17 December 2008

Education and Reform: Personal Reflections on the Duncan Pick

In my time as a high school teacher, I worked for two distinctly different principals. My first boss was a veteran teacher who had taught high school English for thirty years before moving to a district-level position overseeing instruction and curriculum development. After five years at that position, working with teachers across the district, he landed a job as principal. His first principles were to foreground the hiring of great people, promoting the improvement of best teaching practices, and then staying out of their business (what he called “respecting teachers as professionals”). Even though the state had recently passed legislation mandating a high-stakes examination, he refused to orient the school to test-taking skills. Instead, teachers were given resources, autonomy and time. He insisted on only one thing. Teachers must communicate three messages to their students: “(1) I believe in you; (2) I believe in the material I am teaching; (3) I believe you can understand this stuff.” Faculty meetings focused on pedagogy and seminars showcasing different teaching tools, eschewing the usual mire of administrivia. It was an amazing place to work, but after two years, I moved on for personal reasons.

My second principal was a different sort. He was a former Marine, who had worked his way up from Phys. Ed. instructor to the upper-level of public schools bureaucracy. When he was appointed as principal of a failing school in the district (with a hefty raise and bonus), he had to take the state examination for school administrators. He failed the literacy section. Twice. Worse still, he bragged about this fact to the teachers under him, weaving it into a literally unbelievable story of perseverance, the culmination of a personal narrative that traced a path from high school drop-out to Marine to high school “teacher” to “successful” school reformer. In the first week of teacher orientation, Principal Marine (PM) required all teachers to attend a four-day “team-building” retreat cooked up by Human Resources evil-doers. Well-dressed twenty-something corporate trainers barraged us with platitudes about the importance of working in groups and the usual “No ‘I’ in TEAM” banter while we jogged from one summer-camp-style activity to another, dressed in matching school-color t-shirts. Not one hour was spent on actual unit and lesson planning. There was no discussion of best practices. Most importantly, there was no sense that the principal valued his teachers’ time. There was, however, a large check cut to a corporate-training company (a fact that would ire teachers later when we were spending our own money for new whiteboards, markers, and school supplies).

Once the school year started, we teachers found ourselves subjected to hour after hour of meetings and make-work. The administration convened two faculty meetings a week to discuss the fascinating topics like “aligning your rubrics to the state’s high-stakes test” and “student discipline in a ‘zero-tolerance’ environment.” Then there were weekly defenses of lesson plans with an academic dean (there was a 4:1 teacher-dean ratio) who repeatedly asked, “How will this work improve our school’s scores?” In order to up our reported numbers on “instruction hours,” students had to attend daily seventy-minute-long teacher-supervised study halls. We were told that no lesson planning was required and we could do our own work (grading and planning) in this time. If you’ve seen The Breakfast Club, you can accurately picture how these periods went down. PM also promised that ours would be a “community school,” a claim which he translated into mandated monthly teacher phone calls to parents/guardians. As every teacher had 150-200 students, each of us had to make between 8 to 10 phone calls per day to make good on PM's pledge. After one semester in this environment, I quit. The breaking point was the expulsion of one of my favorite students for getting hit in the face with a brick on his way to school. This was how PM enforced zero-tolerance discipline, which also gave him a convenient way to get rid of "under-achieving" students. The student in question was already on probation and this expulsion put him back in juvenile hall.

Now, I don’t usually think about these experiences. For the most part, I'd rather forget them. But when I read about Obama’s pick of Arne Duncan for Secretary of Education, these memories came running to my mind. Because Duncan is a school administrator akin to PM, an administrator (albeit a smarter one) with no classroom experience and a penchant for pushing “reform” programs with no respect for teachers and little reflection about what education really means. He’s a results-man, a career reformer, and in nominating him, Obama will have turned down an educator like my first principal, a contrast Alfie Kohn made clear in an editorial in The Nation last week:

To be a school "reformer" is to support:

§ a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic forms of assessment;
§ the imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching standards and curriculum mandates;
§ a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning--memorizing facts and practicing skills--particularly for poor kids;
§ a behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel compliance or raise test scores;
§ a corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for schooling, the point being to prepare children to "compete" as future employees; and
§ charter schools, many run by for-profit companies.

Notice that these features are already pervasive, which means "reform" actually signals more of the same--or, perhaps, intensification of the status quo with variations like one-size-fits-all national curriculum standards or longer school days (or years)…

Sadly, all but one of the people reportedly being considered for Education secretary are reformers only in this Orwellian sense of the word. The exception is Linda Darling-Hammond, a former teacher, expert on teacher quality and professor of education at Stanford. The favored contenders include assorted governors and two corporate-style school chiefs: Arne Duncan, whose all-too-apt title is "chief executive officer" of Chicago Public Schools, and his counterpart in New York City, former CEO and high-powered lawyer Joel Klein.

Duncan, a basketball buddy of Obama's, has been called a "budding hero in the education business" by Bush's former Education secretary, Rod Paige. Just as the test-crazy nightmare of Paige's Houston served as a national model (when it should have been a cautionary tale) in 2001, so Duncan would bring to Washington an agenda based on Renaissance 2010, which Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky describes as a blend of "more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, militarization, and the privatization of school management."
Obama’s Cabinet selections have been disappointing and depressing down the line. But this one struck particularly close to home for me.

Especially from the candidate who once trumpeted, “Change doesn't happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up.”