Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Year of the Embattled Public School Child

"What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it thinks about education." 
                                   --Harold Howe, former U.S. Commissioner of Education

This morning on the Today show, Matt, Al et. al discussed picks for Time's Person of the Year for 2012. Malala Yousufzai, Aung San Su Kyi and others were floated as good choices-- but for me, the obvious choice is the embattled public school child. Here's why.

Remember Angel from my previous post Outside the Lines-- of the Standardized Test Bubble? She's a grain of sand in a vast desert of kids sweltering under No Child Left Behind policy-- the wandering African American child in the halls of public schools, kicked out of class for disruption, rudeness, teacher's irritability--that kid was probably an Angel. In almost every school I've been in (and as of today, since September, I've been in nine) these kids are a fixture, angry ghosts haunting the halls. It is not because teachers hate Black kids. It is not because Black kids are troublemakers. It's because public schools are at Defcon 5. 

We have, as one of my Uncles likes to say, "one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel." No Child Left Behind was co-sponsored by now Speaker of the House Boehner and Senator Edward Kennedy. As a result, schools, teachers and most importantly, children are being crushed to death by 11 years of what Fordham University Professor Mark Naison calls, [an] "education reform policy [that] will be judged by future historians as one of the most destructive and immoral social policies introduced under the aegis of a bi-partisan consensus since the Vietnam War.."

My dark angels roaming the halls didn't get there by accident. Unengaged students in class aren't there by accident either. Connect the dots: teachers' unions vote Democrat. Kill one of the last standing major unions and you help the big businesses who eye the enormous amounts of money to be made in a newly structured education model. These businesses buy politicians, who abdicate their responsibility to write legislation for the common good to for-profit charters, "consulting groups" and Pearson, the standardized test company...who see public education as a tasty morsel to be gobbled up for their own profit. Think I'm nuts? Want some  peer review? Check this out: pearson multinational and its influence on education policy and this out: It's All About the Money, Money, Money and this: Excerpt: The Life and Death of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. 

So-- how to kill teachers' unions? Thoroughly. Start by branding teachers as lazy, whining, overpaid kid-haters. Fund movies like Waiting for Superman and Won't Back Down. Portray teachers as union thugs who sit heavily at desks and torture children. Move in for the kill: demand 100% of kids achieve on a test that is rigged for failure, and control how the test is given. (NOTE: If you are a Congressperson, be sure to send your kids to a private school that would never rely on this policy. Even if you aren't a Congressperson, be sure that your kids' private school doesn't take mentally ill kids, pregnant kids, kids with mental retardation, etc. and pretend it is because "your school doesn't have the resources to help those kids." Be sure, however, that your kids' private school has state-of-the-art technologies, small class sizes, new auditoriums, art and theater departments and beautiful facilities.)

 Control who scores the test. Make teachers' and administrators' jobs rely on those scores-- and punish them with fewer resources if the kids don't achieve. Publish teachers' names in the paper, like the L.A. Times did, branding them as "FAILING." In essence, take most things worth doing and knowing and absent them from public school days--and ensure teachers are weakened and disparaged enough to frantically try to comply with your catastrophic educational policy. Roll up the carpet of failure and, "for the kids' sake," offer your carefully crafted, astonishingly-ready-already new "delivery model:" charters, for-profit charters, racial segregation and unelected officials in charge. 

The bad news for education deformers, as Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan are widely called-- is that we are on to them. The good news for them is that they have at least a 12-year jump on us-- and by "us" I mean educators, parents and of course-- the embattled public school child.

Policy, politics-- who cares, right? What's the brass tacks? Here it is:

My own children's Pittsburgh Public elementary school experience pre-dated No Child Left Behind. They had a full time music teacher who taught them songs like "Siyahamba," the South African freedom song. They had a full time art teacher in a huge art room with a working kiln, and time for oil painting tutors. They had a full time French teacher, a librarian who read Greek myths to them, a fourth grade teacher who integrated sign language into lessons. Their second grade content areas were enriched with art history-- my oldest, Sarah, studied Bruegel, Monet, Keith Haring-- and made an edible self-portrait in the style of Picasso for FUN. Remember fun in school?

My kids benefited from a cranky but truly expert science teacher who hatched chicks every year in the science lab and helped to build a nature walk around the school. Their social studies and language arts classes were enriched by artists in residence who played up-right bass in school, explored the work of Langston Hughes, Thomas Jefferson, Pakistani ghazals. They had gym every day, recess every day, they slept over at kids' houses who didn't look like them.

