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Mixed Messages

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Lately, I have been living a bipolar life. Here's why: Our production company, Learning Matters, has two editing rooms, and the sounds emanating from them couldn't be more different.

You want to become a civil rights leader? Become a teacher. You want to get involved in the greatest chapter in the American civil rights movement, dedicate yourself to the education of our young people.

I hear those rousing words almost every day as we work on our film about New Orleans. They were delivered, sermon-like, by Paul Vallas, then the Superintendent of the Recovery School District in Louisiana. That message, and similar ones from Barack Obama, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America and Richard Barth of KIPP, have resonated, and thousands and thousands of idealistic men and women have answered the call.

Meanwhile, in our other edit room I regularly see these video clips of school leaders in another city, from another film we are editing:

MERROW: If you had your druthers, what percentage of your staff would you replace?

PRINCIPAL: Probably somewhere in the range of about 25 to maybe 50 percent.

MERROW: You said you have a number of teachers who really need to be fired.

ADMINISTRATOR: Yes.

MERROW: How big is that number? What's the number?

ADMINISTRATOR: I'm not sure I should say that number. (pause) At least 50 percent. I think there are many of us who have said as high as 80 percent.

You see what I mean about my bipolar life?

However, I am fortunate, because I am only living it vicariously. Unfortunately, for our country's 3.1 million teachers, this mixed message is reality: they're called upon to sacrifice and serve -- and they are vilified.

Is the tide changing? Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Washington D.C. School Chancellor Kaya Henderson have now come out against publishing student test scores grouped by teacher, joining Bill Gates and Wendy Kopp. But Henderson doesn't need public demand to remove teachers. D.C.'s controversial teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, has allowed her to fire hundreds of teachers in the past two years. IMPACT relies heavily on how students do on a test known as the DC-CAS, a standardized test that has been plagued with a high rate of erasures (almost always from wrong to right) for a number of years.

Secretary Duncan's change of heart (he supported releasing scores in 2010) is easily interpreted as evidence of the administration's awareness of its shaky standing with teachers. Expect more olive branches going forward, because President Obama probably cannot be re-elected if teachers sit on their hands.

But those are what might be called 'headline changes' that probably do not affect the bipolar conditions teachers face. However, on the ground, ordinary citizens are questioning the wisdom of putting so many eggs in the basket labeled 'high stakes tests.' The recent fiasco in Florida, where the state lowered the passing bar on the writing test because so many students failed, must be food for thought at school board meetings and around dinner tables across the country. And the continuing flood of cheating scandals -- cheating by adults -- is eroding support for high-stakes testing. In fact, hundreds of school districts in Texas and elsewhere are publicly objecting to the amount of time being devoted to testing and test-prep; here in New York City and elsewhere parents are organizing to keep their children home when standardized tests are being given.

Being against "too much testing" is not the same as being supportive of classroom teachers, however.

The war that I wrote about in The Influence of Teachers continues, between those who want to "fire and replace," and those who want to change the working conditions of teachers to let them have more say over the curriculum and assessment.

"Fire and replace" is pure folly, because who is going to want to step into a profession that vilifies its practitioners?

If we believe that education is "the next great civil rights issue of our time," then we ought to be enabling the 'human capital' now in the profession to succeed (while weeding out those who, after help, cannot cut the mustard). That approach will send the right message to the large pool of young Americans who want to contribute to our country.