Polar Bear

Alan Gottlieb has an interesting blog post coming out of EWA asking about polarizing reform rhetoric and whether there is a lack of humility associated with today’s reform movement.

I don’t think he’s all wrong, I wrote about this about a year ago in U.S. News.

But there are three issues that bear on his analysis worth considering.  First, he writes of:

“… a growing impatience among journalists with today’s self-styled reformers. A number of veteran education writers said this group’s certainty about the correctness of its positions borders on the arrogant and hubristic.”

At one level, this doesn’t trouble me because you can say it about all sides of the education debate, and in fact most debates, it’s a rhetorical throwaway.   But at another level it’s cause for concern because what I think Alan has actually identified is a serious public discourse problem in education that hampers the progress that a free exchange of ideas and information can lead to.   The problem is that too often doubts, caveats, etc…are used as weapons in the rhetorical debate.  For journalists to bemoan the lack of nuance is comical, as they’re the first ones to privately admit that the medium hardly allows for anything other than blunt force he said/she said trauma.   But what this means is that both “sides” in the debate cannot honestly discuss the issues without getting clobbered. To the extent you believe that the accretion of ideas leads to better ones and improvements, this is an enormous problem.

As an example think about KIPP, the high-performing charter school network.   It’s no great secret that there is an attrition problem at some KIPP schools.  Some of this is mobility and other “normal” factors but some is not.   Yet when KIPP has tried to own that problem, figure out ways to to address it and so forth all it’s led to is ammunition for KIPP’s harshest critics to use against them.   The rational position is that KIPP is doing many great things and changing lives but also dealing with real challenges.   There is a lot of learning there.  Yet that’s not the debate at all.  In fact, at this point KIPP is foolish to lead with their chin on any of that in public as there are too few people who want to have that conversation.  The same is true of some data on Teach For America, charter schools, and many other reforms and many of the issues confronting the teachers’ unions today as well.  It’s all complicated but the debate allows no quarter for that.

So in other words, I’d argue the problem Alan identifies is actually an endogenous one.   The polarizing environment is driving an apparent lack of reflection and overabundance of certainty at least as much as those attributes inherently exist.

Second, Alan is down on Davis Guggenheim and his new film.  But we should be honest and acknowledge that real change doesn’t happen absent big cultural markers and debates like the one this film could spark.  And let’s face it, because most of my peers agreed with Al Gore no one got too bent out of shape about too much certainty in “Inconvenient Truth.”  Think about it, are there other issues you support where there is both a great deal of certainty among your fellow supporters, and, in truth, a lot of ambiguity.  In fact, aren’t arrogance and certainty two charges frequently leveled against President Obama?  But we like him… School reform is more complicated as the politics are generally trickier.  So now we’re worried about certainty…I saw the film months ago but haven’t written about it in advance of its release.  It’s hard hitting, in your face, compelling, and pretty much lacking in nuance.   Yet while I didn’t love everything about it I think it’s exactly the sort of conversation piece we need given the complacency that still exists around this issue.

Third, and related to the previous point as well as the issue Alan raises overall, history teaches us plainly that progress requires tension.    More recently Martin Luther King reminds us that the absence of tension is often a negative peace.  So at some level all this concern about tension misses the bigger picture in terms of what it usually takes to see progress for disadvantaged groups and how much of this is par for the course with change.

Finally, just as an aside, you hear this business about the totalitarian regime of Joel Klein all the time.  How everyone is scared to criticize him etc…Yet there is a an entire industry built around criticizing him in the papers, on blogs, at Gotham Schools, etc…?  It’s this weird perpetual motion machine where people constantly go on record to say you can’t criticize Klein…write about how awful he is, then say you can’t say that and speech is being squelched, I don’t get it.  If anything criticizing Klein seems like a good career move if you’re on the make.

19 Replies to “Polar Bear”

  1. “But at another level it’s cause for concern because what I think Alan has actually identified is a serious public discourse problem in education that hampers the progress that a free exchange of ideas and information can lead to.”

    C’mon Andy, let’s put a little finer point on that, shall we? The observation that education debates tend to be polarized with two sides talking past each other is an old one. Politics in general tends to be that way.

    What Alan more specifically is saying is that journalists are finally getting wise to the arrogance and self-righteousness of ONE particular group. He doesn’t hold unions blameless, but his major point is that journalists now view reformy types as contributing far more heat than light.

    “Real change doesn’t happen absent big cultural markers and debates like the one this film could spark.”

    Gee, Andy, did not you just finish saying that we have a highly polarized debate, with both sides demonizing each other, and how much you think that is bad? Do we really need a spark? We need one-sided propaganda to jumpstart a debate that is already too heated and polarized?

    “…history teaches us plainly that progress requires tension…So at some level all this concern about tension misses the bigger picture in terms of what it usually takes to see progress for disadvantaged groups”

    The hedge-funders and foundation heads that Gottlieb refers to are hardly “disadvantaged groups.” Nor are their TFA shock troops on the front lines.

    Now if you want to get all historicky about it, I will agree. If this time the ruling rich are truly in favor of lifting up their poor colored brothers and sisters by helping them to throw off the oppressive union shackles, that would certainly be an historic event of astounding proportions

  2. Great post, indeed, Andy. But one more thought to add:

    The education debate suffers from hyper-polarization in my view because of what I call the “n of 1” factor. Everyone has been to school. In that sense, we’ve all conducted our own private longitudinal studies and reached our conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. Our arrogance is baked in the minute we walk down the aisle and pick up our diploma—or don’t, as the case may be.

    In an E. D. Hirsch-like way, one might think that our shared cultural experience of schooling would bring us closer together when it came to discussing problem and solutions. But the “cultural literacy” of education speaks more to the old saw that “familiarity breeds contempt.”

    After all, how can I be “wrong” if I lived through X years of school, got a degree from a “good” East Coast university, made a boatload in the tech boom, and now want to turn my talents toward matters of country and community by way of a little work in ed reform?

    Plenty wrong is the answer. “N of 1” studies have a near-infinite margin of error. And this, to me, is what reform seems like: a study in selfishness, “my way or the highway”, a simplistic pre-Copernican view of a complex post-Einsteinian universe.

