I, too, have a dream.
Sadly, since I am a product of an Ozark upbringing, my dream does not rise to the aesthetic beauty of Martin Luther King's. I am sure visions of cage fighting never crossed his mind as he was preparing his March on Washington address.
Instead of seeing a land where all of the children, African American, Asian, Caucasian, can be judged on their merits and not by the color of their skin, I see a land where the education of those children will be decided by throwing raw meat into the center of an arena and letting desperate classroom teachers dive for it.
Instead of seeing a land where education and the people who are responsible for it -- the classroom teachers -- are valued for the contributions they are making to society, I see a land where those teachers, and I proudly stand among them, are pitted against each other for the amusement of a group of politicians and billionaire businessmen who give lip service to creating a nation of out-of-the-box thinkers, while at the same time taking giant steps toward turning education into a microcosm of the rest of society -- a place where the rich get richer and the poor become breeding stock for a workplace filled with people whose primary skill is filling in bubbles, making clean and careful erasures of stray marks and never coming anywhere near the threshold of creative thinking.
I don't have a dream -- I have a nightmare.
And the land I see is my home state of Missouri.
Last week, by a vote of 5-2, a state senate committee took the first giant step toward a radical change of public education that will make our schools a nightmare for students, teachers, and administrators.
The "Teacher Continuing Contract Act" calls for everything so-called "educational reformers" have been demanding. It eliminates teacher tenure, it makes it illegal to pay any teacher based on years of classroom experience, and it requires all public school districts to divide their faculties into a four-tier pay scale, with pay based primarily on standardized test scores.
Under the four-tier system proposed by the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, teachers whose students score the lowest would receive the lowest pay, with the second tier receiving more, the third tier an even greater total, and then the fourth tier receiving 60 percent more than those in the third tier.
Even if all of the teachers are capable, the tiers would be required, and the bill even offers an elaborate tiebreaking system to determine who goes in what tier.
Mrs. Cunningham's bill, which is identical to a bill sponsored in the Missouri House by Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, also calls for the following:
-The abolition of tenure, to be replaced by "continuing contracts," which can be two, three, or four years, depending on how well teachers' students perform on standardized tests.
-Abolition of minimum salaries for veteran teachers or those who have earned master's degrees
-Performance pay would become effective in 2013
-Teachers cannot campaign for school board candidates in their district. (It should be noted that Mrs. Cunningham was a one-term member of the Ladue Board of Education and lost her re-election bid after she alienated school officials, teachers, and students, with her attempts to push a religious organization on the school's students.)
-All teachers who have already earned tenure lose it as of 2012 and become probationary teachers once again.
As if this bill was not enough, it is not the only legislation designed to push the "reform" agenda:
Another bill, which also stands a good chance of passing, would tie administrator pay to standardized test scores.
If President Obama thinks there is too much teaching to the test now, he needs to come to Missouri if this legislation passes.
Yesterday, I signed a contract for my 13th year as a classroom teacher. I still see value in what I do, even if Missouri's elected officials see me and my fellow teachers as just one more obstacle in the way of eliminating this special class of public employees who are draining dollars that could be used to reduce taxes for businesspeople, who at some unspecified date will begin using these tax breaks to bring low-paying jobs into our state.
Public education has always had its critics and always will, but it is a system that has served this country well and continues to do so.
Having teacher pay decisions turned into a cage fight, with teachers battling to see who can teach to the test best and receive a handful of gold-plated salaries, is a formula guaranteed to continue the transformation of our schools from places of learning, which they have continued to be despite the recent wave of negative publicity, to test preparation factories.
In the world of Jane Cunningham, experience does not matter. Advanced degrees and the debt that went into earning them are meaningless. In Mrs. Cunningham's world, if you remove all originality and empathy from your teaching and spend the lion's share of your time teaching test-taking tips, you have a 25 percent chance of becoming a highly-paid teacher.
With public education turning into a nightmarish Dickensian and American Legislative Exchange Council vision, one question remains unanswered:
Why in the world would anyone want to become a classroom teacher?
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