Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Teacher's View

Guest Post by Valerie Long Tweedie

People who buy into the idea of Charter Schools think they will be getting a private school education on the government's dime. They believe that their children will be in a school where the school will pick and choose the students and only the best students will get in - the riff-raff will have to go somewhere else. (Where they don’t specify – but it is the old “not in my backyard scenario.”) The problem of how to educate children with special needs will not be addressed. These are the expensive children to educate so no charter school will want them. I think anyone can see where this is going – “My kid is the only one who is important and to hell with the rest of you.”
This selfish, amoral attitude is the problem with our youth today – and it is equally a problem with the adults. As a nation, we have lost our compassion and our generosity; that belief that I am willing to have a little bit less so that someone else, less fortunate than I, can have a little more.  THAT is what is wrong with our world today - no empathy, no ability to try to walk in someone else’s shoes, no appreciation for the advantages that have been afforded us and a recognition that others are not always equally advantaged. When I talk to conservatives complaining about the welfare state, saying charity is not the government’s job, I always ask them, “How much did you give to charity last year?” They always sputter about sponsoring some child in Mexico and giving to their church. The truth is, there isn’t much “Christian Charity” to be found these days and that is not the fault of the public schools.
I was a teacher in public school in Washington State until five years ago. In days gone by if there was a fight on the playground, we would have a class meeting about it. We would discuss how it happened and look at the situation from all sides. We would discuss what was fair and what was right and sometimes, we would acknowledge that someone behaved badly because (s)he was frustrated and hurt. We would talk about whether letting someone play as opposed to excluding that child was really such a terrible price to pay for having a good learning environment where everyone felt valued. I valorised children who were kind and patient and inclusive. Those kids got leadership positions – because they WERE leaders. These class meetings took time, but educators realised that schools were microcosms of society and the parents, teachers and society as a whole accepted that one of the tenets of public education was to socialise children as preparation for them being contributing members of American society. Looking back, I realise how important these lessons were to instilling democratic values in our students. 
 But in the years leading up to my leaving the States, school was about one thing and one thing only – test scores. Teachers were told on a daily basis how the “schools were failing our students” and what a crappy job teachers were doing. As if all teachers had to do was open up their students' heads and pour in the knowledge. Time for class meetings and “morality” lessons had to be stolen from the curriculum and weren’t considered a good use of class time. Morality and socialising were seen as being in the domain of parents (only) – great if you were blessed with great parents, not so great if you had a dysfunctional family. 
I have taught in high socioeconomic public schools in both the U.S. and Germany and in low socioeconomic public schools in the U.S. And I have taught in private schools all over the world as well - some of them prestigious, some of them low fee parochial. The truth is this: how well children learn and how well they get along with others is heavily influenced by their home environment. If kids are less moral today – more selfish, more inconsiderate, more disrespectful and more focussed on material possessions than they are on their fellow man – that is more a reflection of their families and the values they are being taught at home than it is of the schools they attend. I can tell you, as a teacher, I love having kids in class who are taught to consider someone else and not just themselves. But in our world today, parents are focussed on wanting to make their child feel wonderful and unique, but unfortunately have neglected to teach these same children that others matter just as much as they do.


Kat said...

Well, I do feel that schools are transmitting values. These are the values of commerce and win at any cost. When we place such a premium on test scores what are we doing? We are valuing the end product, certainly not the process of learning. Is there any reason to be surprised by all these cheating scandals or the way that states game the system to show improvement from year to year? What are we teaching when the principal or superintendent renames himself the CEO?(I won't even get into university presidents and their obscene salaries) What are we teaching when (as happened in my city) a school must submit to an outside (for profit) firm to provide consultants (who will act as "change agents" and "coaches" for the staff) in order to receive a federal turnaround grant (courtesy Race to the Top). It is 2011. Our country was brought to the brink of collapse by our finest business leaders, but somehow they hold the keys to what ails our educational system. This belief is not new of course-- remember Clinton's "education summit"?
Pretty much everything we teach is valued for what it can bring to the workplace: We make a show of teaching groups to work cooperatively so that they will be prepared for the "workplace of tomorrow", we (and this is one that particularly seems to get the NYT readers excited) pretend to value humane studies because "critical thinking" is even more important to day in our "fast changing" work environment. And of course, we have the alarmists (as we've always had-- just insert the newest "superpower") that we gotta get innovatin' or the people of X nation are going to be our bosses.
So, be afraid. Keep your nose to the grindstone and don't talk back. You make your own circumstances and another's loss is your gain.

John Farrish said...

"When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."
--Abraham Joshua Heschel

"For cryin' out loud, show a little empathy!"

Education isn't the only part of our lives that has been destroyed by the deterioration of our national ethos, only the most important.

