From Benito Mussolini to Michelle Rhee, Teachers Remain Obstacles for Collectivist School Reformers

by Rainiel Guzmán

Today’s school reformers are collectivists with a common enemy: Teachers and their unions.   

Fascists, communists, monarchists and technocrats have always followed collectivist models. Teachers, particularly public school teachers, have been targeted by all of the above as obstacles in their road to domination. Their disdain toward public school teachers and their efforts to eliminate teachers’ unions are a matter of public record. Why group these apparently ideological enemies into one cohort?  The answer should be equally apparent. Irrespective of their ideological rhetoric, all of these aberrations are forms of collectivism. Their ultimate goal is to gather all resources into one line of control and management. In order to obtain this goal they need individuals to conform to their collectivist plans. Conversely, a teacher is essentially an individual that strives to bring out the unique potential of his or her students. Here is where the battle line is drawn. Let’s revisit history to see the many commonalities that apparent ideological enemies share in regards to teachers and unions.

Benito Mussolini, a fascist, was both a son of a public school teacher and a certified public school teacher himself. Yet he targeted teachers’ unions immediately upon gaining power. He regarded schools as property of the state and implemented a complete and sweeping reform of public education. Top on his reform agenda was the nullification of Italian teachers unions. Teachers in Il Duce’s Italy were relegated to comply and indoctrinate the youth as “the fascist of tomorrow” as indicated in scripted, retro-Roman inspired curricula known as Opera Nazionale Balilla.

Communists have also exercised extreme disdain toward teachers and unions. For example, Saloth Sar, better known by his nom de guerre Pol Pot, murdered countless educators in Cambodia. Pol Pot ruled Cambodia with bloody delusion that was brought to international censure in the 1984 film The Killing Fields. It is important to note that many of the murdered were students as well. Pol Pot’s interpretation of the utopian person was largely an uneducated proletariat farmer. Thus, the educated were to be mistrusted and physically eliminated. It is estimated that communists in Cambodia killed a fifth of their people, roughly two million souls, with a particular prejudice toward educated individuals. No need for a complete and sweeping reform of public education here.

Spain’s Generalísimo Francisco Franco is primarily labeled as a fascist. Yet Franco’s rhetoric always appealed to Spain’s monarchist supporters. Monarchists are willing to differ individual rights to crown rule. In this mindset dissent is collectively unwelcome.

After Franco’s successful insurrection against the republic, the monarchy was restored and the republican constitution of 1931 repealed. Once more a complete and sweeping reform of public education was implemented. An interesting note is that Franco was director of La Academia General Militar de Zaragoza, Spain’s equivalent to our West Point, when the republicanos ordered its closure. As a result teachers and unions were targeted with such violence that thousands of Spanish educators sought exile in Northern Europe, the Americas and Africa. The brain drain that ensued markedly debilitated Spain.

Presently, the technocrat embodies the latest form of collectivism. Webster’s Dictionary defines a technocrat as “a technical expert especially one exercising managerial authority.”  The missing caveat to this description is that when leading public policy they are always appointed, and hence non-elected members of governments. The logic behind their rise lies precisely in their apolitical nature; they are touted as technicians willing and able to make hard technical decisions free of political or “democratic” constraints. Their appointments display a disregard—if not a deep contempt for—democracy, much like fascists, communists, and monarchists. Technocrats are primarily private actors for hire who play increasingly significant public roles.

In large urban public school systems the emergence of an archetypical technocrat, known as a “chancellor,” has recently dominated public education policy.  Derived from the Latin cancellarius or “keeper of the barrier” they certainly have kept public opinion out of decisions concerning public education and indeed have served as a barrier between citizens and politicians. Likewise, chancellors view teachers as quasi enemies and label their unions as obstacles in the way of—you guessed it—complete and sweeping reform of public education. Chancellors are unelected persons who hold the premise that the public cannot be trusted with matters of public education. In their minds—they know what’s best for your child. These contradictions are so blatant and belligerent that their managerial authority has caused major “technical” problems to several mayors and their careers.

