Of all the labels people assign to public school teachers and other proponents of public education, the term “status quo defender” is one of the most offensive.
At the center of attacks on public educators are reformers like Michelle Rhee and Jeb Bush–and, though perhaps less blatantly, organizations like Teach for America, whose five-week training program claims to prepare college graduates without a background in education to teach in urban school districts. While TFA corps members often enter the program with noble ambitions and good intentions, the organization itself contributes to the very problems reformers identify by placing a never-ending supply of temporary, inexperienced teachers in urban schools. And as stability is something many children who live in poverty lack at home, it is essential that those children have teachers who are dedicated to their students–and not teachers who plan to teach for two years and then move on to bigger and better things, like careers in law, medicine, and finance.
Michelle Rhee, a product of the TFA system, spent a mere three years in front of a classroom—and she herself admits that those years were marked by difficulties for which her five weeks of training did not prepare her. She admits to taping her students’ mouths shut, to having no control of her classes, and to feeling generally helpless and ineffective as a teacher.
So what did Rhee do? Instead of staying around and improving her trade—and, as veteran teachers do, learning with each year of experience—she jumped ship and started dictating policy to the hard-working people who chose to remain in the classroom instead of pursue six-figure salaries. And now she claims that “left wing union folks don’t like accountability for their teachers” and that teachers are happy to perpetuate what she calls the “status quo.” This idea has been embraced by Rhee’s reformist disciples, many of whom use it to justify their cutthroat, damaging policies.
Implicit in such a claim is the idea that public school teachers and their allies are happy with the current state of affairs in urban public schools and do not try to combat the many problems that affect student performance in school. This idea couldn’t be more untrue. (Instead, and as an aside, isn’t support of failed and flawed initiatives like NCLB and Race to the Top–and the misuse of standardized testing that accompanies both–defense of the “status quo”? But I digress.)
Because they spend every day in the schools reformers identify as being “failures,” teachers know all too well why some students have trouble achieving. Teachers see children with medical problems who never get taken to a doctor; they see children who witness violence on the sidewalks right outside of their homes; they see children who are abused by family members or other caretakers; they see children who come to school dirty, hungry, sick, or cold; and they see children who, because of all these factors, simply cannot muster up the strength, attention, or desire to reach their full potential in school.
THESE are the problems that people and corporations with millions of dollars should fix, but teachers’ screams for help with the problems they witness are largely ignored. Instead, the people and corporations with millions of dollars–and virtually no experience in classrooms–claim that teachers are failing at their jobs.
Urban educators see heartbreak that many people cannot even fathom, and those educators understand that in many cases, school is the safest part of a child’s day. But a day is 24 hours long, and many teachers see their students for as few as 40 minutes of those 24 hours per day.
And somehow, if teachers are unable to overcome all of the difficulties that a room full of 30 students face, those teachers are accused of defending the “status quo.”
How arrogant and ignorant must one be to suggest that teachers whose students are confronted with the problems listed above—and countless others—do not desire to improve the few conditions over which they themselves have control?
How arrogant and ignorant must one be to suggest that teachers who devote their careers to improving the lives of children do not want accountability–and do not want to be supported in meaningful ways?
How arrogant and ignorant must one be to fail to understand the inseparable link between a student’s home life and his/her performance in school—and to neglect the humanity and experiences that define children in favor of the scores those children produce on standardized tests?
And how arrogant and ignorant must one be to fail to recognize that by the time children arrive in kindergarten, the opportunity gap that their circumstances have created and the damage that poverty has caused can present teachers with the impossible job of fixing something that is well beyond their realm of control?
To further simplify this point, here is one more question to consider:
If a child repeatedly jumps off of his swing set and keeps breaking bones, would anyone dare to label the doctor who treats that child as a contributor to or defender of the “status quo”? Of course not, because the doctor cannot control the circumstances which cause the child to need the treatment that doctor is qualified to provide.