    Here’s my solution: I got my degree, made my boatload, and then spent time in a lot of classrooms. About 3000 or so, I think. I observed. I assisted. And I did a ton of teaching in as many different situations as possible. (Do I sound arrogant yet? If so, I apologize.)

    As a result, reform looks very different to me than it does to folks in DC, to teachers in their classrooms, and to just about everyone in between. Am I still arrogant and full of hubris? I hope not. But I do have some pretty strong ideas based on what I like to think of as a “first-hand epidemiological” point of view—and a healthy rejection of my own idiosyncratic K-12 experience. (I’m still subject to the “n of 1” problem, just like anyone else, but perhaps now in a much less dangerous way.)

    One thing I feel I can say with confidence (bordering on arrogance perhaps) is that the reform menu we’ve been ordering from is far too small. I’ve been stunned at the narrow-mindedness in our country regarding school reform. We don’t even want to try things that are already working simply because they don’t align well with our traditional myth-conceptions about teaching, learning, and life. It’s as though we trust the past we know we can’t remember more than the present we experience every day.

    My Rx for the problem you aptly identify? Everybody does a little more teaching in their local school. Not visiting. Not “listening tours.” Let’s get up there and get some chalk on our hands. Let’s do it for a week so we can really feel what it’s like not to know whether our kids are learning—and how easy it is to figure that out with a little common sense and without some silly test, the results of which we don’t understand anyway. Let’s get up in the morning and answer the question, “What should I teach today?” by considering the needs of our students instead consulting a telephone-book-sized tome of state-imposed curriculum standards. Let’s teach without textbooks because we’ve all always known they were awful and because we’ve also always known understanding what you want your kids to learn is the fastest route to becoming a good teacher, and that the only reason to use a textbook is that you don’t understand what you want your kids to learn—in which case, why are you a teacher?

    If you look at testing, standards, charters, vouchers, merit pay, choice, accountability, small schools, etc., they all have one thing in common: they are based on the assumption that few people know how to teach. This is not incorrect. But scaling this motley crew of options will only make that problem worse over time as more and more of the actual work of teaching is decreed by statute, and more and more of our teachers become semi-automated, state-sponsored, pre-fab curriculum delivery systems. From where I stand, we ask teachers to think less and less each day, and as a result, our kids think less, too.

    It seems we all agree now that good teaching is the key. But it also seems that some form of tacit agreement has congealed around the notion that we can’t teach in this country, that good teaching means adopting 49 behaviors in one’s personal quest to become an education “champion”, that charter schools simply by their very nature as non-traditional public schools are a panacea for reform, and that Race to the Top, as so many otherwise wise people have said, is “the most successful reform in the history of American education” before the first dollars have even been spent. I’m willing to believe that there’s a grain of sand-like truth in each of these notions. But when the bell rings at the start of the day, it’s all about the teacher in the room. And that means that reform should be all about the teacher in the room. Clearly, this isn’t the case. This is probably where most of our troubles begin and end.

    The solution, I think, is a new form of educational literacy. Each of us, teacher or not, has had the pleasure and frustration, of having to lead some group of people in the learning of one thing or another. Some of us do it a lot, actually, in our jobs, our families, and our communities. I think that if the dialog shifted from education reform to actual education—the kind most of us are involved in almost every day—it might become less polarized. Teaching and learning aren’t really that complicated as long as that’s really what we’re talking about. When we’re talking about legal structures, and funding models, and Texas-style pro-Christian curriculum revolts, we naturally lapse into polarization because so few of us can keep cool when the stakes are so high and the importance of what we’re discussing is so low. If the national dialog could somehow be focused simply on teaching and learning—most likely by intelligent and influential people like you—and if we could all think about how we teach and learn in our present lives, as opposed to how we think we were schooled in the rose-colored nostalgia of our carefully pruned pasts, I think some of the rhetoric might thaw, some of the ice might melt away, and a good idea or two might be revealed.

    Thanks for the extra long post today. Always love your insights.

  3. I think you are missing the point. The narcissism of “reformers” when supporting their favored experiment is not the problem. The problem is their self-righteous and ill-informed attacks on others. Like the kid who is born on third base thinking he’s hit a triple, they don’t know what they don’t know about the realities of neighborhood schools having to follow written and unwritten policies about which they are clueless.

  4. The big news here is that journalists are beginning to open their eyes to the threat to the public school system that has helped make our country great. Our schools are far from perfect, but they belong to the American people and that’s where they should remain. Any attempt to take governance of schools from the people, or to siphon off school tax money for personal gain, needs to be fought with every fiber in one’s body.

    Also, it’s important to note that the political power of teachers comes not from “the unions” or “special interests” but from the support of the majority of our citizens (Look at Central Falls. Yes, make the teachers work an extra hour -we’re in a recession- but make certain every one of them is hired back!).

  5. John,

    You know I love you and that I agree with about 112% of the things you say. But that narcissistic kid who was born on 3rd base would never have gotten there if those of us who’ve been int the game for years ever got up to bat.

    Reform abhors a vacuum. And self-styled “reformers” have swooped in to fill it. It’s just the physics of social change at work. That doesn’t excuse it, but it doesn’t, I think, explain it.

    The question I ask myself is why a teacher didn’t start TFA? Think about that for a moment because it is, I believe, the pivotal hypothetical question of our current era. Not one teacher started anything like TFA as far as we know. Yet TFA was started. And by someone with just a BA and a little moxie.

    Now, think of all the “TFA-like” non-profits and “reform” orgs out there. How many were started by teachers? Why didn’t teachers start the charter school movement? That would have allowed them to control the most powerful alternative to traditional public schooling — thereby giving teachers the choices instead of ceding them to others.

    Why didn’t district admin folks start Education Pioneers? Why didn’t superintendents start the Broad Residency? Why didn’t principals start New Leaders for New Schools? Why didn’t NEA and AFT start the New Schools Venture Fund?

    Teachers had a hundred year jump on all those “born on 3rd base” narcissists. True, teachers were teaching all that time. But all the narcissists were doing things, too.

    The understanding here for me comes down to Asian philosophy: Do we have a problem here or do we have an opportunity? Teachers built and maintained a “problem-based” culture. Reformers built an “opportunity-based” culture.