The common denominator here is that teachers were allowed to TEACH. They weren't consumed with test prep, or Common Core Standards. They were enriching the children in front of them with the best humanity has to offer--with art, literature, music. They were accountable to a highly involved PTA and a demanding principal who was universally beloved. Did I mention that all of this took place in the middle of a crime-ridden, impoverished area surrounded by public housing? That my son's favorite teachers were two African American women-- Ms. Benjamin and Mrs. Stevens? That my daughter's first best friend was African American? That the school was totally integrated? That the staff was racially diverse?

Show me the charter school that can touch that experience. Show me the PRIVATE school that can touch that experience. You know what I'm fighting for? You know why I nominate the embattled public school child as Time's Person of 2012? Because you would be hard-pressed, 11 years after No Child Left Behind, to show me that experience in a public school today. That racial diversity, that level of teacher engagement, that integration of arts, that availability of resources, that thrumming, gorgeous school life my own kids loved, that shaped them into the gorgeous souls they are today-- it is DYING. Gone but for a few hold-outs where parents have enough disposable income and time to get involved, volunteer, advocate, talk to the members of the Board of Education...where there are administrators with epic courage who support teachers who act for the benefit of the whole child.

One of my current four schools has warned the staff that any teacher taking her students to recess will get an instant critical incident filed against her. There isn't enough staff for recess. Each child there gets one box of Prang crayons per semester. The supply cupboard is bare. If there is any integration of art-- which there generally isn't, because they have been doing test prep since September-- it relies on the money teachers can spare to fund it--since they have to buy their own supplies. I haven't seen 8th grade in that school in the library, and I probably won't. Seeing their almost 600 kids in one day a week as their librarian is impossible. I'll see them a few times a year, at most. The school is coming apart at the seams. Teachers have stopped putting up displays in the halls because our hall angels tear them down. A science teacher hadn't received her curriculum yet-- and it is December. Broken technology and no tech staff to fix it in a "data driven" world. These poor teachers just can't educate 600 kids, all of them so poor they require free or reduced lunches-- with no resources, too few counselors, social workers, school nurses, a curriculum strangled by test prep, too little art, music, library, little administrative support and an uninvolved group of parents.

My hall angels. Our children who NEED music, art, technology, who NEED teachers who aren't driven almost to breakdown with central office and state demands-- it is these children who deserve our attention now. As Karen Lewis, the hero from Chicago, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union showed in her successful CTU strike this year: teachers' concerns are kids' concerns. Some of their most important requests, requests that required a STRIKE to get the District to agree to were: more counselors for needy kids, textbooks guaranteed on the first day of school or before, a "better day," not just a longer one, including art, library, etc. What other professional has to take an unpaid leave to stand in all weathers with a sign to get supplies to serve their clients or patients? When has an attorney ever had to stand on a sidewalk for free to access a law library? When has a doctor ever had to hold a rally to beg for surgical equipment? Don't believe me? Read the facts: community-group-has-a-rally-for-better-school-day

Time's Person of the Year for 2012 should be The Embattled Public School Child. My hope is that the tiny faces of the victims of the shooting in Newton, CT will drive us toward a national discussion of the importance of teachers and teaching. It can be noted that the Sandy Hook music teacher and librarian's jobs were on the chopping block right before the shooting. Thank God that music teacher and that librarian were there- they saved children's lives. Teachers, in the most extreme circumstances, save children's physical lives. In less extreme circumstances, teachers can save children's spiritual, academic, social, artistic and emotional lives every day. Let's let them.


  1. Sheila, this is wonderful! Thank you!

  2. Sheila, love your passion and your descriptions of the before and after of NCLB in our schools. Love your call to action. Your eloquence matches your passion and gives us a work of art in words. I don't think this is all a plot against the Democratic party, however, as part of the assault is being led by Democrats (including from the White House). Truly it's an "us" (99-percenters: teachers, parents, community members, and our children) vs. "them" and the "them" is bipartisan. The "them" doesn't want OUR (99-percenters) children to have the kind of rich education that would make them critical thinkers and actors as part of a community, as were the wonderful people who came together on behalf of the wonderfully-led Chicago Teachers Union. We have to emulate that spirit and organization and union democracy and community sense so we can take back our schools. Right there with you on this, dear sister. Thank you for your beautiful, compelling words. -- Kipp Dawson