Tag Archives: education

Debating Education: The Narrative is the Message

Think back to the 2008 presidential campaigns.  Between the candidates and their running mates, there were four compelling and uniquely American narratives to capture the public’s imagination:

  • John McCain, who as a callow young soldier learned the true meaning of courage during his imprisonment behind enemy lines.
  • Sarah Palin, the soccer-mom plucked from near obscurity with an uncanny ability to connect with small town voters.
  • Joe Biden, the senator whose destiny changed in an instant when a tragic accident took his wife and daughter and almost killed his son.
  • Barak Obama, the culmination of our hopes and dreams.

One of these narratives was of course stronger and more compelling than the others.  It involved race, class, immigration, American dreamers who couldn’t be stopped by an ocean, and the idea that Americans could rise above and overcome the tragedy of history.

Back during that campaign, before the Citizens United decision, before the word “tea-party” became associated with elderly white people in comical hats demanding the government get it’s paws off Medicare, it wasn’t always clear what the ideological differences were between the parties.  Many on the left and right would argue there wasn’t much difference. If you listened to the rhetoric of both sides, both would tell you the same things:  they love their country, war is not a good thing, people need money to live, systems are broken, things used to better once upon a time . . .

We are now in the midst of a debate about the nature and future of public education in which the word “reform” is used by both sides.  Both argue that they have only the best interests of children in mind and both want to wear the mantle of “progress.”  But which side is the right side?  Or for that matter the left?

In the popular film Waiting for Superman, we are told that “reformers” are people like Geoffrey Canada or Michelle Rhee who want to push past the entrenched and all powerful teacher’s unions that are acting out of their own self-interest and not the interests of children.  Reformers are billionaires like Bill Gates and Mike Bloomberg, people who would never consider sending their own children to a public school.  We are told that the problem with education is that bad teachers can’t be fired, and the only hope is a charter school system where schools aren’t tied to neighborhoods, but parents, even poor parents, can choose the best schools to send their kids to.  Questions about the charter schools aren’t discussed; they aren’t even raised.  The film is an uncritical love letter to those who bravely fight the power:  teacher unions.

While the filmmakers did give one union leader a chance to speak, it didn’t allow her to directly answer the particular charges leveled against unions by the filmmakers.  It didn’t talk about resources being taken away from good public schools in order to support the growth of these semi-private institutions, or about public education success stories, the advantages of building strong community-based schools and the way that innovative public schools are working in collaboration with  neighborhood organizations  to strengthen entire communities and engage young people.

Instead, by focusing on the lottery for spots at a few particular charters, and telling the story of a small group of kids going through the selection process, the film presents a simplistic, but compelling narrative.  It builds a story around the idea that if these individual youngsters “win,” they will get into a charter school and have a positive future.  If they “lose” and wind up in public school, they will not.  We can’t help but get caught up in the story and the myth it creates, to the point where even an alert viewer doesn’t have much time to formulate the unasked questions: What are the attrition rates for these schools? What happens to kids who can’t make it in a charter?  What about parental involvement and input?  Are the teachers actually better trained?  What’s teacher attrition like?  What are the procedures and protections if a parent has a concern?  How does allocating resources for these schools impact on local public schools in the districts in which they are located?

A new film is coming which does examine these issues.  The Grassroots Education Movement a group of public school parents and teachers, has put together its own film which is still in its final editing stages, but has already been screened at some community gatherings, and is called, called, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. The film takes a clear stand in discussing “real” reform versus the corporate idea of reform (the privatization of the school system).  It shows the ways in which resources have been taken from community public schools and given over to charters.  The filmmakers hammer home their main points about what encompasses true reform and what has actually been shown to make a difference for kids.  They point out that the two “reforms” consistently shown to increase student achievement are smaller class size and more experienced teachers.  These are reforms that unions push for.  They  inform us that the states with the lowest public school achievement happen to be the ones that don’t allow collective bargaining for teachers.   They point out that Finland, often lauded by the corporate reformers as an example of a working school system, is a unionized one.

Ideologically, the film is not simply “pro-union,” but pro-child, community and parent as well, defining true reform as an equitable system in which parents don’t need to arrange hour or longer commutes for their young children in order to secure a good education for them.  It’s a short film, and one devoted to answering the attack on public schools, rather than showing examples of the best ones, or the many ways in which “community” schools not only educate children, but help revitalize communities. (For a decent article about the difficulties of trying to run a great school under the a regime that has been consistently working to undermine and politicize public education, see this article on a Bronx middle school.)

Both Waiting for Superman and The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman are polemics.   The difference is that Waiting for Superman is a slick Hollywood production that manages downplay its bias, while The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman is an impassioned answer to some of the questions the first film doesn’t even raise. In Waiting the narrative is front and center, the ideology covert.  It doesn’t seem like its attacking public school, but the only alternative it offers is a charter system.  Truth is much less narrative driven.  In answering the charges against teachers and unions, the tone can’t help being defensive.  It’s pro-union, pro-grassroots rhetoric while stirring to its constituency, at times feels anachronistic, as though one is listening to a special on the Pacifica Radio network.  Many people tune out when they hear the words “corporate interests” even if, in fact, the battle is about corporate versus public needs.