A case study example is Adrian Fenty, ex-mayor of the District of Columbia. In early 2010 his political star and reelection seemed to be guaranteed. His main opponent in the Democratic Party primary was Vincent Gray, a veteran city councilman. In regards to education policy, the two gentlemen barely differed on plans or expectations, except for one campaign promise professed by Gray: he repeatedly assured that if elected he would not retain then chancellor Michelle Rhee. Despite Fenty’s appeals as a D.C. native, ties to Howard University and multiple enumerations of educational gains during his tenure, he lost the Democratic primary to Gray. Many pundits were stunned. Yet, both teachers and parents had voiced repeated concerns regarding the Rhee’s tone and tactics. They felt voiceless. The nascent coalition that followed however proved otherwise. Fenty’s and Rhee’s debacle did not go unnoticed.

Mayors in similar receiverships of their public school systems have learned from this lesson. For example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City did not wait for elections to remove a chancellor whose tone and tactics insulted both parents and teachers. Michael Bloomberg appointed Cathie Black as chancellor in January 2011. She was given a waiver to assume the chancellorship due to her complete inexperience with pedagogy and education administration. Ironically, a career as a media executive did not prevent her from uttering incredible comments. Her comments revealed to a certain degree her thoughts about students, parents, teachers and public education. During a visit to PS 234 in Manhattan to discuss primarily with parents, the overcrowding of their elementary school, Ms. Black asked in jest “could we just have some birth control for a while?”  The parents were stunned. When pressed again to address her plan to ease overcrowding, she espoused a sickening moral association, characterizing numerous neighborhood concerns to “making many Sophie’s Choices.” The reference to the Auschwitz concentration camp novel in which a mother is made to choose which of her two children will live left all in attendance shocked and angry. In April 2011, after only three months on the job, Ms. Black was asked to resign by Mayor Bloomberg. She did.

Collectivists and other assorted control freaks will always view with contempt the figure of the teacher. Perhaps it is due to their deep pathological need to control everything and everyone. Perhaps it is due to their fear that individuals might exercise their God given right to think for themselves. Yet, I am convinced that the main reason why they bash and denigrate teachers is because we are still regarded by many as figures of authority. The thought of shared authority must keep these troubled souls from sound sleep. Yes, teachers are authority figures. However, unlike these control freaks, we must not abuse our authority to belittle nor repress others. To the contrary, we should aid our students in meeting their potential. We must aid them along their chosen path toward personal independence. Potentiality and independence are anathema for those who garner limitation and dependence. All collectivist regimes have been enormous tragic failures. Teachers need to continue on their chosen path in the company of their students in spite of obstacles.

Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner.  He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

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Michelle Rhee ‘Information Rally’ at Kimmel Center a Success; Event Covered by Daily News

by Christopher Paslay

We came, we saw, we . . . gave the public some supplementary information about Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of D.C. schools whose draconian style of management got her canned and subsequently set her on her new career path—making buku bucks as a lecturer and speaker (sources say Rhee gets $50,000 a pop), all in the name of putting “students first.” 

On Monday night, 11/7, from 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm outside the Kimmel Center, a small crew of public schoolteachers and librarians (Lisa Haver, Cecelia Dougherty, Debbie Grill, and Barbara Dowdall) and myself gave out informational flyers about Rhee’s corporate ties, cheating scandal, questionable research, and all-round disrespect for teachers and traditional neighborhood schools to approximately 500 people, many of whom were sympathetic to our cause and quite open-minded.    

Morgan Zalot, a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, covered the story (click here to read).  

Below is a video of our rally.  Thanks to all those involved.

Michelle Rhee to Speak at Kimmel Center Monday Night; Rally Planned to Inform Public about Her Dishonest Campaign

by Christopher Paslay

Join Monday night’s Michelle Rhee “information rally” outside Kimmel Center on November 7th from 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm.   

