I don't know why I remember this story, but when I was a kid, my aunt was in a relatively minor car accident. Thankfully she was OK, and is totally healthy today, but I still remember the very brief conversation I had with my mother about the accident some 30 years ago.
It seems there was a woman trying to make a left turn across traffic. We've all had this experience. Traffic was extra heavy that day, so she waited, and waited and waited and then she went. Well, she should have kept waiting, because as you can probably predict from the beginning of my story, she caused an accident. Again, fortunately, everyone was able to walk away from it, and that's always most important, but when she was interviewed about what happened, the woman’s response was simply, "Well, I had to go sometime."
I think if we peel away the specifics of any given moment in time we have to make a decision, there's probably a pretty comparable number of things that either compel or prevent us from "going". In that case, the compelling force wasn't an emergency, but probably boiled down to some amount of impatience. The preventive force should have been the fear of consequence - which depending on the severity of the accident, could have been death. We weigh compelling and deterring forces when we make decisions every day.
Although there's certainly enough evidence to suggest there's at least some part of the education reform movement that is not in the best interest of kids, I'm going to speak under the assumption that all reformers mean well for education, but that we disagree about how to improve it.
I can understand that when it comes to education, both constructive and destructive reformers have probably been waiting to make that left turn across traffic for a while. Truth be told, I've probably been sitting at the intersection myself a few years. Although I don't believe at all in the reforms we've received, I've long since believed there's a lot about public education that can be re-imagined. It seems, however, that again for all the right or all the wrong reasons, we've committed as a state, to dramatically changing public education without properly weighing either compelling or preventive evidence.
The preventive evidence is pretty clear - if you do it wrong, people lose their jobs, you can turn off a generation of learners, you can widen the achievement gap, you can make the profession so unpalatable that no one who has a choice will enter it, you can produce a generation inadequate citizens and people, who may in exchange be adequate workers and supplicants. Personally, I think there’s a pretty good chance some, if not all, of these things will happen or are already happening.
I think we made the left turn, initially, because in the last couple of years a manufactured sense of urgency became the only compelling force necessary to hit the gas. It drove a narrative of 'failing schools' and poor career and college readiness statistics into the political arena where legislators clamored to gain attention of the public by using fiery rhetoric and faulty reason to champion the cause. At the same time, either to genuinely help kids learn or with an eye on profits, a slew of companies saw education as an emerging marketplace – one whose profitability was directly proportionate to the perceived failure of the system. So even though it’s a conflict of interest for people who diagnose mold in your home to also get the remediation contract, these companies get to develop the tools that tell us the system’s failing (for hundreds of millions of dollars) then sell us the solutions to that failure (for hundreds more).
Now I can spend a lot of time trying to explain to people how that sense of urgency wasn't accurately depicted, but I'd like instead, to talk about history and what happens when we allow urgency to be the driving force in our collective decision making. So for the purposes of this piece, I’ll talk less about teaching theory and a little more about history.
While most other nations that exist today evolved in some way over a millennia of sometimes subtle sometimes violent changes, our country was largely designed from scratch - architected or engineered by political philosophers and thinkers, who set forth with this bold idea to construct a nation that was centered on the freedom of its people, and anchored to a set of ideals that they believed and we believe, were essential to ensuring that freedom
Think about our Constitution for a second…
The First Amendment protects free speech.
The Second empowers citizens with the right to take up arms to protect themselves.
The Third and Fourth protect against invasion of home and property.
The Fifth and Sixth provide due process and impartiality when on trial, and so on.
There’s no mention of the government’s power to control, manipulate, measure or punish its people.
Perhaps even more than the teacher in me, the historian and the American in me reflects on the last month with great sadness for how it embodies so much of what is wrong with the distribution of power and influence in the nation today.
Throughout history, we've had to balance our ideals with the realities – or more appropriately, our fears of the world around us - and make hard decisions about on which side to err. And historically, we've been more willing to compromise our ideals when a sense of urgency compelled us to do so.
We can look at moral blemishes in our history like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or the shroud of fear and oppression people lived under during McCarthyism and see examples of license given to violate our ideals - our principle beliefs as Americans.
In cases like those, under the compelling force of urgency, we used phrases like "The ends justify the means," to reconcile what we had done with the higher moral expectation we have for ourselves as individuals and as a nation. We knew we were acting in ways that violated our Constitutional and American values.
But at our core, we are a country that lives by its ideals. We believe people are innocent until proven guilty. We believe it is wrong to lock up 1,000 innocent people to find the one who's guilty.
The truth of the bill that was passed almost a month ago now, is that while it certainly has roots in urgency (perhaps some parts genuine and largely artificial), it has none in reason or in fidelity to the principles we hold dear as parents, American citizens, voters, teachers, administrators or students.