    I’m not sure who is right. I do know, however, that the best teachers I’ve ever worked with see all problems as opportunities. They just decided to sit out reform.

    So, to be clear, I think you’re right. But I also think there’s an explanation for what has happened that points the way to what needs to happen in the future. Teachers must own more of reform. It will not be given to them. They must take it. But to do so, they must adopt an “opportunity-oriented” approach.

  6. just a thought….

    who did start the charter school movement?

    i was under the impression it was albert shanker and aft’s idea (opportunity, if you will) until it was high-jacked by the profiteering, privatizing deformers.

    and let’s be clear here – who is this “opportunity-based” culture really for, if it turns out to be low-income youth, then i will be amazed.

  7. Another reason for “reform”
    The original document said an RTTT grant would be “a political win” for Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the District, ensuring “that its cutting edge human capital work can be accelerated and become a national model.”

    C’est moi!

  8. Dear Steve #2,

    Yes, you’re right, Albert Shanker was one of the “thought leaders” at the forefront of the charter school movement. But not one of the “leader” leaders. He had a lot of smart things to say, many wonderful ideas, many good instincts. But he, and those around him, did not translate this into action.

    In order to be “hijacked”, you have to be flying a plane, right? What was AFT flying in 1990 when the first charter legislation was slouching toward Bethlehem (or perhaps it was Minnesota)? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Shanker and I think AFT is way ahead of NEA on almost every reform issue. Now, that’s not saying much. But it’s something.

    As a former tech entrepreneur turned “edupreneur”, I’ll tell you that I truly think there’s only one thing that keeps America from being successful in education reform: educators are not part of it. But that is by choice, not by chance. Education is an “academic” or “thinking” culture. Which is really just a way of saying, I think, that educators would prefer to educate than to do anything else.

    I think this is good and right. I just wish some educators would choose to do what some non-educators have done and get into the reform game in a serious way.

    If educators prefer to stay out of the politics, policy, and practice of reform, that’s OK. It’s not my preference, but I can understand. Personally, I would like to blog all day about education. But blogging never taught a kid to read, so I think it’s a little selfish of me to decide that I want to be a champion for kids but that don’t want to actually work toward making sure they get educated.

    Why act surprised about the general direction of reform, or worry that all that mud is being slung in one’s general direction. Either get up, wipe it off, and start slingin’ it back, or head for the showers. Better yet, go build your own vision of reform and prove everyone wrong. I’ll be right there with ya.

    When other people decide that educators are not educating, and as John says, start spreading the word in an attack posture, will “thinkers” choose to act?

    The answer, for the most part, has been “no”. As they are wont to do, “thinkers” will continue to do what they do best — think. Again, nothing wrong with this. We need a lot of thinking in the world. But how about thinking about how to get all that good thinking into the public consciousness? Why is the media inherently “bad”? Why are “edupreneurs” inherently worrisome? If anything, their existence validates the opportunities for people like us to fund our own ventures. And when we get a “venture” like Stanford’s charter school, let’s make sure it doesn’t get closed down, OK? It doesn’t matter how fair or unfair that closing may have been. What matters is that it never should have happened — under any circumstances.

    I remember a wonderful and very, very sad conversation I had one day with one of the leading educators in the world, and the father of one of the world’s most important educational movements. This was circa 1996, I think. His movement was under legislative and popular media attack. So I asked him, “Sir, when are we going to fight back?” And his response was clear and swift: “We don’t believe in these kinds of interventions. We don’t believe in validating attack-oriented public discourse with response. We don’t believe in legislating how schools should be run.”

    I was young and naive then, so I offered the following: “Sir, I can get 20 minutes with the governor of my state any time I want because my wife ran his campaign. What would you want me to say to him that would serve your cause?” And all he said was, “Nothing.”

    So, being young and inexperienced, I never did take my 20 minute meeting with the governor. What would I have said? “Governor, I really care about education in our state and I’m concerned about the legislative direction we seem to be taking regarding testing, accountability, standards, charters, etc., but all the really smart people who’ve built the educational world I believe in can care so much about don’t care about talking to you.”

    That was right at the beginning of my career — quite a long time ago — and at a time when none of what people are worried about today was yet in place. This man, and his group, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands world-wide, could have wielded extraordinary political and media attention. Non-profits could have been created. Websites launched. Partner organizations lined up. Etc.

    And they (we) could have won because the other side was so new to education that it really didn’t know how to run our schools. Well, now it does. We’ve given it two decades to get its sea legs. And watch out now, folks, cuz the whole thing’s about to blow wide open in the next ten years.

    So this wonderful and exceptionally brilliant man, and his wonderful movement, chose to let itself become marginalized — and with it, the wonderful things they stood for became marginalized, too.

    So, being one of those action-oriented “edupreneur” types we all hate, I started my own educational venture (so am I part of the problem or part of the solution?) and because I had no backing, no provenance, and no scale, I did a ton of great work in schools, most of which has long since been wiped away by the machinery of reform. But I’m not gonna cry about it. I’m gonna figure out something new to do to help kids and teachers and schools. What other response matters?

    Mr. Shankar and his role in the charter school movement is the iconic representation of my thesis regarding the lack of action on the part of those who might be termed “defenders of public schooling”. Why did Mr. Shanker — and so many others like him — let all these other organizations shape the national debate?

    And now, rather than carping about how much we hate philanthropic interest, or over-bearing charter advocacy, or for-profit EMOs, or polarizing dialog, or the fact that the Gates Foundation paid for the CCSSI and that Duncan/Obama is blackmailing states to adopt it, or that TFA is the most powerful educational organization in America, or that KIPP, YES, ICEF, and UNCOMMON SCHOOLS send a ton of poor kids to college, why don’t we just start doing these things, too?

    I’m ready. Drop me a line and let’s make something good happen.

    Steve (#1?)