The United States needs to change its motto from E Pluribus Unum to E Pluribus Pauculum,(out of many, a few). Social Darwinism has won the day, and worse, its victory has been aided and abetted by the willful destruction of the educational system.

Valerie raises some excellent points, chief among them is that for education to be of the greatest value to society it must be universal. As a matter of fact, representative deomcracy can survive only in the presence of a well educated populace. The dumbing down of America has consequences: the rejection of climate science, fraudulent economic policies, the rise of the surveillance state, the justification of torture, and many more are all things that have been sold to an American public that simply is not possessed of the critical thinking skills necessary to see through all the chaff.

The practical outcome of all this is a nation whose benefits are highly skewed to the wealthiest few. But as long as we have elections the wealthiest few know they need to convince others that policies designed to benefit the wealthy are best for everyone. The first step in that process was and is to destroy public education. It has created a corrupt circle as more and more people grow up lacking the skills necessary to make informed decisions.

One of those skills is a well developed sense of empathy. This derision of empathy has been pushed on us in a lot of ways (remember the scorn heaped on Hillary Clinton for suggesting it takes a village?). First and foremoest, of course, is the putting forth of the notion that "real" Americans are self-reliant and fiercely independent, neither needing nor wanting the help of others, and especially not the help of some government. Concomitant with that is the idea that any American who works hard will - not can, but will - succeed. Therefore, those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame.

In education that perverted idea is manifested in drives to create charter schools and voucher programs. In other words, creating schools that are free to pick and choose who they will take. Vouchers are especially insidious as they are nothing more than another instance of the middle class subsidizing the rich.

Education for all - and a GOOD education for all - is an investment, and a particularly good one. One area where the US still leads the world is in the quality of its universities (although for how much longer is anybody'd guess). But more and more the student bodies are made up of students from other nations; nations whose governments understand the importance of education. We are being left behind, and unless we get our act together on the el-hi level and reject policies designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many, we will remain there.

Excellent column from Valerie. Thank you very much.

Denis Neville said...

@ Valerie, Excellent!

…only the best students will get in - the riff-raff will have to go somewhere else…

“You have to remember. . .that for this little boy whom you have met, his life is just as important to him, as your life is to you. No matter how insufficient or how shabby it may seem to some, it is the only one he has.” - Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation

…one of the tenets of public education was to socialise children as preparation for them being contributing members of American society…

“Good teachers don't approach a child of this age with overzealousness or with destructive conscientiousness. They're not drill-masters in the military or floor managers in a production system. They are specialists in opening small packages. They give the string a tug but do it carefully. They don't yet know what's in the box. They don't know if it's breakable.” - Jonathan Kozol, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope

What you said about school being “about one thing and one thing only – test scores” reminded me of what David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire, said, “You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.”

The Wire’s fourth season exposed the broken inner city public school system and government’s failed attempts, magnified by an unwillingness to address the real problems, to fix the schools. The story was about a policeman who became a junior high mathematics teacher. The school faculty rather than teaching were forced instead to focus on achieving standardized test results, “juking the stats,” which was police slang for manipulating the numbers to make things look better, even when there was no positive outcome.

“Teachers and principals should not permit the beautiful profession they have chosen to be redefined by those who know far less than they about the hearts of children.” – Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America

Kozol believes that, “vouchers are the single worst, most dangerous idea to have entered education discourse in my adult life…When people think of vouchers or charters, they say, ‘Why should we send our kids to a failing school?’ instead of asking ‘What should we be doing to make sure that we don’t have a separate, unequal system which creates failing schools?’”

William said...

If only we lived in a world where our so-called leaders practiced the noble values you recognized and rewarded in those children fortunate enough to be your students. I bet you always had plenty of fresh apples in your household!

@John Farrish,
"Once children learn how to learn, nothing is going to narrow their mind. The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another." -- Marva Collins

As you pointedly demonstrated, it's no wonder the ruling class has prioritized the dumbing down of our populace.

Anne Lavoie said...


Your work had the biggest impact on those who have the greatest influence on children's lives - other children. Not even parents are as influential in a child's life as peers are, except maybe one adult who cares, such as a teacher. I bet they will remember you for their entire lives.

When you addressed those schoolyard incidents in the classroom with all the kids, you were doing a great service not just to them but to our society. I particularly liked your recognizing and rewarding the leaders with leadership roles. I would guess that no one else in their lives recognized those nonacademic strengths. Good work, and thanks.

I don't know if it's still going on, but during the few years I worked as an elementary school nurse, there was a self-esteem movement in the schools where children were praised for every move they made and told constantly how great they were.

One day I heard the principal telling a teacher that she could not give a child a D because it would hurt his self-esteem. She told him the child didn't even do his homework, let alone pass any tests and she was already being generous. She ended up giving up and raising the grade, but not after a good fight.