On Monday, November 7th at 8:00 pm, former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee will be speaking at the Kimmel Center as part of Widener University’s 2011-2012 Philadelphia Speakers Series.  Although Rhee is billed as a visionary school reformer with a mantra of “putting students first,” Towson University Assistant Professor Shaun Johnson estimated that Rhee’s speaking fees for the last 10 months alone will earn her “between $1 M and $2 M, depending on whether she charged the full $50,000 per event specified in her contract, or the mere $35,000 she charged Kent State.”

Rhee is also knee-deep in politics and her “Students First” organization, which is trying to raise $1 billion to dismantle organized labor, is backed by corporate heads, including Rupert Murdoch, hedge fund manager Julian Robertson and the Fisher Family, as well as the Koch Brothers.    

Here are five things Rhee won’t be talking about on Monday night:

1. Rhee put “students first” and charged Kent State University a $35,000 speaking fee to talk to an audience of about 600 people.  She also required first-class airfare, a VIP hotel suite, a town car and personal driver.        

2.  Rhee, unable to control her students during her first year as an elementary schoolteacher in Baltimore, taped her students’ mouths shut with masking tape on the way to the lunchroom.  A year later, she grossly exaggerated her students’ gains on standardized tests.

3. When Rhee was chancellor of D.C. schools and improved test scores were tarnished by a cheating scandal, Rhee failed to answer questions from the media or explain the testing aberrations and high rate of erasures.

4.  Rhee lacks expertise in the field of education.  “Rhee’s ideas about how to fix the ailing school system were largely misinformed,” D.C. native and schoolteacher Rachel Levy wrote in a blog published in the Washington Post, “and it’s no wonder: She knew little about instruction, curriculum, management, fiscal matters, and community relations.” 

5.  In 2010, D.C. incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic primary election.  Political experts interpreted this as a referendum on Rhee’s unpopular and misguided reign as school’s chief.

Monday night’s “information rally” from 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm outside the Kimmel Center will set the record straight, however.

Support hardworking students and dedicated teachers and help inform the public about the real Michelle Rhee.  For more information, email phillystyle71@yahoo.com

10 Things You Should Know About Michelle Rhee

by Christopher Paslay

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools who was forced to resign because of her lack of expertise regarding instruction, curriculum, management, fiscal matters, and community relations, is back and ready to settle old scores.  She’s launched studentsfirst.org, a so-called “movement to transform public education.”  According to its neatly packaged website, its goal is to cut through politics and adult agendas in order to give America’s children a first-rate education.  Ironically, its policies are driven by politics (privatizing public education to put public tax dollars in the pockets of Rhee’s wealthy backers), adult agendas (union busting to get back at those who had Rhee fired in D.C.), and Rhee’s own misguided and elitist reform ideas (ending teacher tenure and seniority, which will only penalize master teacher who’ve dedicated their lives to their students).

Below are 10 things all students, teachers, and parents should know about Michelle Rhee.  These points were first written about by Rachel Levy, a native of Washington D.C. and a graduate of the city’s public school system; Levy is also a former D.C. teacher.  (To read Levy’s point-by-point assessment of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor of D.C. schools, which was published online in the Washington Post, click here.)           

1.  The citizens of Washington D.C. voted the mayor out of office to get rid of Michelle Rhee.  In 2010, the unthinkable happened in our nation’s capitol: incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic primary election.  Political experts interpreted this as a referendum on Rhee’s unpopular and misguided reign as school’s chief.

2.  Rhee is adversarial and undemocratic.  Diane Ravitch, noted education historian and scholar, said about Rhee: “It’s difficult to win a war when you’re firing on your own troops.”  Rhee indeed fires on her own troops, as she did in D.C during her first year as chancellor when she impulsively and unapologetically terminated 36 principals and closed-down 23 schools because of what she perceived as under-enrollment and excess square footage.  Later she would fire 241 teachers and put 737 school employees on notice with limited due process, zero transparency, and no input from D.C. Council members.                     

