What can one teacher do to stop the dismantling of public education in America?

During a recent visit with my daughter and her family, I had an opportunity to talk with the husband of a public school teacher from the Cincinnati area. I was disappointed to learn that this young woman was working hard to prepare herself for a new career outside the field of education.

Like so many public school teachers, today, this husband explained his wife’s frustration with the changes that are taking place in public education in Ohio, changes that are making it difficult for her to teach children.

Her husband shared with me that his wife is one of seven or eight teachers at her school who are actively pursuing a career change once the current school year has ended. He also said that his wife’s principal is aware of the fact that she and several of her colleagues are planning to leave and this principal has been pleading with them to reconsider. “You are my best teachers,” he tells them. No doubt this principal is one of many who dread the prospect of leading their schools into an uncertain future without their best teachers.

Can we blame teachers for leaving their profession? Do they not have the right to pursue the best opportunities for which they are qualified? Public school corporations are no different than any other employer. An employer can expect the loyalty of its employees for only as long as that employer can sell them on the importance of the organization’s mission; meet their need for professional and financial fulfillment; and, give them reason to hope for successful outcomes.

Given the degree to which public education is under attack, the school corporations that serve our nation’s most vulnerable communities are being stripped of the power to make any assurances to their faculties, which begs the question of how such corporations, in the absence of a capable faculty, can offer any assurances to their students and their community.

The unpleasant truth with which the American people must come to terms is that our nation’s leaders have created a scenario in which the control over the education of our nation’s children has been placed in the hands of people who have no understanding of the realities of educating children; corporate executives and government officials who function within a logical realm that is corrupted by special interests and who have only their arrogance to guide them.

What kind of future can we have as a democratic society when we have lost our ability to prepare all of our children for the responsibilities of citizenship? What kind of future do the American people want for their children?

The dilemma for the American people is that they do not trust the bill of goods being pushed by corporate and government reformers and, also, that they have lost faith in traditional public education.

Teachers, principals, and superintendents and other educational professionals are the only ones who possess sufficient knowledge to save public education and to offer the American people what they want and need. The American people desperately need professional educators to stand and fight rather than stand by with our hands in our pockets and do nothing or, worse, leave the profession to the reformers.

If professional educators choose to stand and fight rather than flee, we can work together to offer the American people an alternative to the policies of the corporate and government reformers. We can offer them a new reality that is focused on learning and the special relationship that exists between teachers, students and parents. We can offer them a reality in which every child is important and in which no student will be permitted to fail.

It is understandable that individual teachers feel lost and alone and it is natural to feel like there is nothing one person can do. But teachers need not feel alone. They are part of a population of as many as three million professional educators who can come together to create this new reality.

In addition to existing unions and associations at both the state and national level, there is a new group of players in the game: the Bad Ass Teachers Association with a membership of 53,000 professionals and counting. Teachers can become BATS and still be active in their unions and associations, in fact they are encouraged to do so. Get active and demand action!

Teachers are not the only professionals at risk in these challenging times. The future of public school principals and administrators and also the superintendents and other administrative professionals of every public school corporation in the nation are also at risk, particularly those who serve populations in our nation’s most challenging communities.

The leaderships of each of these representative entities must recognize that they are at war for the very survival of public education and mounting a challenge to the corporate and government reformers must become their over-riding priority.

When faced with a common adversary the best strategy is always to unite all those who share a common interest. It is time for the leaders of each and every organization that is committed to public education to step up and find ways to work together to provide the American people with a reason to hope. If we can give them something in which they can believe the people will stand with their children’s teachers. Together, we can reject the forces that are striving to usurp the will of the American people to the great disadvantage of our children.

The future of teachers, public education, and the American people are at stake and the consequences for our failure to stem the tide will be tragic beyond description. In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, I offer a blueprint of a plan to create a new reality in education.

Learning is a Process, Not a Competition!

The way we grade the academic performance of our students in the overwhelming majority of American schools, public or private, suggests that we view the educational process as a competition rather than a pure learning process.

State standards lay out very specific academic expectations for all students beginning in first grade and progressing up to the point that we assess their readiness for graduation at the end of the twelfth grade. Toward the end of the child’s third year, at least here in Indiana, we begin administering the ISTEP+ exams to evaluate whether our students are where the state thinks children should be by the second semester of the third grade and each grade, thereafter.

Given the wide disparity that exists on an academic readiness continuum between young children who arrive for their first day of school, one can only wonder why we would ever consider it realistic that students should all arrive at the same place, relative to state standards, by any arbitrary point in time.

If the ISTEP+ exams and the standardized exams used in other states were meant to be purely diagnostic they could provide useful information that would help teachers adjust their classroom strategies to the unique needs of their students.

The moment, however, that we begin evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ performance on such exams, it becomes a competition. If we stop and think about it, the same could be said for the grades children receive at the end of each grading period or semester. If those grades were meant to gage which children need more help and which are ready to move on to new material, the grades could be useful tools. We all know that this is not the way it works, however.

We do not set aside the time to provide extra help for students who are unable to demonstrate sufficient mastery of the subject matter unless they are so far behind their classmates that moving them forward seems problematic but, even then, we agonize over the decision. Do we hold them back in spite of the perceived social and emotional consequences to insure that they will have more time and attention to master the subject matter or do we move them forward with their classmates even though we know them to be woefully unprepared for success in each succeeding grade?

What this dreaded dichotomy should tell us is that a system that requires educators to make such choices is dysfunctional and ignores the needs of our most vulnerable children, to their great disadvantage.

It makes no more sense to evaluate students on the basis of their ability to keep up with their peers than it does to judge teachers and schools as failures when the percentage of students who are falling behind crosses some arbitrary line of demarcation. Teachers and schools have no control over the aggregate levels of preparation and motivation of the students assigned to their respective schools and classrooms. Even more importantly, students have no control over how well their parents have prepared them for academic success.

What kids who arrive poorly prepared need is a process that acknowledges their unique situations and is structured to give them the time and special attention they need to be successful academically. What teachers and schools require is a process that is designed to give them the latitude necessary to respond to the “special needs” of these children.

Let us take great care not confuse our use of the phrase “special needs.” A student who is developmentally delayed due to environmental circumstances is not the same as a student who has a clearly defined learning disability or an emotional or psychological “disability.” Quite possibly, many students are diagnosed with some learning or emotional disability simply because we have not been cognizant of the fact that they were held to expectations that were unreasonable given their level of preparedness.

In effect, the thing we have been most successful in teaching these students is that they cannot learn as well as the majority of their classmates. The reality is that these kids got off to a late start and the professional educators on whom they depended were unable to recognize and respond to the unique realities of their situations.

The standard response to this dilemma, on the part of many educators, is to throw up their hands in figurative despair and respond “what are we to do?”

The answer to the question “what are we to do?” is relatively simple. We simply need to come to an agreement that the structure and flow of our current educational process has become so brittle, over time, that it no longer meets the needs of an incredibly diverse population of Twenty-first Century students. All that is necessary is to reinvent the structure to give both teachers and their students the time they need to learn within the context of a unique academic path with ever-rising expectations. When these children and their teachers, discover that they can be successful, academically, everything changes from their view of the world to their belief in themselves.

Providing one example of how this can be accomplished is the purpose of my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America.