03/18/2011 06:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Get Your Heads out of the Clouds, Education Leaders

Our current discussion about public education offers two competing realities: those of the visionaries and their so-called reform ideas and the people who actually have to teach children each day.

There are teachers, of course, who find the time and energy to think about the long-term viability of what we do and how education overall could improve and there are those reformers who occasionally take pause from their visionary calculations to observe what is going on at a school or in a classroom--though not much it seems.

In his State of the Union, our president declared this generation's "Sputnik moment" and called on young Americans to consider careers in teaching and there have been many subsequent calls for people young and old to heed that call. These appeals may have long-term logic but isn't it just the slightest bit disingenuous to sound the call for Americans to become teachers just as the lay-off notices are being delivered?

It reminds me of a principal I once had. She was a visionary, always gushing with grand ideas for how our school could be better what our students could achieve and she truly did inspire many of us and kept us looking past the immediate disasters in which we were often immersed.

But she wasn't very good at tackling those immediate disasters and so teachers and students often found ourselves groping for the teachable moments within the chaos.

One September a new science teacher went AWOL after two days of crowded classes in a sweltering room without adequate books or supplies -- and the sub desk sent us a parade of inadequate replacements.

The classes of that now-unassigned science position descended into pandemonium as students, understanding the neglect being wrought upon them, became angry and unruly. Fights broke out -- and soon the mayhem spilled out and into other classrooms.

One morning the disorder was so disruptive to my own classes that I went to the principal's office to ask her what was being done to find a permanent science teacher. I found her sitting on the edge of her desk, talking urgently with an education outreach assistant from the local power company about a grant that would enable our school to develop our curricula around student portfolios and other project-oriented learning.

I honestly thought that could be a really cool thing for our school -- and hoped we got the grant -- but at that moment, as I watched my boss gushing with excitement over such pedagogical innovation (not that those ideas were all that new), I couldn't help but interrupt her to say that the sub in that science room was now a hostage and to ask her what she was going to do about it.

Now I want to make a similar statement to our leaders expressing their grand vision for the future of education while some of us are left to deal with the much less pleasant realities on the ground.

By the way, to my challenge that visionary principal said she was doing everything she could to find our students a science teacher but I didn't believe her and I thought -- and should have said it though I didn't -- that she shouldn't have been doing anything else all day except finding a science teacher.

I cannot help thinking the same thing of our so-called education leaders -- elected, appointed, self-appointed -- if you care about the future of education then you have to care about the present crisis. You cannot say you want to improve the quality of teaching or that you want to elevate the teaching profession and then stand by while districts are forced to reduce the number of teachers, increasing class size, disenfranchising young educators and their students.