I had a brilliant conversation last night with two public school teachers. We talked about so many things, but invariably it came down to our education system and what can be done about it.
As I write this, I'm watching the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute DVD, and Stevie Wonder is singing "Blowin' in the Wind" - interesting coincidence?
In Dylan's words:
There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind—and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some ...But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know ...and then it flies away I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many ...You people over 21, you’re older and smarter. --Bob Dylan, Sing Out! 1962
The song talks about oppression, being trodden upon, and injustice; most people connect that (as Stevie Wonder did) to civil rights, Vietnam, apartheid, Watergate, global starvation, etc., but as my two teachers affirmed, we forget the injustices that are befalling our students and teachers in schools across America. Who's singing about them?
One (recently moved to Washington State) said that she was forced to join the union - "they just stood over me and refused to leave until I signed the form." They wouldn't even let her take it home to read it. That kind of coercion can't be right? How is it that an organization founded in the spirit of advocacy for the downtrodden can be so oppressive?
Both (widely acknowledged by students and parents as great teachers) talked at length and with passion about how difficult it is to really do what's right in the classroom. They talked about how difficult it will be for them if they're accountable for individual student performance when they can't control the quality of the students they get, whether those students might just be resigned to life in a gang or joining the Army and dying in Iraq. In that scheme of things, how much does school really matter? How are they to be held accountable for that student's results? How are they to teach 10th grade English when the student's incoming reading proficiency is grade 3? Here's the worst one - if they do get singled out in any way (by the community, other outside agencies for some exceptional work), they're totally ostracized by their peer teachers!
No spirit of advocacy or camaraderie here at all. A clear sign of siege mentality. It's no wonder so many prefer the charter school model, and it's no wonder (though it is a crime) that unions violently oppose charters.
What would they change? First - we don't need the unions anymore - they're slowing us down; they're lowering our standing. Lawyers, doctors, other professionals don't have unions, the fact that we do makes us less - we are as important [I argue more important], and we should govern and represent ourselves appropriately. We also need to get rid of unions because tenure is killing our profession - it's the biggest impediment to change. [How often do you hear a teacher say that???]
Second - we need to rethink how principles are hired - it's really two jobs - the visionary (critical) and the operations manager (equally critical, but fundamentally different). It should be two people who work in partnership vs. one person who inevitably defaults to the operations side, causing us to lose out on any kind of evolved thinking, policy or practice. We lose out on an environment that is enriched and collaborative and passionate and challenging.
Third - we need to rationalize the structure - there is no clarity in the Constitution about where responsibility for Education lies; by default it goes to the States, but let's face it the Feds are pretty involved, and so are districts, etc. This is a mess. It's not about salaries (teachers don't teach for the money), it's about a coherent, equitable (every student in the country should have the same opportunity for an education), and consistent system that focuses first on honoring and doing the best we can for our children, and second but equally important, on helping prepare them for their futures. We need one system; we need a new Amendment.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Dont stand in the doorway
Dont block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
Theres a battle outside
And it is ragin.
Itll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin.