Friday, June 26, 2015

Resisting the Attack on Teachers and Teaching: Speech to the Old Tappan School District

 I am honored to stand before some of the most dedicated, idealistic, compassionate and creative public servants in the nation. Would you please rise and give yourselves a standing ovation

  It is the shame of a nation that  public school teachers have become the targets of a campaign of defamation. Politicians of both parties, cheered on by the press, try to out do one another in attacking you. No one epitomizes this more than the Governor of this state, Chris Christie, who during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire, actually compared k-12 teachers with ISIS. But please don’t think I am being partisan. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who is a Democrat, is probably kicking himself that he didn’t say it first, as he and Christie are virtually indistinguishable in both their education policies and their public pronouncements about teachers and teaching

Why is this happening? Why are people who have devoted their lives to working with children become targets? Why have the nation’s largest and wealthiest foundations spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to prove that you are failures and trying to find short cuts to the painstaking teaching and mentoring of students that you do every day?

Some of this stems from pure greed. There are huge profits to be made in new technologies designed to take the place of what teachers traditionally have done. Test manufacturers and software companies stand to make tens of billions of dollars by institutionalizing testing from Pre-K on up and evaluating teachers, schools and entire districts on the basis of that data. And even more money can be made from developing consulting firms to be brought in when the inevitable failures are documented, or when entire school districts, such as Newark, Camden or Patterson can be put into receivership and taken over by the state. And that doesn’t count the investment opportunities in charter schools, where investors can get a 39% tax credit which allows them to recoup their initial outlet in 7 years.

 But there is something else happening here that makes the attack on teachers and teaching even more insidious. And that is the arrogant conviction, held by those who have accumulated great wealth in the private sector, that anyone can become a teacher, that most teachers are incompetent, and that if private sector methods of evaluation, based on performance data, are brought to education, that test scores will magically improve,low performing schools will be brought up to standard, and the US rise to the top in international rankings. These individuals, who think of themselves as Masters of the Universe because of their own financial success, really believe this. They think that if you give teachers material incentives to succeed through merit pay and fire teachers when they fail after undermining their job security, that the education system will instantaneously become as productive as the companies they lead

However, there is one big problem with this approach. There is a big difference between selling houses or cars, investing in real estate, speculating in pork bellies, or packaging mortgages into bonds and teaching children. Children are not products- they are individuals in the making with vulnerabilities as well as strengths. They need love, support, compassion and humor, space to dream and opportunities to play, and adults who will work with them to get the best outof their unique individual abilities not just have them reach for an abstract standard.

  And what happens when you erase children’s individuality. Tell them that the only thing that matters is how they performon tests. Tell them that their teachers jobs and families’ future depend ontheir test scores.

      They start hating school. Start doubting themselves. Start losing the joy of discovery and the excitement of learning.

        Make no mistake about it. The attack on the nation’s teachers is crushing the nation’s children. It is filling even high performing students with stress and creating huge disciplinary problems in high poverty districts where gym and recess and the arts have been decimated or used for test prep.

          So how do we fight back? How do we get the public to stop supporting politicians who demonize teachers?

            First of all, we have to realize that most people don’t empathize with teachers as workers. If you tell themy our jobs are being made into a nightmare by over scripting, micromanagement and absurd and inaccurate data based evaluation, they will tell you “Welcome to the club.” This kind of approach to management is extraordinarily common in the private sector and is spreading like wildfire to the public sector. So you will not necessarily get much of a hearing if you tell people your jobs are beingruined

        However, you will get a hearing if youtell people that the tests being introduced into schools, largely to evaluate your performance, are destroying their children’s educations and putting intolerable stress on their families. Ask them—Do their children cry when test time is near? Does your family go into crisis mode when your children are given homework? Do you have to deal with tantrums where a child says they don’t want to go school, or are furious that school trips have been cancelled?

      This is the common ground teachers must find with families.

      And that common ground is emerging. One important sign of it is the meteoric growth of the Opt Out Movement. In New Jersey, more than 45,000 children refused to take the PARCC tests; in New York, more than 250,000 children refused to take Common Core aligned ELA and Math tests.

      This revolt is one important hope for a return to sanity in testing, teacher evaluation, and pedagogy

      But teachers cannot afford to be silentor let parents lead this movement without their support. They have to explain to everyone who will listen that great teaching involves relationship building,an understanding of each child’s individual talents and aptitudes, and love and caring, things that can’t be easily measured or quantified. And that great teachers need great administrators who support and nurture teachers who display those traits, who must in turn be supported by strong school boards and superintendents

    I know this first hand because my wife is one of those principals who nurture great teachers- who makes sure they are given every opportunity to improve their best practices, but who also defends them with passion and intelligence against attacks from elected officials and the press.

 The teachers in this district are also very lucky they have administrators and a superintendent who understand what theirjobs entail but you cannot afford to be complacent., The attack from above is so relentless that no district is safe. You have to talk to everyone who will listen about how destructive current testing policies are and explain what itwill take to bring out the best in our children. You cannot just close the door and teach. It will take an heroic battle on the part of all of us to challenge the Gates and the Waltons, the Christies and the Cuomo’s and get elected officials to support policies that support theteaching you were trained to do

    The sad truth is that we are in a war forour children and our jobs  Everyone of us must step up to the place and become an advocate for sound policies as well as an excellent teacher

    Since I work in the Bronx, I want to close with a line from the most famous hip hop song to come out of the borough, Grand Master Flash’s “The Message”

“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head. Uh huh huh huh huh .Sometimes I wonder how I keep from going under”

So I ask you Old Tappan Teachers are you going under?

Chant with me now “HELL NO!”


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