What Truth, which was not made by a Hollywood director, or even a professional one, fails to do is create the kind of narrative suspense of Waiting.   I watched Waiting at home.  My better-half got bored about half way through and went to sleep.  The next morning he asked, “Who won the lottery?”  He remembered the individual stories and how much seemed to be at stake.  What’s needed is an answer to Superman, that doesn’t just lay out the case and the facts, but tells us a story equally as powerful.  Sometimes the narrative is the message, and in this case, The Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, though valiant in its attempt, fails to capture the narrative.

Teaching in Public School is NOT Like Joining the Peace Corps

In today’s paper of record, The New York Times, there’s an article on the increase in applications to Teach for America and the competition for spots in that program among ivy-league grads. Teach for America is a well-funded non-profit that recruits and trains our best and brightest for placement as teachers in public schools in high-poverty areas of the United States. A quick visit to the TFA website will tell you that the organization’s philosophy is that the best leaders make the best teachers. They seek applicants with “leadership” potential. The program involves a two-year commitment. It’s been compared to the Peace Corps, and the program’s website encourages that comparison by referring to itself as “the corps.”

America’s top ivy-league grads competing to teach in America’s worst schools — isn’t that something to celebrate?

Uh, not exactly.

Most of the TFA’s will leave teaching, if not after their two-year stint, then within another couple of years. Anyone who has taught will tell you that no matter who you are, there’s a big learning curve those first years. While the program provides a lot of support and professional development, there’s no evidence that the participants are staying in the classroom and reaching their potential as educators.

But why should they if teaching in public school is not being viewed as an end in itself, a valid career choice, but rather as a stepping-stone — something to do to prove one’s mettle before doing something else — sort of like the military, but with no guns (one hopes)?

Make no mistake about it, TFA offers several benefits besides the honor of service. First off there’s two years of employment in the middle of a recession, and if you find a job in a city like New York that will mean union benefits and a starting salary of 45k or more. The program also allows access to a social network ideal for a twenty-something new grad. Here’s a description under the Corps Culture section of what those placed in the  Big Apple can expect: “Despite living in the country’s largest city, many of our corps members live in the same apartment buildings or neighborhoods and frequently run into each other at the gym, on the subway, and in the city’s countless restaurants and clubs.” Beyond that the site boasts of its partnerships with several large corporations and prestigious graduate programs happy to offer post-TFA opportunities.

Not bad when you compare it to the actual Peace Corps where you live off a stipend in similar conditions to those you serve. There might not be plumbing in your village, let alone restaurants and gyms. Certainly, you won’t be hanging out with other young people who are just like you. And then there are those other annoyances like malaria and yellow fever.

But why should teaching in a public school in America ever be compared to joining the Peace Corps? Do we really want to think of teaching as something one does for a couple of years to serve society before moving on and getting a real job? When exactly did it become comparable to building latrines in a third world country? What does this say about how we think about public education and those who choose careers as educators?

How is it that someone who teaches at a public school for two years through a program like TFA gets lauded for their service while those who wish to spend their entire working lives toiling in a classroom are viewed suspiciously as though they weren’t up to other challenges or just really enjoy those long summer vacations?

More and more American parents are abandoning the public education system. And who can blame them for wanting the best for their kids? But for many years, the public school system in the United States was the best. Certainly in New York City, generations of immigrants sent their kids to schools where they graduated with either real world relevant job skills or preparation for college. There are plenty of leaders who came to us through that system and were taught by people who didn’t go to ivy-league schools themselves and weren’t picked by special programs, people who were simply doing their jobs and loved to teach. Frank McCourt taught public school and didn’t complete Angela’s Ashes until after he retired.

I understand why the Obamas did not want to send their own children to a public school. But what an example it would have set if they had! What if our First Lady didn’t just drop in to public schools for visits, but advocated for reform as a concerned parent?

One of the differences between poor countries and rich industrialized ones is that the wealthier nations offer compulsory, free schooling that’s more or less equal for all their children and the poor nations don’t. School could and should be the great equalizer, one that represents the American ideal that it’s not where you come from that determines where you are going.

Hiring inexperienced teachers, however earnest and bright, to work as glorified temps in our most impoverished schools, is not the way to create a more equitable system. The way to start bringing our schools back is not to view them as charities.

Respect for teaching as a profession is one of the many things that needs to be addressed in reforming and equalizing America’s school system. School budgets that support hiring and keeping experienced teachers have to become the standard. Recruitment and incentive programs to attract the best are great, but not if they view teaching as a way to kill time during a recession or pad a resume. Professional development and mentoring programs should focus on helping teachers improve and gain skills over time. School systems need to examine why teachers leave and develop their own best practices for keeping the good ones.

As a society, we have a choice. We can either choose to respect, even revere, those practice the noble vocation of teaching as a life-long career, or we can view it as something one does for a couple of years “to give back” to those less fortunate.