What does it take to transform a middle-aged publishing executive from the suburbs into a fire-breathing fighter for public schools and an outspoken opponent of Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and assorted other billionaires, politicians and "visionaries" pushing for "school reform?"
The Taser-like shock of experiencing "school reform" firsthand
I saw scores of school children--the poorest and most needy--victimized by educational malpractice that passes for progress. I found lies, cheating and a widespread, organized assault on American public education that is very real, and very terrifying. I am fighting back.
For me, that was the lightning bolt of conversion and the impetus to write Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education.
I left a job as a top editorial executive at a major publishing company to "give back" by teaching English in a South Bronx public school. I wanted to help provide underserved kids the kind of educational experience I'd known growing up. My teachers presented us with a passion for learning and passion for the greatness and potential of America. I hoped I could do the same.
So I went to grad school, found a teaching job and--though my colleagues at the school felt the same about helping kids--discovered that today's school system wants something completely different.
Now, education is about efficiency and making "student achievement" totally quantifiable. The result is a system that substitutes test prep for learning, and provides a stripped-down educational experience that's meant to produce test scores and other data rather than the promised "college and career readiness."
I discovered that what passes for "academics" are really just drilling and test practice. Class time has become test-prep time so that reformers can "prove" through rising test scores and other data that treating education (and children) like a business gets results.
The trouble is, most of the data is bogus, meaningless or simply made up.
Like many teachers today, I had to record reams of data. More than 2,000 data points each week. Not only for classwork and attendance, but also for characteristics such as "Unity of Being" and "Self Determination." Just as Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg accumulated their billions by manipulating data, they demand that today's public school managers do the same. And if the test results and other numbers don't support their case, they can always dial up the importance of "Unity of Being." Still can't hit their number? That has led to corruption and malfeasance worthy of a police department in a drug cartel-controlled town, with dishonesty throughout the ranks.
In the quest for numbers, today's schools often have little more than classrooms.
We didn't even have a school library. But we did have a librarian. Her job was making sure that the boys' and girls' restrooms were locked during odd-numbered periods. The only way to get a library was to beg for funding from a private foundation, such as the Gates Foundation, or others promoting "reform."
In other words, go to the people who are taking it away.
Politicians and pundits toss around phrases such as "international competitiveness" and "a nation in decline" to scare us into shaping our educational system in the image of big business, and to turning over what is taught and who teaches it to spreadsheet-obsessed managers who fail to recognize that our children are not data or widgets or fodder for business school case studies. They are our children. The future of our country.
Rather than dismantle an educational system that once was the envy of the world, I believe we should look for the future of American education by looking back to the public school experience most of us had--rich in content, varied in subject and leavened with art, music, sports and even a library.
It may not have been "efficient," but as someone, who like millions of other American kids, moved up to a position where I could "give back," I know in my soul it was effective. And we must do that for this generation, too.
John Owens is a writer, editor and former teacher. His book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth From the Front Lines of American Public Education, is published by Sourcebooks. It is available at Amazon.com and booksellers everywhere.