Don’t Believe the Hype, Mr. Friedman

Thomas Friedman has pointed up another of those Achilles’ heels pervading our society and economy: education. Friedman uncharacteristically picks up the current drum-beating about how poorly we are doing as if the locus of the problem is in the schools.
Now here’s a man who is not afraid to touch the sore spot. Yet here we have the same blindness to the excellence of American schools where students have support and teachers have resources. Where that occurs, and that is mainly in White suburbs, students compete equally with the best the world has to offer.
I just spotted an article in, I believe, the New Yorker or Harpers or Atlantic Monthly, one of those, where a “researcher” has supposedly exposed the failures of American schools to educate our best students to the level of the best students of other countries. Tons of articles like this are turned out to convince the public that poverty is not the issue, it’s the teachers and their unions that are gumming up the works – lazy time-servers who fail their students.
What we really have are teachers who work under often appalling conditions with children who have no preparation or support for their schooling. Administrators’ hands are tied by communities that would rather spend millions on a sports complex than thousands on schools. But we can’t say any of this b/c the big money boys will get offended. Even at the individual school level, sports bring in enough money that everyone has to kowtow to the coaches and their needs.
More power to the coaches; they do a great job of motivating kids, developing their character and talent, but what happened to academics? We are promised smaller classes and asked to spend our time in workshops designed to help us teach better only to find at the last minute are for nought b/c they’ve had to increase our class sizes to 35 and 40.
The heart of the article lies in the three 21st century educational outcomes needed: critical thinking, collaborative working, and communication. For the teacher side of the equation, we are told that countries with top scores, Denmark, Finland (almost all Scandanavian socialist countries with extremely low poverty rates and few minorities) and the like, including Singapore, draw teachers from the top third of university students. In this country, the only way to do that would be to draft them into the military and order them into the schools. Interestingly, having just written that, I looked down at the article and saw that one expert recommends a West Point style teaching academy.
What a crock. That will not affect the thousands of lousy teacher education programs throughout the country that attracts good, normal people, like myself, into teaching and then gives them no tools to use in the classroom for the most important element in teaching: management of student behavior. If students cannot open their minds and ears and be willing to share their thoughts, they will not learn. And many classrooms maintain discipline by falling to the lowest common denominator of classroom control: busy work.
Do you have to enter your attendance on a computer that takes minutes to boot up and find the program? Then either you have bell work or pandemonium. Bell work requires preparation and grading, otherwise studens quickly realize “it doesn’t count” and will scream, yell, laugh, push, shove, squeal, and chat – in other words, pretty much what adults do when left on their own without a drink in their hand. But the computer rules. Why? Because bureaucrats like numbers; that way, they don’t have to use critical thinking skills to evaluate teachers, they can just point to numbers.
What would happen to an “unruly” child in Singapore or South Korea? Only the bloody-minded can guess. What can happen here? A detention, usually served chiefly by minority students, and that means getting to wear a dorky vest and pick up trash while you display bravado to your friends, bragging about how many detentions you have. What genius thinks that that promotes learning?
What we have is a lot of real stupid people trying to improve education. Arne Duncan is one of them. His one-trick pony is competition. That’s right, teachers are like volley ball players, totally driven by a competitive spirit and a love of money bordering on greed. So the way to get them to improve their teaching isn’t by giving the space, time, students, training and resources to do that; it’s to tell them they will get a larger pay check – after all, that’s what they went into teaching for – and get to “beat” the other teachers and feel superior. Genius.
The real blockage in getting better education for all the students, not just the ones preprogrammed for learning by being born into a home with books and educated parents and enough food, is the stupidity of people running the show. Have you ever noticed that major talk shows never have a classroom teacher on; the “teachers” are always an administrator, a professor of education, or a teacher detached to a special program where he tours the country. The way you know you have a real teacher on your show is if the teacher had to get a sub…. and her school probably gave her a hard time about it; she may even have had to pay for the sub herself.
You know, the more I write, the sadder I get. Not for the teachers; we have a great time – there truly is no greater thrill outside of heroin than seeing a child grasp an idea, a concept, or make a connection. That look could go on a Master Card commercial – — priceless. It’s for the border-line morons trying to solve our education problems but ignoring the elephant in the room – poverty, a poverty in large part rooted in decades, even centuries old, patterns of exploitation. Who is not getting a good education? How far, really, do you have to look?
For Arne and Barack and all the experts and talk show hosts telling us we need better teachers, I have a piece of information. No matter how good the teacher, if the school is underfunded and the teacher lacking in resources, and the kids sick and hungry and scared when they get to school and more scared of the bullies and gangsters in the school, Little Miss Wonderpants who stands and delivers ain’t gonna to crap. Keep in mind, Jaime Escalante, whatever his students were, was not a Mesican or Puerto Rican – he was Ecuadoran, raised in a country that saw him as a valuable human being, not dumped into a dump of a school with disillusioned staff and leaky plumbing.
As Farai Chideyah says, Mr. Friedman, don’t believe the hype.

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