  9. Steve,

    I’ve often thought about the questions you have posed. Even now, few teachers are attempting to start their own charters, even though such schools would give them the professional autonomy they crave. Why? Based on my own experiences, and those of my sons, this is what I think:

    Traditionally K-12 teaching in our country has been a job for working class women who graduated from state universities. Many of these people had to start work immediately after graduation because they had to support themselves and pay back loans. Very few had the opportunity to do internships or to take chances once employed. Many of these teachers, men and women, continued to work after marriage and saw their jobs as essential to earning a living and providing for their children. Few had parents who started nonprofits or had positions of leadership. I am one of these people and so are many of my friends. We sometimes describe ourselves as having “depression mentalities” because our parents were immigrants who were employed during the Great Depression and carried a fear of job loss throughout their lives. Generally they did not take risks and they encouraged their children to strive for job security.

    Our own children, on the other hand, are much like the young people who join Teach For America. Sons and daughters of the professional class, these young people attended elite universities (mine went to Harvard and Stanford), traveled extensively in their late teens and early twenties, and took on service jobs after college (TFA, Peace Corps, government internships etc.) and before starting “real” careers. With the security of affluent parents and trust funds behind them, these young people felt free to take professional risks because there was always Dad’s medical practice or Mom’s store to employ them if they got desperate. As an example, my own son is now running for public office. If he wins, he’ll have to give up his $160, 000 job because of a conflict of interest. Because of his first-class education and his law degree, he knows he’ll be able to support himself. That was a choice I never felt I had; nor did my friends. (This doesn’t mean that we didn’t have choices, but we FELT that we didn’t.)

    During my very first year of teaching, Jonathan Kozol published his book “Death at an Early Age. ” I loved the book but remember feeling a little resentful because he gave up on teaching so easily and took time off to write about it. As young as I was, I think I understood that teaching kids in the inner-city was not a job for a doctor’s son. As for me, it didn’t even enter my head to take a year off from work to try out some of my ideas, although I DID have them! (I wanted to start a community school catering to infants and their mothers and got as far as incorporating my center; but gave up when I couldn’t get financial backing. I did NOT consider giving up my job as a teacher so I could devote myself to fund-raising and networking.)

    All this is pure conjecture, but I think many teachers are decent and hard-working people who aren’t risk-takers for some of the reasons I have given. I do agree with you, Steve, that teachers need to seize the reins on educational reform and I’m hoping that they do.

  10. Maybe teachers were a little busy doing something . . . LIKE TEACHING. Unfortunately, Andy and his ilk don’t understand the average teacher. And therein lies the problem with the so-called ed reformers.

    And another thing–talk about the POT calling the KETTLE black. Sheesh Andy–your and your grad school friends are example #1 of many of the sins you point out. Take a look in the mirror buddy.

  11. Whoa there, Billy Bob. Put that six-shooter back in your holster.

    Andy is a pretty hip cat, as we used to say when I was in jazz band. He’s just about the most straight ahead guy in this whole ed reform mess, and I believe that few people working at the federal level understand education — and teachers — better than he does.

    Yes, teachers have been busy teaching. But, as Linda so eloquently explains, teachers have also been busy nurturing a “depression mentality” as she puts it.

    This is a mentality of fear and of scarcity. It is understandable for people who lived through the Depression. But it is not understandable for people who didn’t.

    And yet, many teachers seem to have clung to it in a way that people of their generation in other professions did not. This, I think, is very interesting, and I wonder if Linda wouldn’t mind reflecting on this. Why, for example, did many women of her generation NOT live out of a “depression mentality” while so many teachers did?

    Even today, I see this mentality in most of the teachers I work with. Even those who are comfortably retired with nice houses and children they’ve somehow sent to expensive universities — like my mom. So, clearly, the last couple of years notwithstanding, the “depression” ended a long, long time ago. But many teachers, even very young ones, still live as though it haunts us even now. This attachment to a mindset of fear and scarcity has hurt them, the profession of teaching, and the quality of education reform.

    The people I am talking about are Linda’s kids — and me, essentially. They are the tail end of the Baby Boom, born in the early 60s, or even Gen Xers, far from the pre-WWII era, and even our Sputnik-inspired fears of Communist domination or mutually assured destruction.

    I think Linda is not only accurate but refreshingly honest here. She also admits that it is kids like hers — the best and the brightest — who are leading the way. No problem there. But it’s really their parents who have the collective wisdom to guide them. And without this guidance, well, we get people like you, Billy Bob, who feel like slamming guys like Andy is somehow good for the national dialog.

    This is the essence, I believe, of what Andy is saying here about polarization. You hate him and you don’t even know him. Read his work. It’s solid stuff. It’s also extraordinarily measured and sensible. For example, I’ve read him for years and I couldn’t tell you whether he’s a democrat or a republican. That’s because he doesn’t play politics, he plays school.

    And “playing school” is simply all that I am suggesting we folks who have been busy teaching begin to do.

    Let’s have more honest talk like Linda’s and less petty divisiveness, OK?


    Steve (#1)

    PS Thanks, Linda, for a very insightful bit of thinking there. It helps me understand many things.

  12. Steve P.:

    I have tried to answer your questions; now I hope you will answer mine.

    Let’s go back to my teaching career. When I started in the “inner-city” in Cleveland in 1964, I was overwhelmed by the challenge of teaching 40 fifth graders. The fact that almost half of them were totally illiterate was shocking to me. I became determined to help these children and went to graduate school to learn how to teach them how to read and write. Although I did have ideas for doing other things, nothing ever seemed as important as bringing the gift of literacy to poor children. I dedicated my entire career to this effort. My greatest compliment came from another teacher in 2006 when he said, “Linda could teach a rock to read.”

    For many years, as a reading specialist and first-grade teacher, I taught generations of young people how to read and write. As it often happens with most teachers, this job consumed my life and so I spent days, evenings, weekends, summers etc. “getting ready” for the next day, the next month, the next year. I always felt challenged and fulfilled and felt very fortunate to have such a wonderful job. It is no surprise to me that job satisfaction among teachers is extremely high (although morale is very low at the present time.) Although my husband had a much more prestigious and well-paying job (hence our ability to pay for Harvard) when he volunteered in my classroom after retirement, he pronounced it “the best job I’ve ever had.”