I will go on record today, unfortunately, in saying this system will almost certainly produce an incredible number of false positives, identifying teachers of both our neediest classes and our most advanced ones as failures based on their inability to drive a growth metric where the State wants it. It has stripped away from principals, central administration and school boards ALL of their rights to make professional judgments about their own employees. And it will very likely have a tragic impact on teaching and learning across the state.
But when we come back to the idea of false positives, or the compelling force of urgency and register them against our beliefs as a people, I like to ask… How many good teachers is it OK to lay off to get to the "bad" one? Or How accurately do you think the system that's been forced upon us -- and it has -- will identify the teachers who are genuinely struggling? People struggle to answer those questions because they don't fit within the paradigm of their existing values. And because deep down, I don’t think many people believe that test-driven fire-ability is going to make performance in the poorest communities look like that in the wealthiest.
I ask how, also, in a country where people are innocent until proven guilty, we move teachers across the spectrum straight past guilty until proven innocent all the way to 'guilty without a right to even defend themselves.' For readers who don't already know this, the new law will force school districts -- not give them the option -- force them to bring their teachers up on charges based on three ‘I’ ratings, which are almost entirely tied to the state tests. When those charges are presented, under the new law, teachers will actually have no right to even defend themselves unless they can prove fraud. Think about that – and I mean not as a parent who maybe didn’t like one of his/her kid’s teachers, but as a citizen. Not for nothing, but the men who conducted the Boston Marathon bombing and coordinated the attacks on September 11th were allowed to defend themselves in court, but a teacher whose students don’t generate enough points in the growth model driven by common core standardized tests can't? How are we OK with that?
And true to form, in an almost Orwellian example of public thought control, billionaires are now running ads around the clock on TV and printing editorials masked as newspaper articles to quickly rewrite history. They're deifying the people who literally - shut down the democratic process to impose vengeful laws that are an assault on our Constitutional values. They're demonizing teachers -- but we're used to that -- and now, they're criminalizing parents too. Again, if you study history, you don't have to look far to find more examples of those who have power using it to marginalize people who question that power as extremists.
It is sad that this battle even came down to civil disobedience, or to questioning whether or not our children should take this test or that. I think the climate surrounding public education has been poisoned in a way from which it will be difficult to recover, and I know students don't fully understand what's been going on for the last year of this battle. It's important, though, to give credit and blame where it's due. If leaders like Commissioner King, Chancellor Tisch and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are going to criminalize parents for making a demonstrative statement of their values, they should look first to their own conduct during our attempts to have open and reasonable conversations about where to move education. Had their approach not been so contrived, myopic, unfounded by research, and pathologically unreceptive to the input of parents and professionals, we would not have ended up with the total entrenchment we've seen in the last half-year. This battle did not start with opting out of High Stakes Tests, but with an epic failure to navigate High Stakes Conversations.
Although it may be a bit of an exaggeration to say this was our Civil Rights Movement (I have too much deep respect for the social and historic magnitude of that movement to freely compare it any social movement I’ve seen since), it definitely was an example of people coming together to make hard choices - choices they probably never should have had to make - and take a stand. Teachers, unions and parents who did so will be criminalized through the local paper and multi-million dollar TV campaigns as the true transgressors begin their work in rewriting history.
Because I try whenever possible to incorporate teachings from own class and my own life into my view of the world, and having taught literature and history that encompassed both World War II and McCarthyism, I think it's valuable to look to the words of an American contemporary of those times. Edward R. Murrow reported through WWII and at the liberation of Buchenwald. He reported under McCarthyism, one of those periods in history when we engaged in thoroughly un-American practices (ironically enough under something called the House Un-American Activities Committee) attributed to a sense of urgency.
In talking about Senator McCarthy at the time, Murrow said "His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law… We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men - not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular."
It is easier to comply with authority than it is to question it.
It is easier to avoid having hard conversations about civil disobedience with our kids than to have those conversations.
It is easier to let the popular media tell us what to think than to research and determine for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.
But sometimes the convenience that comes from taking those routes comes at the expense of our liberties. I believe parents whose children took the tests share most of the same values as those who didn’t. I’m sure both want a quality education for their children, and that means both one that is rigorous and one that is supportive and engaging. I am sure both work hard to teach their children responsibility and right from wrong. I am sure both do the best they can to present complex issues fairly. But to whatever extent the media, or parents who disagree with the opt out movement attempt to marginalize people who made that choice as uninformed law breakers, in a state where the governor’s a little crazy and the house and the senate are a little crazy and the union and the parents and the teachers are a little crazy – as a man of principle, myself, I’ll say those who take a stand even when powers that be try to silence them are ‘my kind of crazy.
Because as MLK once said, “The arc of history is bent towards justice,” but I’ll add, that’s only true if we bend it ourselves.