No, We Don’t All Know This

Michelle Rhee

A couple of recent events have caused the media to pay a lot of attention to the never ending problem of public education: the resignation of D.C. schools’ head Michelle Rhee and the release of a movie called Waiting For Superman made by the guy who did the Al Gore global warming political potboiler, An Inconvenient Truth.

Michelle Rhee’s firing has been blamed on teachers’ unions and the movie apparently (I haven’t seen it) excoriates them as well.

Teachers are the only group that catches hell from both sides of the political spectrum: the right hates unions and the teachers’ union is one of the most powerful contributors to the Democratic Party; the left supports unions, but that support is complicated by the fact that teachers provide a service to children.

Liberals have always used children to raise money and support for their projects. Years ago, they discovered that they could extort lots of money from taxpayers by playing the children card. The most effective card player was Marion Wright Edelman who created something called the Children’s Defense Fund, which was little more than a shakedown outfit for the poverty/civil rights industry. She coined the phrase No Child Left Behind. Hillary Clinton, an Edelman admirer, got into the act with her book, It Takes A Village (to raise a child).

Congress passed legislation they shrewdly called “Aid to Dependent Children,” which should have been called cash transfers to unwed teenage girls and their abusive boyfriends. Critics quickly learned that to criticize such legislation invited charges of racism and hard-heartedness toward “the children”, which, as was intended, silenced all but the most intrepid critics.

As a recovering teacher, I’ve been asked what I think of Michelle Rhee. My reply: I’m sure there are a lot of teachers in D.C. who should be fired, but I don’t know whether she fired the right ones.

Everyone seems to think that who’s a good or a bad teacher is obvious. Nothing could be further from the truth. Used to be that a good teacher was one whose students actually mastered the subject the teacher was teaching. Sometime back in the 60’s (it’s always the 60’s), the teaching of “mere knowledge” became a target for radical political educationists who sought to replace the imparting of knowledge and skills with something called “affective education,” which would, they insisted, instill such qualities as self-esteem and raised (political) consciousness, much more important than math and reading.

Over the years, we’ve seen an endless number of variations on this theme: the child-centered class room, the child’s “right to his own language,” and my favorite: the idea that we all have different “learning styles,” which means that, for example an English teacher ought to evaluate a “word-challenged” pupil by allowing him or her to paint a picture or do a dance rather than write an essay.

Michelle Rhee, as I understand it, evaluated teachers based on their students’ test scores. Sounds good to me, but I remember when I administered the state test to my English classes. They took the test over a period of, as I remember, three days. But only about a quarter of the students on my rolls were present for all three days. Was I going to be evaluated on the basis of the large majority of students who were not present for the entire test?

So I’d need to know the conditions under which teachers administered the tests in D.C. before I mourn the loss of Ms. Rhee. It’s also my experience that school administrators tend to blame teachers for poor attendance and poor behavior.

Now, I love the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which loves to bash teachers’ unions. But they, like most critics of teachers’ unions from both the right and left, eschew mentioning “the children” or their parents. But at least they published today an excellent letter that raises issues that most assiduously avoid:

“We all know that good schools begin with good teachers,” Rupert Murdoch writes in “If Schools Were Like ‘American Idol’ . . .” (op-ed, Oct. 8).

No, Mr. Murdoch, we don’t all know this, although that is what we are forever being told. Of course good teachers are necessary if the students who come to them are to do well. But the teachers must work with students from a society fragmented into groups that have quite different ideas of what constitutes a “good education,” including groups which send their children to class with what would once have been unthinkable behavior, a problem only infrequently referred to by reformers of public education.

As a retired elementary teacher with over 30 years experience in Minneapolis, one of the best of the Council of Great City Schools public school systems, and a teacher who has served twice as union steward, I am certainly aware of and not condoning the problems arising from union power in the school systems of this country. However, what I can no longer sit by and accept is this naive (if truly believed), accusation that the lack of good teachers is responsible for the deplorable results so often mentioned.

So long as the citizens of the U.S. are ambiguous in setting and prioritizing goals for our children, and so long as they refuse to acknowledge and correct student behaviors that make it impossible for the best of teachers to succeed, the reformers will continue to ignore an important aspect of poor school performance.

Connie Worthman

Edina, Minn.

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