03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Needed: People Who Quit

In October, 2009, former Marine officer Matthew Hoh resigned his senior Foreign Service post in Afghanistan because he feels the war is pointless and not worth dying for. He said, American families "must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can be made any more."

Commenting on this action, Garrison Keillor noted that "The American people tend not to admire quitters, which is maybe why protest resignations are so rare. You can get up on your high horse and talk about your principles, but we suspect that you're just another slacker looking for an easy way out." He added:

Your old football coach told you that when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and by "get going" he didn't mean "write a four-page letter about your disillusionment with his coaching and the split-T offense in general" -- he meant, Toughen Up, Assume the Three-Point Stance, Hit 'Em Hard, Eat Some Turf, Get Up and Hit 'Em Again.

Keillor's dismissal of a moral stance as "high horse" and his labeling of a person who refuses to continue participating in an wrongheaded, even unethical, endeavor as a "slacker" poses today's teacher's dilemma. A test prep curriculum has enveloped schools ever since Congress enacted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, smothering everything teachers know about how children learn. As a veteran kindergarten teacher wrote to me recently, "I hate what I'm doing to the children." In her school day lasting 6 hours 45 minutes, 15 minutes is allotted for children's snack time, time stolen from the science curriculum. And that snack break is ever vulnerable. When the teacher told the principal there was no time for children to prepare materials needed for a math project, the principal suggested they do it during snack time.

Under dire federal sanctions about standardized test scores, schools commonly drop curriculum not on those tests, so that in kindergarten the blocks and the play house disappear, replaced by piles of skill sheets. Kids with low test scores attend skill drill tutoring sessions after school, on Saturdays, and in the summer. Recess is a relic of the past as are libraries, art, and music.

So what's a teacher to do? Continue abusing children or have Garrison Keillor call her a quitter?

The teacher's plight is about to get more desperate as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan dangles $5 billion in competitive grants to states and districts qualifying for the Race to the Top initiative (RttT), known by educators as NCLB on steroids. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation makes itself an enthusiastic partner by giving states that pass its preliminary RttT litmus test up to $250,000 for technical assistance in writing the RttT application.

Race to the Top increases the importance of standardized tests, tying teacher tenure and salary to student performance. And so a rich and varied developmentally appropriate curriculum is replaced by the scripted "get-'em-ready" curriculum: pre-school programs get kids ready for the rigors of kindergarten; kindergartners get ready for their SATs. All children are put on the conveyor belt that trains them to be scared, compliant workers in the global economy. Like their teachers, they are made to feel that they are never good enough.

So for that kindergarten teacher, "not quitting" and assuming that "three-point stance" means hanging in there and doing the wrong thing for children, substituting test prep for education, lighting matches under thermometers and pretending she has warmed up the room.

Increasingly, longtime teachers who know what children need but don't have unions or professional organizations willing to defy federal policy are reaching a point where resigning seems the only option. When this happens, we must celebrate these teachers as heroes, not quitters. Think about it: Had Hubert Humphrey resigned as vice-president in protest of Johnson's Vietnam policy, the war would have ended much earlier, and Humphrey would have easily been elected president. Had Colin Powell resigned over Bush's Iraq policy, instead of giving that speech at the UN, that war would have ended long ago, and Powell might be president today.

We need teacher heroes, teachers who have the courage to say, "I'm not going to do this any more."

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