Sunday, June 12, 2011


My apologies for not posting for quite some time.  Life got in the way.  A new job, a new city, a new adventure got in the way.  And so I am going to stop writing for now, for at least ten weeks.  Thank you to those who read what I wrote.  I hope it helped you become a better thinker as it did for me.  Don’t hesitate to email if you wish.  I’m always ready to talk too much about education policy, my dislike of Valerie Strauss  and pretty much anything else.  Farewell until I write again.

What We Are Really Talking About

Someone brought Diane Ravitch’s recent New York Times opinion to my attention.  The gist of it is that the idea of miracle schools are overblown and that the primary way to solve the educational woes of low performing schools and districts is to target the families.  I agree that the idea of a miracle school that suddenly turns everything around for its students is probably overblown.  Although there are some reasons that these stories become such a large part of the conversation and Diane Ravitch is one of those reasons.  I also agree that families are incredibly important factor in student outcomes.  In a sense, that reality is the reason for the whole education reform movement.

When I went to work for DC Public Schools it wasn’t because I didn’t think student outcomes were defined by student background to a large degree.  It was because I did think that.  And I thought it wasn’t right.  To me that is not, and never will be, a reason to not try whatever it takes to give everyone a chance at a successful life.  Our society is based on the idea that anyone can do anything they put their minds to, that each person has the freedom to pursue happiness, to enjoy equal protections under the law.  Is this rational? Is it really true?  Probably not and definitely not.  But we attempt to create a reality that closely aligns with our values.  Maybe the vision we Americans have of equality, meritocracy, open dialogue and social mobility is a little utopian but pursuing that utopia has led to tremendous historical success.  Just because something isn’t possible or doesn’t seem possible doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.  The mere act of attempting can lead to tremendous change and improvement.

Let there be no mistake that the goal of education reform is revolutionary.  I don’t say education reform to refer to those who are part of the education reform movement.  I say education reform to refer to all those people, mostly teachers, who work every day to give our students the best education and best chance in life possible.  If we accomplish the goal of a strong education for all students regardless of background, zip code, skin color, parents’ education, family income and every other indicator that correlates too strongly with education outcomes, then the world starts to look like a very different place.  Racial inequality starts to disappear.  Neighborhoods that have been left to struggle without answers start to build a foundation of hope based on the human capital of its newly graduate citizens.  The cycle of poverty as we know it begins to break down.  That is what we are really talking about and I can’t think of many endeavors more noble.

If changing the world to make it a better place and pursuing a reality that realizes our more utopian values is too abstract for you that is okay.  You see, the arguments put forth by Diane Ravitch and many others claiming to be protecting public education and teachers are suicidal.  I understand the frustrations among teachers when they are being held accountable, and often told they are failing, for things they cannot control.  Governments, districts, administrations undoubtedly need to do a better job of providing the necessary supports for teachers to be successful and for students to be ready to learn.  That includes the basics like making sure school breakfast and lunch is accessible and edible.  All of us need to do a better job.

However, staking out positions that imply, or outright say, that teachers are largely unimportant in the education outcomes of students is a terrible position to take if you are trying to protect teachers, public education and the system as we currently understand it. 

When Diane Ravitch argues families families families she is basically saying teachers are powerless to overcome the backgrounds of their students.  I realize this is likely a case of public negotiation pushing someone to a position that is too extreme and lacking in nuance.  Nonetheless, the argument is there and it is an argument that actually does threaten public education.  Private companies selling helpful products to under performing districts like Wireless Generation does is not going to take down public education.  Charter schools slicing off a chunk of traditional public school students is not going to take down public education.  School vouchers are definitely not going to take down public education.  Arguing that public education is not capable of overcoming demographics will.  Because ultimately if our schools make no difference they become an unconscionably enormous bad investment.  Because if teachers don’t make a difference then why do we have them at all?  Because if better schools that actually make better opportunities for students that wouldn’t otherwise have those opportunities can’t exist then why try?  In that case maybe slashing school budgets to fund tax cuts for the rich makes a little more sense, or to fund more public transportation, or to fund more defense spending, or to fund more social services, or to fund more police.  Why not lay off more teachers?  Why not just abolish public schools and let each locality, each household figure it out for themselves?  Why is Diane Ravitch making her enemies’ argument for them? 