    That said, when I suggested teaching to my own sons, they broke out into loud and spontaneous laughter, hitting one another on the backs. One of them say, “Come on, Mom.” Defensively I asked, “Well what about college teaching?” and the other son said, “Mom, that’s a completely different job.” Oh, well his wife is a professor of Spanish at a prestigious university where she seems to prepare lessons, teach, grade papers and meet with students. It looks exactly like the job my friend has at the local high school. Of course, I know very well what my son is talking about – a college job is “important.”

    We know that respect for teachers is critical to attracting the “best and the brightest” to the profession. ALL countries with enviable systems (Finland, Germany, South Korea) treat their teachers of children with the greatest respect, sometimes bordering on reverance. It’s my understanding that in these countries teachers (K-university) are on a par with physicians in terms of prestige.

    So my questions to you, Steve, are:

    Why is it that so few “reformers” are teachers?

    If teachers are so critical to the achievement of a child, why are our best students encouraged to view the job as a charity to be endured for two years before going on to a “real” career?

    Why do so many of our affluent and well-educated citizens look down on teaching as a career? What effect does this have on education in our country?

    What can we do to make teaching more attractive so that talented young men and women will want to make teaching a career?

    Why do so many “reformers” insult our teachers by placing emphasis on the few who do a poor job? I understand that you do not see things as Billy Bob and I do, but we interpret many of the words on this blog to mean, “I would die if I had to teach fourth grade and I have little respect for those who do.” Can people who harbor such attitudes truly “reform” education, or do they have another agenda?

    Last, do you think a person who devotes his life to teach math to children is as important to society as the CEO of a testing company? Thank you.

  13. When Andy starts pointing out facts on BOTH sides of an issue and doesn’t just take sides that support him financially, I’ll stop being divisive.

  14. Steve Peha – I think your characterization of teachers as not doing much to change the system is misplaced. Yeah, there may not be that many running around starting CMOs and whatnot, but they may not see that as the kind of change needed.

    To my knowledge, teachers and their unions have historically been among the strongest advocates for changing federal speding priorities away from military adventures and more towards kids — especially poor minority kids. It seems to me that they consistently advocate for changing national and state policy environments to be more supportive of children and families. Arguably, that’s where real change is needed. You can see a recent example of this in Florida when teachers spoke up in large numbers to oppose the insane bill passed by the legislature. More close to home, look at Linda/Retired Teacher. You see her name popping up everywhere in the education blogosphere. She could be enjoying a cozy retirement, yet here she is slugging away. You call that passive?

    Many teachers worked hard to get Obama elected. He talked a good game about education and seemed to get it. More and more teachers are seeing his appointment of Arne Duncan as a huge disappointment. Facebook groups are organizing in opposition to his NCLB II proposals. And it is not just opposition, as teachers are pretty specific about what they would like to see as alternatives.

    One final point, a constant complaint of teachers for many years is that they are deliberately shut out of policy decisions. It’s not that they can’t or won’t speak up, it’s that nobody listens. Their opinions and observations typically get dismissed with a polite wave (at best).
    For an example, look no further than the last paragraph of Rotherham’s post, where he pooh-poohs the idea that NYC teachers should be afraid to speak up — as if Joel Klein’s Rubber Rooms weren’t custom-made for uppity teachers.

  15. Melody, your answer to Steve P. was much better than mine. You reminded me that I DID change in many ways throughout my career; only I changed in ways that I thought would be best for my students. Early in my career I spent two full years in graduate school so I could teach reading effectively to children who were experiencing great difficulty. During my many years, I visited libraries, museums, bookstores and Teachers Supplies almost every weekend and summers so I could have fresh ideas and new materials for my students and the other teachers. In my fifties I became a mentor teacher, had a book published on reading methodology (ten printings!) and helped young adults to be better teachers. And now, as you kindly mentioned, I’m doing what I can in the blogophere to keep our great American public school system from being discredited and/or destroyed. Thank you for making my day! Linda

  16. “(Do I sound arrogant yet? If so, I apologize.)”

    Try dropping the “yet” from that question.

  17. Linda,

    Great questions here. This is especially poignant for me as you seem to have had exactly my mother’s teaching career — literacy, big city, early 1960s start, etc. Many of the answers you request will actually be coming from things my mom taught me about teaching and school, and how she watched herself and other teachers play out their careers between 1960 and 2000 when reform really started to swing into gear. So, while I’m doing the typing, my mom is doing a lot of the talking here, I think.


    Several reasons:

    1. Reformers tend to have a certain personality profile; teachers tend to have almos the opposite profile. Teachers wanted to be teachers to teach. Reformers like to change things. Many of us (I’m in the reformer category but with many thousands of hours of teaching experience all over the country) simply want to contribute to helping teachers and kids BUT we want to play on a bigger stage and we want to player a bigger game.

    I started out wanting to be a classroom teacher. But I was quickly talked out of it by… classroom teachers. They pointed out that all of my talents, energy, ideas, and drive would have little place in the classroom or even in a single school or district. My own mother begged me not to be a classroom teacher.

    My personality in the work world was formed by my early experience as a technology entrepreneur. I like to do wild things. I like to solve big problems. I like blue skies and open possibilities. By contrast, most of the teachers I’ve worked with — about 10,000 to date — have a different personality profile, background, and set of interests.

    For the most part, the teachers I have worked with prefer the small stage of the single classroom to the humongous arena of national reform. Most teachers I have come to know are highly risk-averse. Teaching is one of the few good jobs a person can have and know exactly when they’ll be working, what they’ll be doing, and how much they’ll get paid. Until very recently, lifetime employment with regular — though small — raises was guaranteed.

    Finally, most of the teachers I’ve spoken to about this issue tell me they prefer to follow rather than to lead. That’s one of the main reasons they teach “in the system” – it’s the best place for followers. There are many ways to be a teacher. But most require charting new paths, building new schools, getting a PhD and competing with 1000 other PhDs for your job, leading new and experimental ventures, creating different modes and methods of instruction, writing, researching, politics, etc. Most teachers tell me this stuff is not for them.

    Even the teachers I hire to work in my company — and whom I pay 5 to 10 times their daily salary to work with me — don’t like getting paid that much, traveling as much as we do, or “being on the spot” as they say when we go into classrooms to demonstrate our work (we work with no prep, all grades and subjects, and we teach just about whatever the host asks us to teach; we don’t know ahead of time what that will be in many cases). They LOVE consulting. They LOVE helping other teachers. But they would prefer to be regular employees with a set salary and a single place to go to work every day rather than to work all over the country 50 days a year for $50,000 — or more, or less.

