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The Best of Teaching and the Worst of School "Reform"

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Rafe Esquith's Real Talk for Real Teachers and James Owens' Confessions of a Bad Teacher both become more powerful when read next to each other. Esquith, the superstar author of Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire starts with lessons for new teachers, then he offers advice for those with five years of experience and, then, long-time veterans. Owens' rookie year was full of outrageous anecdotes about the way that test-driven "reform" is destroying public education. He did not make it back for a second year in the classroom.

Esquith, who must be some sort of a saint, advises teachers facing the abuse that was dumped on Owens and his colleagues to "count to ten and do your best to stay on track." He is the "quiet man" who does not respond to the gratuitous insults that are routinely dumped on teachers. Esquith reminds us that "it's hard to write a poem with bitter fingers," and urges teachers to not respond in kind to abuses of power. Real Talk for Real Teachers has plenty of inspiring stories, but the first third, with advice for new teachers, can just about match extreme horror story for extreme horror story with Confessions of a Bad Teacher.

Esquith quotes a teacher's account of today's "professional development" indoctrination that essentially promotes educational malpractice, as it is packaged as "best practices." Most of his sad tales, however, are like classic parable of the abuse of power. Again, Esquith explains what is great about education, but he also recounts three cases where the year-long and multi-year efforts of teachers to provide authentic, project-based, and team learning are scuttled due to petty power issues. The lesson is that when administrators misuse their power, teachers, mostly, should roll with the punches and try again later with their idealism as untarnished as possible.

In the case of his project being undercut, Esquith finally admits to a colleague, "I think for the first time I'm getting close to the point where I don't think our class can do this anymore."

His fellow teacher replies, "Rafe, it got to that point ten years ago. You just don't know it."

Esquith tells some stories about educators, including teachers, who commit travesties that are worse than I have seen. For the most part, however, he reconfirms the classic truths of Lord Acton, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

In some ways, Esquith's book contains an indictment of school "reform" that is more damning than Owens'. It is hard to read Esquith's narrative and deny that test-driven reform was doomed from the start. Had the accountability hawks shown the least interest in actual schools and in educational history, they would have understood why his experience explains how data-driven "reform" would make a bad system worse. Esquith's narrative makes it clear that reformers should have known that test-driven accountability would inevitably produce the tragedies that Owens describes, and explains why his experience is not an aberration.

That being said, Owens was on the cutting edge of a crueler, more mendacious set of policies that are the logical end result of high-stakes testing. This "bad teacher witch hunt" is heading into overdrive, and it is likely to arrive in a high-poverty school near each of us.

After teaching in the inner city for nearly two decades, I have witnessed virtually every abuse in Owens' account. He, however, saw such viciousness in a career of one year! Owens thus is a reminder that the destructive power of corporate "reform" has grown worse since I left the regular classroom in 2010. In Owens experience, as in mine, many reformers now seem focused on driving Baby Boomers out of the classroom and, intentionally or not, killing teaching as a career.

Esquith balances his portraits of the joy of teaching with reminders of what happens when power corrupts. Owens shows what happens when reforms place absolute power in the hands of management. Granted, he taught in New York City where the union still has the power to defend the rights of many or most teachers much of the time. On the other hand, data-driven policies give absolute power to administrators who choose to make those metrics say whatever they want.

Many or most administrators would never commit the outrages that were described by Esquith and Owens. I suspect that the responses to the bubble-in mania of the last decade has followed some sort of bell curve. On one end, we have master teachers and incorruptible administrators who are like Rafe Esquith. The percentages of test-driven reformers who have Esquith's impeccable moral character, I'd bet, are similar; supporters of standardized tests who have such exemplary dedication can also help kids.

On the other end of the curve are the tyrants that Esquith worked around and who Owens couldn't elude. The big majority of educators are like most professionals and most human beings, and they struggle to make the best of their situation. Most educators went into the field to help kids, not to face nonstop dilemmas in order to not be corrupted by the system. Most are just trying to remain as honest as possible until this mania passes. Most are hoping that the Rafe Esquith's of our profession will outlive the cruel hoax known as "reform."