Friday, June 15, 2007
In Defense of Teachers: Responding to Ravitch
Diane Ravitch's defense of teachers in yesterday's NY Sun ("Don't Blame the Teachers") led to some comments on ICE-mail. "Finally, a voice of reason speaking out for teachers about the madness of the education business," said Venice Lady, a teacher who has faced first hand the effects of teacher bashing. (See her full post below.)
I had a similar reaction - at first. But as some critical comments popped up on ICE-mail, I thought more about it. Ravitch seemed to take a narrow point of view of the problem without any political/economic analysis as to the backdrop for the "blame the teacher" syndrome, something that is sorely missing and placed too much blame on students and parents. But this is the NY Sun, a right-wing mouthpiece, (as Sean Ahern points out below) and they don't exactly encourage this kind of analysis.
While the overwhelming majority of teachers appreciate Ravitch's comments, they wonder why their own union doesn't use it's expensive PR machine to engage in a rigorous defence of teachers every day, every minute, at every press conference and in every commercial, which are often so insipid.
But the UFT seems to have different priorities (see my report on the Delegate Assembly in the post below this.) Agreeing to end seniority and take away so many of the rights teachers had is in essence is agreeing that these rules are part of the problem. It's a long road for teachers in NYC when they have to contend with both a hostile DOE and a collaborationist union. You never hear the UFT point out where the money really is when Bloomberg cuts property taxes or gives big tax breaks to corporations, instead selling a bill of goods to teachers that there just isn't enough money to make the NYC school system as good as Scarsdale.
Behind the scenes, they often take credit when these articles appear, trying to make it look like they influenced the writer. (But then again they try to take credit for making the sun shine.) People want to see their union drawing a line in the sand rather than being more worried about how things play out in the press. But when your leader is planning an exit strategy, looking like a reasonable union leader nationally takes precedence.
Teacher bashing/blaming is the only explanation to the so-called right wing ed "reformers." We are not trained. Or the problem is just a matter of our low expectations, as Margaret Spellings so outrageously said to John Stewart when he asked her what is the one thing that would make the greatest difference.
As NYC Educator points out just about every day, all the gimmicks are about an unwillingness to spend the money. Today he says: "And if he [Klein] really wanted to improve schools, he could have tried the whole good teachers/ smaller classes/ decent facilities thing. I guess it's more impressive to follow the longstanding NYC tradition of intergalactic personnel searches."
When Chris Cerf threw the usual bull at the Manhattan Institute about how throwing money at problems don't solve them, he had no response when I pointed out that the DOE hasn't tried to throw money at a school instead of closing it, preferring to spend on gimmicks like $80 million computer systems that will have zero impact. At another recent Manhattan Institute luncheon there were at least 5 mute UFT officials there to feed at the trough.
There were a few points not made or others that were emphasized in Ravitch's piece that nagged at me. Carolyn Eubanks said on ICE-mail: "What about putting the blame where it belongs: on a system that does not care about students and pits teachers and students (and their parents) against each other?"
Ravitch says: "Our children — with too few exceptions — don't have that hunger. It's not the fault of their teachers." Or "if they arrive in school with a closed and empty mind, don't blame their teachers." I agree about the blame part but I saw it as part of my role as a teacher to try to stimulate that hunger. Or unlock those closed minds. I may not have succeeded very often but when I did it was like climbing Mount Everest.
And what's with the "teachers don't know what to teach" stuff? Most teachers always knew what to teach and how to teach it - until the Tweedles started telling them they didn't. They just haven't been given the resources.
Leonie Haimson made some additional points on her listserv:
"I agree that the current tendency to blame teachers for the ills of educational systems is ridiculous– but equally absurd is blaming parents and students. The failures of our schools are due to the lack of resources and the low priority that education has, particularly in urban school systems with large numbers of minority students, the misallocation of funds, and the tendency to follow fads, and the ideological fantasies of the moment rather than make the proven reforms that we all know are necessary – like smaller classes -- that every powerful and wealthy person demands for their own children."
And Sean Ahern goes after Ravitch full throttle on ICE mail in his usual inimical style, where he posts articles from the Nation exposing the NY Sun and explores the relationship between Ravitch, Shanker and the UFT. One of the milder statements:
"If you like your pity party heavily laden with maudlin syrupy nonsense then lap it up. Sort of pathetic when so called educators rally round and cheer someone who is tickling them under the chin. Displace real advocacy with phony advocacy."
Phew! There is heavy stuff there, including references to Sean's usual babies - the whitening of the teacher staff, the '68 strike and the Zionist lobby (just the mention of which resulted in some hysterics on ICE-mail). I haven't absorbed all of Sean's points and probably disagree with most of it, but I can be pretty weak when it comes to political analysis and Sean is always provocative and worth reading - you can read it in its entirely at Norms Notes. I do feel he goes too far in his critique of Ravitch. I have more issues with her as a standardista, but I think she has been a real ally and force in the battle against BloomKlein and hopefully, mayoral control and having her voice on this side of the fence is good thing.
Venice Lady loves what Ravitch wrote:
Finally, a voice of reason speaking out for teachers about the madness of the education business. In the four years that I've been with the DOE, it seems to me that teachers are, and have been treated as if we are the "enemy" by administrators and students alike. Somehow, we are supposed to correct all the ills of society by some miraculous teaching in the classroom. Kids sleeping because they are not actively "engaged"? Our fault- never mind that maybe they are not eating properly or getting the sleep they need at home for whatever reasons. Fights in the classroom? Again, it's the fault of the teacher- if we are not teaching wonderful lessons to "engage" the students' attention, we are at fault that students may have hair trigger tempers and emotional problems that they are bringing into the classroom, and are not capable of exercising self control, no matter how wonderful a lesson we have planned on paper or the delivery of that lesson. Why are teachers blamed for all of the problems that are exhibited in
the schools? It's no wonder that so many people leave this "profession" before completing their fifth year. I can think of no other profession where so much blame is laid at the feet of the
people that most try to help those in need by providing an education as the way to get that foothold in society. I hope that the powers that be are listening to what Diane Ravitch is saying, and realize that teachers are not able to correct those problems that students are bringing into the classroom by following some TC methods in the classroom. It's time to lay some responsibility for learning on the students and the parents, too.