Monday, January 14, 2013

Reprise: Gotta Respect Yourself!

“I came to the conclusion that NCLB has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education.  I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools – or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not – because I always knew children’s test scores are far more complicated than the way they’re being received today.” -  Diane Ravitch (

Keeping Them in the Box (or “love you just the way you are”)
Idiom:  In Pulitzer Prize winning author Tony Morrison’s The Big Box, several “unruly” children from various backgrounds find themselves placed (incarcerated) into a Big Box complete with toys, articles of clothing, food, furniture – all of it to remind them what would be best for them if they were to conform to what society expects of them.  In fact, although not directly stated, they have been placed in the box for behaving/thinking outside of the societal norms by which they should be constrained.  If you’re a teacher or nurse or public servant, it’s worth a read.  Pull up a chair at your local Barnes and Noble’s and give it a good look.  You’ll find it in the children’s section.

Rules of Conduct for Teachers – 1915
You will not marry during the term of your contract.
You are not to keep company with men.
You must be home between the hours of 8 PM and 6 AM unless at a school function.
You may not loiter downtown in any of the ice cream stores.
You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have permission of the chairman of the school board.
You may not ride in carriages or automobiles with any man except your father or brother.
You may not smoke cigarettes.
You may not dress in bright colors.
You may under no circumstances dye your hair.
You must wear at least two petticoats.
Your dresses may not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles.
To keep the classroom neat and clean you must sweep the floor once a day, scrub the floor with hot soapy water once a week, clean the blackboards once a day and start the fire at 7 AM to have the school warm by 8 AM when the scholars arrive.

Given these historical circumstances, we’d hardly expect a governess/educator to demand anything - much less a living wage.  Pity the Ichabod Crane, Mary Poppins, Miss Crabtree, Anna [The King and I] – were they to shed their timidity for a sudden temerity and request deserved respect and compensation.  That would be out of character and totally unacceptable.  They might even lose their heads?

Teachers, nurses, police, firefighters, and public servants are taught through hammering stereotypes and reiterated imagery that their professions’ nobility is derived from the following:  practiced compassion over personal reward, good works over self-interest, and graciously granted respect for the sacrifices each profession makes.  We illuminate our minds with these strobe images of the dignity of penury through self-sacrifice.   

 But those once admirable stereotypes have changed recently, haven’t they, my educator friend?

Anyone familiar with the print media (in Chicago especially) is aware of the persistent vilification of the teaching profession, the new emphasis on privatization of the schools, the demand for testing as a measurement of teachers, not students.  And with those angry new caricatures we have at times come to doubt ourselves and our work – and I might emphasize – our value.

For decades, any real threats by public servants demanding respect, seeking appropriate compensation, or calling for a voice in their respective professions have been countered with the media’s cynical rejoinder that they are coldly willing to hurt kids, or patients, or crime victims, or the populace.  The economy, destroyed by speculators; retirement savings, drained to less than half their value; foreclosures, still rising unabated – we look at our pension and feel – of all things – guilty.

“Honestly,” one teacher whispered to me at a recent gathering, “I feel scared when people ask what I do for a living.  They’ll either hate me or feel envy.  So I make up things.”  It won’t get better.

In the new world or the “new reality,” our discomfort will be enhanced with the media’s consistent call to simplify the process – teach measureable skills only, reduce the scope of class choices, or just add more time.   And be paid accordingly. 

In academics, they (public servants) are often reminded to remain in their domesticated positions as governess, tutor, nanny, baby-sitter, or hired help “in a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs” (Chris Hedges).  Our job is simple: teach to the test.  Replacing real teachers – the ones who educate children to think critically or inspire them to reach for their potential – the privateers now seek those who design curriculum that can objectify and assess basic skills at the expense of insights, gifts, or desire.  

“Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence.  This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations.  They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions.  They want them to serve the system…They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority.  Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts – those who march to the beat of their own drum – are weeded out” ( 

Here’s a peek into the corporatist’s future educational model.
And No – this is NOT from The Onion

Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation has been throwing more than $1.4 million into a scientific plan to create a biometric wrist band (called a pedometer) that will measure the emotional engagement of students in a classroom.  In other words, the student’s response – excitement or ennui – could be demonstrably identified and graphed for a class period and thereby allows a charting of student-to-teacher response.  Voila, we have a way to measure a student’s interest/learning – or – do we have a measure of how a teacher is doing in exciting a student or all the students for that matter?  It doesn’t take much to realize the ridiculousness of this attempt to reduce and codify instruction like we would review an electro-cardiogram.  But the Gates Foundation is serious enough to drop a ton of money on this project.  In fact, additional money will be spent this year to begin testing the device in middle schools this fall ( )   

The company spearheading this project, Affectiva Inc., states in all seriousness that such data could be used, for example, after watching a film in order to ask students questions about scenes in the film that aroused them.  That’s just one example.  Forget theme, symbol, holistic response, personal response – just what aroused you.  I personally spent most of 8th grade sitting next to the Susie Wettergren and would have been in a constant state of excitement, so I guess I would have been identified a great student – or my teacher would have been considered exceptional. 

One persistent problem with asking the educated to educate is that those who deliver the academic experience are not mindlessly obedient like the drones that function at basic levels of existence in third world labor shops.  And in fact, their greatest danger is in educating those in their charge to think independently, or outside of the box, if you will.  Despite the historical costume of subservience, real teachers provide or nurture a student’s further passion for learning, most especially in the intangible areas of art, music, dance, acting, etc.  Like real teaching, these qualities are not measureable test outcomes.  They are not subject to a single curve of improvement of failure; they grow in spurts of discovery and momentary drops of frustration, failure or confusion. 

On the other hand, corporate entrepreneurs and business-model-minded people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Arnie Duncan, Ty Fahner, Michael Noble, Rahm Emanuel, Penny Pritzker, etc. are trying to shift that timeless paradigm of education to a measureable, data-driven curriculum concept, one that tabulates basic improvement in a student’s achievement as easily as a good or bad business quarter, an electrocardiogram, a simple test score.   That’s placing both students and teachers in the box.  That’s wrong-headed.

Respect yourself.  Respect your good work.  Fight back.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, John, updating an argument that's been going on since I first walked into a classroom in 1967, and before. Only now, the same people who once measured a teacher's worth by the straightness of desk rows, the neatness of the bulletin board, the quietness of classroom while class was in session, the adherence to the core curriculum are now devaluing our pensions.

    If you're searching for the fair market value of a lifetime in education, don't ask the business community, the conservative politicians determined to privatize everything, nor low information tax payers. Ask adults who have gone to school and been affected by teachers. The gold standard of education has little to do with money. The real standard is based on role modeling and values.