I think the school administrators who conduct these social experiments with our students are at fault for contributing to a self-centered generation as well as failing schools. They are also responsible for opening campuses so kids can support the local fast food economy, for allowing corporate advertising within the schools by accepting gifts of bulletin boards, scoreboards, etc., and for allowing junk food vending machines in the schools. The tentacles of corporations extend all the way down from Washington DC to our school administrators, and shows itself in many ways.

Valerie said...

Thanks for your kind words. My little “essay" was written off the cuff and, truthfully, intended as a comment in response to Karen's last post responding to David Brooks. But Karen knows me well and it would have taken me at least a month to write my ideas down with more eloquence. As I was so long winded, she decided to make my comment a post and what you read was my effort to address an incredibly complicated and angst ridden issue for me. Your own comments have been excellent - very well-written (if you will permit my teacher side to notice) and profound.

My heart breaks when I think of what has happened to public education in my lifetime. I grew up in the 60's and 70's when Education was seen as the "great equalizer" with the solemn responsibility of preparing children to be “productive and contributing members of society.” And by contributing, it was meant that students would learn to be the kind of adult who would take part in their community and give something back to society.

But with the advent of the Conservative attack on education, teaching the whole child went out the window as test designers (paid a fortune - much like military contractors) attempted to commodify learning. I always found it interesting that the two subjects that were not emphasized and not tested under No Child Left Behind were History and English Literature. I am convinced that was no mistake. By overloading the curriculum with other, less thoughtful skills and through “high stakes testing,” the two most important subjects to citizenry were thrown under the bus.

After all, if students were taught the Burning of the Reichtag was Hitler’s excuse to suspend civil rights in Germany they might recognize the similarities with the Patriot Act and 9/11. If high school students read The Grapes of Wrath and the Jungle, they might understand what it is like to be poor and desperate. They might understand how important the unions, so demonized by the Right, were to the rise and stability of the Middle Class.

I am getting long winded again – so I will stop - but before I do, I will say one more thing –

Teachers are more than just purveyors of knowledge. Drawing curiosity and the capacity to reason out of children who spend hours in mind numbing pursuits like watching television and playing computer games is no small feat. With parents under more and more financial stress, those children in the sinking Middle Class families come to school undernourished, under-nurtured – both emotionally and intellectually - and often exhausted due to lack of sufficient sleep. Some of these kids come from dysfunctional families where psychological and sometimes physical abuse is commonplace. Public schools take these children as they come and try to bring out the best in them. For some of these children, school is the only safe and sane place in their vulnerable lives. I don’t see Charter or For Profit Schools with a mandate to produce high test scores caring very much about these kids, do you?

Neil Gillespie said...

A few years back I overheard a group of students from the University of Tampa complaining about a writing assignment. They had to describe some hardship they suffered and its impact on them. The general consensus was they all had great lives had not endured any suffering to write about. It’s hard to believe they could have empathy or the imagination to walk in someone else’s shoes, unless those shoes were Prada.

As for the selfish, amoral attitude you describe with youth today, I see a bigger problem (not equal) with adults. Maybe its because I have extensive contact with lawyers and the legal profession, but the many of the adults I encounter are beyond amoral, they seem pathological. I’m grateful that years ago I got to know number of WWII vets from the Greatest Generation when they were still working. To me a sense of normalcy left our society with their retirement and passing. I think their collective suffering and sacrifice was the difference.

Washington State does some good things with education. The Evergreen State College in Olympia is very innovative. When I attended Evergreen in the mid-1990s it did not have grades. I think it’s still that way. No GPA at all. A student’s work was measured by narrative evaluation. And the classes were organized differently too, into an interdisciplinary curriculum. Evergreen is a public school and consistently gets high ratings. Good education does not have to be expensive. Evergreen is located in a semi-rural campus on Puget Sound with lots of forest, an organic farm, and a nude beach. It’s a pretty radical place. The college also serves the Native American populations in Western Washington. Evergreen has produced some socially conscious grads, like Rachel Corrie. She was crushed to death in the Gaza Strip by an IDF bulldozer when she acted as a human shield to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian family's home. You can read about that at the link to my name, at the bottom of the page.

Thanks Valerie

n1ck said...

Just wanted to say your comment on the latest Collins NYTimes op-ed on Bachmann was brilliant.

Fred Drumlevitch said...

Nice essay, Valerie, and you've made important points.

(And very appropriate statements by Jonathan Kozol brought to us at this forum by Denis Neville).

The teaching function is certainly one of the most important activities in any society, but in recent decades it has been under direct assault from politicians with an ideological agenda, corporate interests looking to education as a source of profit, and sometimes, parents looking to place blame for their children's failures and pathologies on anyone other than themselves and those children. All those assaults are disheartening and disgusting, and I'd be hard pressed to decide which is worse. For teachers, it must be beyond disheartening, it must be depressing, and I've heard that American teachers have a quite high consumption of prescription anti-depressants. (I don't know if that's true, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was).

