. It describes a "tension between hope and frustration." Despite its message of urgency, it calls for profound improvements, not quick fixes. I do not agree with all of its recommendations, but they seem on the whole quite sound and much more meaningful the "reforms" of Bloomberg and Klein.

The effects of profound improvements will not be felt overnight. They will not result in dramatic test score increases over the course of one year. How, then, do we measure them? Certainly not the way we are measuring progress right now. We need tests, but of a different kind--tests that measure knowledge and true critical thinking. And, of course, we need a curriculum that teaches such things.

In The Activity School (1926), Demiashkevich writes, "They say that encouraging independent thinking is the indispensable task of education for democracy. Indeed, it is if the independence nourished by the school does not lead to desertion from logic, to renunciation of facts, to ignorance of the greatest teachings, achievements, as well as instructive failures of the past."


Are you trying to suggest that our schools are doing a great job and the only room for improvement is in the social area?

Clearly, many of the types of reforms promoted after A Nation At Risk were perhaps poorly thought out and mistaken with the Bloomberg/Klein style reforms high on that list.

But even if A Nation At Risk overstated the deficits in our schools, can you honestly say that the way they stand today our schools are doing a fantastic job?

Erin Johnson


Its not a good idea to comment on your post without first printing your words out and wrestling with them. I haven’t wrestled enough with you statement “Crisis thinking has that inevitable downside,” but I will.

A Nation At Risk was a decade after the Energy Crisis, which started us down the de- industrialization path and has resulted in a 5% decline in wages over the last 35 years. We’ll need to remember the lessons of that crisis, as well as the Savings and Loan and Banking crises that took effect around the time of A Nation at Risk that helped produced the crack crisis and the filling of our prisons, as well addressing today’s energy and mortgage and credit card crises. (For instance, the decline of reading, like the credit crisis, is intertwined with cultural changes such as the decline of delayed gratification, and hopefully Bloomberg won’t blame them all on teachers’ unions either.)

Coming into education as my near central city neighborhood was wiped out by the Voodoo economics (that also spurred a take-off in Wall Street numbers), I also should be delighted by education being characterized as the civil rights movement of the 21st century. It also means that I see the metaphor of ecology as inherent in educational thinking.

NCLB has prompted a series of mini-NYC teachers strike replays, where community and families and teachers and unions are set against each other in racially tinged disputes.

But think about the speech that Martin Luther King never gave. Rather than transforming civil rights into a struggle for economic rights and peace, he could have attacked Black Power and Malcolm X, as throw-backs to Booker T. Washington. He could have said that their emphasis on economics was “status quo.” He could have pledged commitment to litigation and legal issues alone, and repudiated efforts to improve nutrition, health, jobs.

Isn’t that pretty close to the knee-jerk reaction against the Bold and Broad Challenge?

In fairness, the civil rights leaders who stuck with the EPI and pro-NCLB-type accountability, were drawing upon the history of civil rights in the 70s. MLK, also, would have supported the 70s approach that produced a more mixed outcome. Affirmative Action, unfortunately, was more successful in helping women and better-educated minorities, and had little relevance for the urban poor. We were much more successful in the 60s in closing the “snake pits” where we warehoused the mentally ill, juveniles, and the disabled. We were much less successful in providing services to the homeless and children who fell through the cracks. We swung back and forth between family preservation vs. the removal of endangered children. Our civil rights efforts using litigation in the 70s was just as noble, but they came up against a different form of complexity.

About the only civil rights litigation that should have been rejected was the old “equal pay for Comparable Worth,” and in retrospect it was an intellectual sibling of NCLB - the high point of European-style industrial policy and social engineering in America.

So maybe we should move to the metaphor of ecology. If all of the progressive education stakeholders tried to address an environmental problem, we would be human and fall into the trap of “not in my backyard,” and we would all want data-driven accountability on polluters. But none of us would deny the fundamental concept of ecology.

Then returning to education we could ask, how much toxicity do we want to dump on school children? A fundamental law of educational ecology is that the feces rolls down hill. If we dump blame and shame on teachers, that poison will flow into our children’s minds.

Yes, we are facing a crisis. And we better wake up to the effect of today’s economic crisis on poor children and families. But we’re also entering the 21st century and it’s a time of great miracles. Adults are supposed to buffer children as they are growing up so that they are not beaten down at a young age by the brutalities of life. Adults are also supposed help kids inspire towards hope.

And if nothing else, the civil rights metaphor is a metaphor of hope.

Obama 08.

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