    The essence of your question speaks not to fault or blame, I think, but simply to personality. School draws a type of person who would want to work IN a school. Reform draws a type of person who wants to work ON school itself. There’s a lot of overlap, especially in my case where probably 75% of my time has been spent teaching kids in classrooms. But, for the most part, reformers and teachers are not of the same ilk. So they tend to stick to one thing or the other.

    Personally, before I began “reforming”, I thought it was vital that I develop the skills of a master teacher. I did this by spending thousands of hours teaching in very difficult and unusual situations — the most awkward or challenging I could find. I also read hundreds of books, studies, etc, went to major conventions for several years, visited many schools of famous educators, interviewed many well-known practitioners from around the world, etc.

    I also took the time to put my experience to the most rigorous real world test: was I smart enough to create teaching tools that other people could use effectively without me having to be in the room? I believe I have accomplished this. I have created several thousand pages of teaching materials that I offer free to anyone. To date, over 50,000,000 pages of “stuff” has been downloaded from my website. About 200-300 times a year, I hear from teachers all over the world about what works and what doesn’t. Most everything I’ve put out so far seems to work really well.

    So, sure, I’m a reformer, and not “really” a teacher. But I made sure I had the requisite experience to understand classroom practice — and the results from around the world to show for it. I also make sure I “stay fit” but volunteering as much as I can to teach in as many local situations as I can, so that during times when I am doing other “reform type stuff”, I’m still working hard to improve my practice and to understand the challenges teachers face.

    Can’t you see my “personality” here? I just couldn’t do what you and my mom did. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect you or think you aren’t valuable. I’m just not like you in that way. But I still wanted to contribute. So I did it the way I could.


    Because most teachers have always wanted it this way.

    If you look at the history of professions from the early 20th century forward, I think you’ll find as I have that teachers are the only professionals who gave up control of their profession. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, all have very strong professional organizations. Yet none of these organizations existed 100 years ago. So why did so many professions organize themselves professionally while teachers chose to organize themselves non-professionally through unionization? Again, probably some cultural history there, probably some politics there, certain a lot of personality there. Here’s a contrast: I love negotiating my pay and working conditions. Always have. Even when I was a dishwasher at a greasy spoon. Most teachers I have asked say they hate negotiating salary and working conditions are so thankful that someone that someone else does that for them — even if they don’t sometimes like the results.

    A more difficult truth about teaching is this: many teachers are quite honest, in private, about their low self-esteem. As I mentioned above, though I always strive to pay teachers who work for me extraordinary sums of money (to which I believe they are duly entitled) none of them feels very comfortable with it. I helped a good friend once to transform his life from teaching in a school to doing what he always secretly wanted to do: be a musician. I helped him earn over $150,000 in a single year while staying home with his small children at the same time. At the end of the year, I asked if he wanted to continue. He said, “I know this sounds weird but I just can’t do it. I have to know what my paycheck will be every month. I have to know what time my work day starts and ends. I have to know when my vacation is. I don’t feel good about making this kind of money for something I just enjoy doing. And I’m not comfortable at all with working so few hours and having so much free time.” That was a big “Aha!” moment for me. But something to this effect has been said to me by almost all of the teachers with whom I have worked closely over the years.

    Did you know that at one time, MDs were considered quacks? What we know of today as chiropractic and homeopathy and a variety of other health “specialties” were much more popular and well-regarded. MD-types decided to change that by creating the AMA, their own medical school programs, their own licensing and credentialing, and by controlling the supply and demand of certain types of doctors in order to control their own economic destiny. Teachers could have done the same thing. It would have been harder. But they could have done it. And they could still do it today. In fact, had NEA not balked in the merger with AFT, teachers could have pretty much ruled the world. But, again, they chose not to.

    Teachers make what they make, and are valued how they are valued, because it is what they choose — or, if you prefer, simply because they allow others to choose for them. Teachers do not get the respect they deserve because they do not demand it. Or, to put it another way, every teacher I have seen who is respected has demanded it and received it. Not always immediately. And not always in the way they wanted. But with persistence, we usually get pretty much what we want.

    My mom’s a good example. Like you, she was very dedicated to inner city kids and literacy. She was a Language Arts curriculum specialist and classroom teacher (grades 4-8). As her career was ending, reform was beginning. I was working with her in my consulting business and, of course, paying her very well for her work. She was immensely popular. But after one year, she said she just didn’t want to do it even though she said it was great to get the respect and the paycheck.

    She had finally attained the compensation and respect she deserved. She was a healthy and vital woman with perhaps 20 years more to work. And she was an almost-instantaneous sensation on the consulting circuit – an “older” teacher who spoke and acted like a “new” reformer. My mom ended her career in teaching making $50K a year. She was respected by some people. And feared by many others simply because of her fierce advocacy for children and for her ability to teach well. But the respect and compensation she received in her life was her choice. And she has always been very clear about that with me. There were times, early in her career, especially just after she and my dad got divorced, and we were living on welfare despite her having a full-time teaching job, where she knew she didn’t have any other choices. But by the middle of her career, we had scrunched up into the bottom of the middle class, my mom was looking at other job opportunities, other careers, other educational opportunities, and just chose not to change her situation.


    Think about it this way: don’t affluent people and well-educated citizens look down on a lot of things? Don’t they (we?) hold certain values just like everyone else? And aren’t many of those values relative to our own?

    I love all the people in our community who work for our little town. I love all of the tradesman who work at our house. I love the waiters and bartenders who make dining out in our community such a pleasure. And while I wouldn’t say I look down on any of these people — or what they have chosen to do for a living — their choices are not my choices. I don’t value them in the same way. I’ve done some of those jobs at one time or another in my life and I just didn’t find them fulfilling. Nor was I even very good at them. So perhaps a few waiters in town should be looking down on me, eh?