I won't say that educators are perfect or blame-free, but they do amazingly well, especially considering the nation's various pathologies and what they are being asked to do.

One point worth noting, though, is that American education supposedly spends much more on non-classroom uses (including administration) than occurs in many other nations. I won't make a blanket condemnation of that, considering the variety of non-"education" tasks that have become part of American education, but it may be that administration can be pared somewhat in cost and size, and the money shifted to the classroom. As with CEOs in the corporate world, I've heard of some quite high pay packages for both public education K-12 superintendents and public university presidents. (Private school disparity between upper-administration and teachers is often even worse). I think that money should be concentrated "where the rubber meets the road" --- educators who most interact with students, and adequate facilities and materials.

Valerie said...


I tried to find your blog but am not sure which Neil Gillespie you are. What is the name of the blog site?

Neil Gillespie said...


Its easy, just click my name on this blog post, right where it says "Neil Gillespie said..." and it links to my webpage. The Evergreen and Rachel Corrie section is at the bottom of the page.

Valerie said...

Thanks, Neil,

It is very good!

Neil Gillespie said...

Thanks Valerie. Did you see my response a few posts back? Representative Marcy Kaptur has sponsored H.R. 1489: Return to Prudent Banking Act of 2011 which would reinstate Glass-Steagal here in the USA.

I can’t see it passing, the genie is out of the bottle.

The Black Swan said...

I am going to be attending Evergreen starting in about 10 days for my Junior and Senior years at college. It's great to see a write up about the school on this blog. The reason I chose Evergreen was because of its alternative approach to education. I had a terrible experience with public education, and it has taken me quite a while to get back to school

Valerie said...


Did you read that in Britain the results of an in depth analysis by the Commission on Independent Banking has advised that Britain throw up a firewall between investment and commercial banking (they are calling it ringfencing) as well as forcing the banks to hold more equity? I haven't read about it in the American papers but I must confess to not looking very hard.

It sounds like it is being very well-received by everyone but the bankers who want quick profits at the risk of dragging down the whole banking system. Sound familiar?

FYI - There is a firewall between commercial and investment banking in Australia and that is considered by most Australians one of the reasons that Australia weathered the banking crisis so well.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

You made some very important points, Valerie, about the pervasive selfishness in our society today. I was talking with a neighbor recently who is a K-8 school teacher and vice principal and she had many of the same observations that you have expressed. She is in charge of student disciplinary issues and said that, more often than not, when a student misbehaves to the extent that parents need to be notified, the parents argue and insist that the teacher must be at fault. When I was in elementary school and my brother was class clown and got notes sent home with him a lot, he got in even worse trouble with our parents than he did the teacher. My parents never even thought that the teacher could be wrong. I'm a recently retired psychotherapist and have seen a lot of emotional fall-out from the excessive emphasis on self-esteem and the constant ministrations of the dreaded "helicopter parents" who try to run interference for their kids even after they go away to college.
There is definitely a "Me First" and "I've got mine, fuck you" attitude in this country that is divisive and corrosive to our society.

Neil Gillespie said...

@The Black Swan

Congrats, it sounds like you will love Evergreen. When I attended there were a number of non-traditional age students. Evergreen embraces diversity, it is a place for free-thinkers, and great for black swans. I still recall a group meditation session in a Zen class guided by the voice of Alan Watts on tape. One student brought a candle that served as a focal point. It was an awesome mystical experience.


Thanks for the link to the Guardian. The firewall is a proven idea, it sounds like it helped Australia. I just don’t think in American we can get that genie back in the bottle. An alternative being discussed is to reclassify some of the high-risk banking activities as gambling and tax it accordingly. But under our current system the banks will get what they want. Remember, the banks even got Obama to nix Elisabeth Warren for the consumer financial protection agency.

Valerie said...

I don't know - I think the banking system in Britain runs along the same lines as the banking system in the U.S - which is why the British taxpayer ended up bailing out their banks too. I don't think it is too late to put the genie back in the bottle if there was the political will for it - but it would take leadership, and that is our problem.

Neil Gillespie said...


Don’t know enough about the banking system in Britain to comment, but Marcy Kaptur’s bill, Return to Prudent Banking Act of 2011 that would reinstate Glass-Steagal in the US, is currently in committee, according to the website.

"May 2, 2011: House Committee on Financial Services: Referred to the Subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government Sponsored Enterprises."

The bill has 39 cosponsors, 35 Democrats and 4 Republicans, according to the website.

Jay - Ottawa said...

I've come late to this page. The post, which was really a comment to the previous post, opened the door to many other fine comments, a rich collection. Thanks, Karen; thanks, Valerie; thanks, all.