If not for all of the towering displays at Target and Staples, I would refrain from raising the topic of back-to-school, if only to hold onto summer for just a bit longer. But the start of school is less than a month away in many parts of the country, it's been very hot lately, and I can't help looking forward to fall, cooler weather, and a renewed engagement in education and school life.
I love school supplies and everything they symbolize. This year, however, there is something bittersweet about new pencils and backpacks and notebooks. I've lost count of how many clip art images of these items I've seen this summer accompanying articles and blog posts about teacher test-cheating scandals. It certainly has been a bloodbath, and that is not an image I typically associate with public school teachers. For me, the summer has been tainted by the collective demonization of some of the most passionate, caring, and hard-working professionals we have in this country.
A Flurry of Test Cheating Scandals and What They Mean for Kids
As a native of Atlanta, I have been rocked by the events there, and by the vicious attacks these embattled educators have suffered. They are not alone in their disgrace, nor will their ranks remain thin. Expect more of the same as widespread testing investigations deliver us more and more of the same news over the coming months.
Lest anyone think I am blinded by partiality, I am well aware of the consequences for students when teachers obscure the real data on how far they are falling behind academically, and thereby make it impossible for these students to be properly identified and given access to remediation. I am also sympathetic to all of the outraged voices demanding moral behavior by those adults entrusted with the care and education of our children. The cheating is unacceptable. But it is unacceptable in many different ways, not all of them exclusively owned by the accused teachers.
The Moral Complexity of Cheating in the Shadow of NCLB
Here's the thing: these teachers who erase and change bubbles filled in by Number 2 pencils do not do it because they are evil. They do it because they are threatened. Bureaucrats threaten administrators who threaten teachers that if their students do not achieve certain scores, there will be serious repercussions. You bet. It's quite serious when teachers face losing their jobs in a down economy where school budgets are being slashed and lay-offs continue rising, especially when they are coerced to cheat in order to avoid this scenario. Thank you NCLB.
It's also quite serious when schools are held to impossible standards and threatened with a "failure" designation if students cannot score highly enough, even if those students have low IQs or learning disabilities, come from poverty, live in broken homes that lack adequate adult support, or in any other ways are the casualties of societal ills that impede their ability to perform satisfactorily. Apparently teachers need to fix these things, as well as teach the 3 R's, in classrooms bursting at the seams without proper supplies or support services. Hey, at least they make the big bucks. Are you listening, Arne Duncan?
How Pervasive Teacher-Bashing May Affect the Future of the Teaching Profession
I keep wondering, what is going to happen down the road when a high number of teachers quit or get fired, and young people avoid the profession because they see too many downsides? Just as a new documentary, The Finland Phenomenon, has been released to my utter joy, extolling the virtues of arguably the best educational system in the world, I look around at the way things are going in this country. Unlike in Finland, many public school teachers in the U.S. are poorly respected, underpaid, and constantly besieged.
Why Everyone Second Guesses Teachers
Everyone went to school, so everyone thinks they are experts on education. Public school teachers are the last ones asked how to achieve effective education reform. They are told from on high what to teach and how to teach it, even when studies show that loosening the reins on teachers and allowing them more autonomy and creativity to design their own curriculum and pedagogy improves student outcomes. They are expected to teach to a test and to help students learn, which are often mutually exclusive, at least in terms of what really matters -- teaching kids to think critically, see the big picture, and connect ideas in essential ways. There is no test for that, but there are lots of tests for things that are mathematically measurable if not wholly meaningful.
The Problem of Low Morale
As I sit in my Concord, Massachusetts home writing this post, I acknowledge that our local suburban teachers are not specifically under fire. However, educators around the country are united by their passion for working with children and their desire to make a difference in the world. There is a palpable and admirable camaraderie. Those not being currently bashed, for cheating or anything else, think, there but for the grace of God go I, and feel vicariously the pain of their fellow teachers. It can be very demoralizing, and that has a direct effect on students as well as teachers.
Teachers of America, Thank You!
So, as we contemplate a return to school in the coming weeks, I ask that we all remain sensitive to what a tough summer it has been for many teachers across America, and that we take a moment to think about the job our teachers are doing -- a job most adults would never even consider.
I wish everyone a joyful new school year, and I thank every single teacher in this country for what she or he does for our children.