    So, again, personal values and personality traits are a big part of it here. But there’s one more thing that’s really important:

    Most teachers I’v talked to don’t value teaching very much either. That is to say, they don’t tend to support each other very effectively, they don’t professionalize, they don’t set their pay, they don’t determine their working conditions, they don’t often even think they do a very good job, and they often resist any type of measurement that would let them know how good they were or if they were improving. Again, this is personality stuff. But, as with respect, the value I place on my worth is exactly the value you would place on it – if there were about 300 million of each us. My point? Attitudes tend to average out in big samples. So, in general, where teachers hold themselves is where others hold them. If I hold myself and my work in low esteem, you will hold me and my work in low esteem. This is just how human beings work.


    It has a TERRIBLE effect on our country. Case in point: recently I taught a class for pre-service teachers. It was their last class before heading off to job hunting and the real world. I posed a simple question, “How good do you want to be?”

    I posed this question because I wanted new teachers to realize that there are now dozens of new opportunities for their careers and that we are, for the first time in history, willing to pay teachers according to how good they are. We are also willing to let good teachers run large organizations with huge budgets, or to pursue “second careers” in education reform. But only good teachers will have these opportunities and I wanted these young teachers to realize that if they set their sights high, great rewards and possibilities might await them. Specifically, I wanted them to create an early vision of their career trajectory in education based on their personal commitment to quality.

    Not a single person would answer the question.

    Almost all said something like, “I don’t want to be compared or judged.” To which I said, “That’s not what this is about. It’s about aspiration. To what do you aspire in your career as a teacher?”

    Not many answers here either.

    So I pointed out something simple: “If you have no aspirations for yourself it will be very difficult for you to help your students develop aspirations for themselves. We teach who we are. And children tend to turn out a lot like the adults who care for them. You’ve all said you wanted to teach to help children reach their potential. How will they know how to do that if you don’t show them how you are reaching yours?”

    So, I think the main negative effect this has is the direct effect that any role model has on the people he or she may be modeling for. Teachers with low aspirations will tend to have students with low aspirations. And that’s exactly the opposite of what we want our students to have.

    Sometimes, maybe just one out of every hundred or so classrooms I’m in, a kid will ask me, “How much money do you make?” I sometimes tell the kids exactly what I’ve made to date in that given year. I sometimes ask them what they think I should make and then tell them. Sometimes I ask them what they think a lot of money is — and then I tell them. Sometimes I tell them total gross revenues and net profits from my business over the last 15 years (to the extent that I can remember it). Why do I tell kids how much money I make? Because I want them to know that teaching is an amazingly lucrative career if you’re good at, and that if you work hard and play your cards right, you can live very comfortably doing something very rewarding with a lot of flexibility and variety.

    I want to be a role model for achievement, excellence, pride, risk-taking, learning, dreams, and hard work in the teaching profession. In our society, for better or worse, this is often measured by one’s paycheck. So I tell kids how the measuring system works and how to get better measurements. I want every kid I work with to want to be a great teacher. So I model how great it is to be one. People think teachers don’t make very much money. That isn’t true. So I try to set the record straight by telling kids what I make, by showing them national stats for teaching, by helping compare what some jobs require versus what is required in teaching, etc.


    Professionalize. Merge AFT and NEA and convert them from labor unions into a single AMA-like professional organization.

    Professionalize. Merge in NCATE and create a national infrastructure for high-quality teacher training. Replace state certification with National Board certification.

    Professionalize. Push for more ways of measuring teachers and teaching so you can show how good you are and what a huge influence you have on children’s lives.

    Professionalize. Demand appropriate working conditions.

    Professionalize. Demand control over what and how you teach. (Why give your most sacred power away for free to a textbook publisher? Learn your subjects and teach like the great teacher you are. I’d take you over a textbook for my kid any day of the week.)

    In a word, professionalize.

    If we want kids who would be doctors, lawyers, or CEOs, to want to be teachers, we need to create something for these kinds of people to belong to that feels like who they are. Again, it’s the personality thing. Why am I not a classroom teacher? It’s just my personality not to be. But what if “being a teacher” could have a broader meaning for me, a more interesting career trajectory, more merit-based possibilities for advancement, more interesting assignments, more chances to do extraordinary things, more professional autonomy, more competition, more of all the things that make other professionals want to be other professionals?

    And, by all means, teachers should stop doing things that encourage people to view them as unaccountable (afraid to be measured or judged), unionized (not too many lawyers want to be auto workers, do they?), and “victimy” — back again here to your idea of that “depression mentality”. Great analysis there. But why did the 20-somethings I saw last month have a “depression mentality”? Most of them were born in the 1980s. Their grandparents in many cases don’t even remember the Depression. That was a scary time when almost everyone felt like they were a victim of forces they couldn’t control. But why would kids who grew up in the go-go 80s still feel that way? Well, most don’t. But many young teachers do. Again, “teacher personality” comes through. It’s not that teaching makes people a certain way. It’s that certain kinds of people are drawn to teaching. Just as certain kinds of people are drawn to reform. And a few folks like me probably need to do both in order to feel like we’re doing the best that we can do. But, again, that’s just MY personality.


    First of all, it’s not a few. It’s a lot. There are many stats about teacher effectiveness and they aren’t flattering.

    Second, many teachers intentionally remain poor teachers despite having many paid opportunities to improve. That’s not a great behavior in a society like ours where achievement is highly valued and we are, in general, a very competitive society.

    Third, we love our children.

    Fourth, we all went to school and we all remember having many bad or just “not good” teachers. By contrast, I think I’ve had about 15 doctors in my life (and way too many lawyers!). About 12 of my doctors were amazing, 2 of them were really good, and 1 I just didn’t like personally, but she was still very competent. So my experience with doctors, for example, is that many are very competent. My experience with teachers — as a student, as an observer, and as a teacher trainer — is that many are not very competent. To some extent, I would imagine there is a collective — and, yes, subjective — view of teacher quality that is similar to our own personal experience. I don’t know what you think of all the teachers you’ve known and worked closely with. But I often survey teachers individually and ask them this question, “What percentage of teachers that you have known do you consider highly competent?” Generally, the number given to me by teachers is 10% or less — either that, or they won’t answer the question because they say don’t believe in judging teachers that way and nobody knows what “highly competent” means.