The end point of pointing the finger at poverty or demographics or social services or crime or health or all of the other hundred things that are stacked against our most at-risk children is giving up on education as a solution.  The end point is reinvesting all that education money elsewhere, away from schools, away from teachers, away from the current, broken, failed system.  But I think Diane Ravitch is wrong.  I think teachers, schools, districts can make a difference.  I think we can do better.  I think we can create a world where a child is not doomed just by the happenstance of being born to the wrong family in the wrong part of town.  


I have never been a teacher.  I have never faced the day to day of standing in front of students and showing them the world.  I can’t understand what that is really like, what each and every challenge feels like, how success can push you forward or failure can break your heart.  I can’t understand what it is like to be a teacher.  All I know is what I have been told, what I have seen and what I have experienced as a student.  For me good teachers are heroes, capable of things I am afraid to attempt.  Teachers are people of course, but growing up they seem like more than normal people and that has stuck with me to this day.

Teaching is a profession that is at once deified and vilified.  Teachers are underpaid, overworked guardians of future.  Teachers are lazy lifers who are in it for friendly hours and summers off.  Teachers are noble, making sacrifices most would never make, saving people who nobody else can save, bringing light where there is darkness.  Teachers fail to teach everyone to read, fail to work hard, fail to create people ready to produce in society.  Today, I’m not so interested in the false dichotomy that plays in the media.

I’m interested in the profession and what it should be.  First and foremost it is important to remember that teachers are people, like you and me, and have the same wants and desires as we do.  Wanting to be paid more is not a bad thing.  Wanting time off to go to Hawaii or Spain or wherever is not a bad thing.  Being ambitious is not a bad thing.  Wanting to be rewarded, supported, free and flexible are not bad things.
I want to pay teachers more because I want to attract the highest caliber people into the profession.  Unless someone is independently wealthy money does factor into the decision making process of choosing a job.  That isn’t an insult to the art of teaching.  That is how the world works.

I want to advance the best teachers whether through higher pay, more powerful positions or some other kind of hierarchy.  Recognizing who your best are and asking more of them, compensating them more, giving them more power and leeway, that is good human capital.  That is making the most of your resources.  Not every teacher needs to be ambitious.  But those that wish to work their way up, to coach other teachers, to join in the policy discussions, to become principals and superintendents and thought leaders should do so.

I want a future President of the United States to be a former teacher from an urban school district.  Why not?  Republicans have a pipeline from the military to politics.  Democrats should have the same pipeline from urban teaching corps to politics.  Recruit a young, ambitious, socially conscious person out of college to serve our future as a teacher.  Watch them flourish, mastering the art of teaching, working as part of a team, helping others better themselves.  Watch them ascend and learn how to lead, how to manage, how to execute.  Watch them learn all of the issues that face politicians today by actually experiencing those issues, seeing what poverty and unemployment do, seeing the dysfunction of bad government.  They will master the politics of a school, of a neighborhood, of a ward, of a city, just like politicians do, just like military men and women do.  They can join their local school team, then the school board, then the city council, then become mayor or state senator or governor, then to the national stage.

I want teachers who are so great they can do anything they want but they choose to teach.  I want every individual teacher to be so valued that they hold power as individuals, able to say “I am so good that I am irreplaceable”.  

I want college students to battle over scarce slots in teaching schools, worrying over difficult tests, intimidating interviews and convoluted essay questions to get into that top choice school that will set them up for future success. 

I want alternative credential pathways to step up their game to ensure they are as good as the improving teaching schools, to make sure they don’t get left behind.

I want practitioners to go out of their way to learn to teach, to devote some of their time to sharing with others.  I want ambitious thought leaders to help form the minds of tomorrow.  I want them to do it for prestige, for networks, for recruiting their future heirs. 

I want teaching to be a stepping stone, a pathway, a destination, an expectation.

I want teachers who learn to teach, can leave to go do something else they are passionate about, and are able to return, better for it and reenergized.

When I talk about alternative pay scales, accountability, data, recruitment, retention, teacher evaluation, the end of tenure and LIFO, I’m not talking about disrespecting the profession or destroying it.  I’m talking about respecting the profession of teaching the way it should be respected.  I’m talking about making the profession more powerful.  I’m talking about treating teachers the way we tend to treat out best.  Driving them hard for more success.  Rewarding them well for being the best.  Giving them freedom to explore.  Supporting and nurturing their passions.  Allowing them to stretch themselves.  We do not do this now and in our never ending negotiation between management and labor it is both sides that are holding the profession back.