    Fifth, (and I think this is a BIG mistake but we seem to be wanting to make it right now in education reform), our nation holds the collective perception that if we merely fire the worst teachers, our schools will improve. I’ve read a lot of analysis about this. Some is very compelling. But I’m not a part of this part of reform at this time. For one thing, I don’t know how we would replace so many fired teachers — even just the lowest 5% would be about the annual total of new teacher who enter the system. And even if I did know who to replace all the teachers we might like to fire, I’m not sure how we’d know that the replacements were significantly better than the people they replaced.

    But still, America is very angry with teachers right now. This is primarily due to the intensity we all feel about education reform. Two things to keep in mind here: We all love our children fiercely and we all know that teachers are the most important part of the system. So it’s not surprising that we have two “teacher quality” dialogs going on today: one about getting rid of bad teachers and one about recruiting, training, and retaining good teachers. I prefer personally to participate in the “good teacher” discussion. But, again, that’s just my personality. Most people would rather complain than create. I like to create. Sadly, most teachers I know prefer not to participate in the discussion at all. And so there are very few pro-teacher voices in the mix.


    Well, I can’t really speak for other people but I can speak for myself on this one.

    I could not teach 4th grade for many years. I am an extremely effective classroom teacher. And I love it. But I simply couldn’t enjoy the culture of school or the constraints I would be under as a public school teacher. Now, I’d kill to teach for a few years at Yes Prep or ICEF or KIPP o UNCOMMON SCHOOLS, etc. These places rock my world and I would enjoy the high-intensity atmosphere of achievement they have captured in their hallways.

    But I’m not wired to be a long term public school teacher. I’m an idealist. I’m impractical in many instances; I like to shoot for the moon. I don’t like rules that aren’t helpful. I don’t like being around people who aren’t excited to come to work every day. I want to be led by strong leaders. I want to do great, great, great things with people who think that what they do is great. Etc… Again, this is not judgment, it’s personality. Maybe you wouldn’t last long as an airline pilot. You could probably learn how to do it. If you can run a classroom full of little kids, you can probably shuttle a jet full of adults from place to place. But maybe that kind of job just wouldn’t fit who you are inside. Well, classroom teaching as a full-time career doesn’t fit who I am inside.

    I believe that the people you are referring to — and you may be referring to me, I suppose — do have a different agenda. But before I tell you what I think that is, I think it’s worthwhile to wonder why you think they don’t? The reason I ask is this: it’s human nature to interpret the intentions of other people through our own self-image. It’s natural for every human being to think that he or she has quite a lot in common with every other human being. Because we do. So when teachers construct the notion of other people harboring ill will toward teachers, it’s a safe bet that at least a part of that is the ill will teachers harbor toward themselves.

    Now, what’s the real agenda, in my opinion? We all just want every kid to get a great education and we all know — whether we admit it or not — that teachers are the most important part of the puzzle. Why is TFA the most powerful educational organization in America? Because their mission statement is America’s mission statement. Everyone I know just wants more and better teachers. Again, the only “group” in our country who doesn’t seem to be totally consistent about this aspiration is the collective group of teachers themselves. Mostly, I do think teachers want teachers to be great. But very few teachers talk about this. So there’s just not much on the record about teachers and their aspirations to be great at what they do.


    Well, I’m not sure what you’re asking here? Do I think my garbage man is more important than the woman who cuts my hair? I don’t know. I really need my haircut because it grows really fast and I have to look pretty clean cut to work in schools. On the other hand, I really appreciate not having a lot smelly garbage around my house.

    Perhaps a more interesting way to phrase the question is this: “What value do YOU place on YOUR work in the world?” and “Where would you rank yourself against other people in other lines of work?”

    Personally, I’d take Jaime Escalante over the CEO of Pearson Testing. But I’m not so sure that most of the math teachers I had in school, and most of the math teachers I’ve worked with and trained, would necessarily compare as favorably. Lowell Hovis, perhaps. Maybe Mr. Ames if he’d been a little more friendly. But, really, that’s about it, even through college calculus where my profs were pretty sharp cookies.

    And that’s my point: the nasty discourse is about TEACHERS in the abstract, it’s not about YOU or ME or ANY INDIVIDUAL TEACHER and how effective we might be. Same goes for reformers. I think Andy Rotherham is amazing and, frankly, I don’t think I’ve achieved 10% of what I set out to achieve 15 years ago. Fortunately, I still have another 30 or so years in me and I’m getting smarter and better all the time so maybe I’ll begin to make more progress. I certainly aspire today to the same aspiration that led me away from being a technology entrepreneur to wanting to crawl around on the floor with little kids trying to teach them to read: “I will devote the rest of my life to American K-12 education with the goal of creating positive change of national scope and generational consequence.” That’s what I wrote down 15 years ago and that’s what I believe today. I’m not there yet. Not even close. So you can fire me if you want and I wouldn’t blame you a bit. But if you fired me on a Friday I’d be right back in your face on Monday with something better to show you. Nobody’s gonna knock me out just because they think I’m bad at what I do simply because if I’m bad, I’ll just get better. I was certainly quite awful the first year I worked in classrooms. Couldn’t stand myself. Then I realized that if I just took a pass on my little pity party and read a few good books about teaching, I might get better and like it more. That seems to have worked.

    So would I value myself more than the CEO of Pearson Testing? I think that kind of comparison is meaningless — especially since I don’t know the CEO of Pearson Testing. I know I’m not as good as Andy Rotherham or Jay Matthews or Wendy Kopp or Michelle Rhee or Sandy Kress or Richard Rothstein or Monty Neill or Checker Finn or Diane Ravtich or Nancie Atwell or any of the thousands of incredible people we have working in education today. But I aspire to their level — and beyond. I don’t know what CEOs for testing companies aspire to but I imagine, from my days in the business world, that it has a lot do with making money. But then, I like to make money, too, and I will need to command a lot of money some day to make the kind of contribution I want to make. If the only way I could get that money was to be a CEO of a testing company, would you have me not take that opportunity simply because I don’t like testing companies?


    Thank YOU, Linda! You are a tremendous contributor to this forum and I really enjoy communicating with you. You make me think. You make me learn. Which is, I suppose, why you’re such a great teacher.


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