3.  Rhee doesn’t respect members of urban communities.  As D.C. native and schoolteacher Rachel Levy wrote in the Washington Post piece, “Rhee arrived in Washington D.C. in 2007 with extraordinary power to do what she wanted. In fact, she only had her boss, Fenty, to answer to, and he never challenged her. Shortly after she started as chancellor, she met with the professionals and community leaders who had a long history of working to improve D.C. schools and promptly decided she didn’t have anything to learn from them. . . . Rhee paid no respect to members of the community whose elders had helped to build and fill the school system she was charged with leading.”     

4.  Rhee has turned her back on urban neighborhoods and traditional public schools.  Instead of standing strong with school leaders to revitalize urban communities and traditional public schools, Rhee supports taking public tax dollars out of neighborhoods and putting them in private pockets via charter schools and vouchers.          

5.  Rhee lacks expertise in the field of education.  Interestingly, Rhee has a bachelor’s degree in government from Cornell University and a master’s in public policy from Harvard University.  “Rhee’s ideas about how to fix the ailing school system were largely misinformed,” Levy wrote in her Washington Post piece, “and it’s no wonder: She knew little about instruction, curriculum, management, fiscal matters, and community relations.”  

6.  Rhee is condescending and elitist.  As part of her campaign to end LIFO (Last In, First Out) in states like Pennsylvania, Rhee condescends and belittles hardworking veteran teachers by stereotyping them as low quality and ineffective.  Conversely, she portrays new teachers, particularly those who enter the classroom via alternative teaching programs such as Teach for America (where Rhee is an alumna) and have graduated elite universities such as Harvard (where Rhee is an alumna) as highly effective, regardless of a comprehensive survey of actual job performance data.             

7.  Rhee is dishonest.  During her short stint as a schoolteacher at Harlem Park Elementary School, before she quit and left the classroom like so many Teach for America alumni do, Rhee boasted of test score gains that turned out to be grossly overstated.  Likewise, when Rhee was chancellor of D.C. schools and gains in test scores were tarnished by a cheating scandal, Rhee made excuses, failing to answer questions from the media or explain the testing aberrations and high rate of erasures.                 

8.  Rhee abused her students as an elementary schoolteacher.  Rhee, unable to control her students during her first year on the job, taped her students’ mouths shut with masking tape on the way to the lunchroom.  This belligerent behavior toward those under her authority was a glaring sign of things to come.        

9.  Rhee supports IMPACT, a flawed teacher evaluation tool.  IMPACT is over engineered and impractical, as Valerie Strauss, an education writer for the Washington Post, explains in a blog post (click here to read the post).    

10.  Rhee’s new organization, studentsfirst.org, is about settling old scores.  Unfortunately, studentsfirst.org, despite the intense public relations campaign by Michelle Rhee and her wealthy conservative backers, does not put students first.  Don’t be fooled by the organization’s carefully calculated mission statement and hand-picked testimonies from teachers, parents, and students (and mostly conservative supporters).  Rhee is out to get back at those individuals who cost her her position as chancellor of D.C.’s public schools: supporters of communities and traditional public schools; hardworking veteran teachers who expect to be treated with dignity and respect; and yes, organized labor.

Rhee is an elitist who looks down her nose at traditional schools and educators.  Her deep-seeded dislike of common everyday teachers stems from an Ivy League mentality that only she knows best.  This attitude was evident in the way she governed D.C.’s public schools, and it’s evident now.

Rhee is angry and she wants revenge.  Don’t be fooled by her new “student-centered” organization.  She’s hardly putting students first.  She’s using them to get even.

Michelle Rhee: New Mission for the Disgruntled Narcissist

 

by Christopher Paslay

Former chancellor of D.C. public schools launches ‘student-centered’ lobby group, effectively keeping her name before the public.   

Michelle Rhee, whose undemocratic and draconian methods of running Washington D.C.’s public schools forced her to step down as chancellor, is on a new mission.  She’s organized studentsfirst.org, a so-called “movement to transform public education.”  Its goal is to cut through politics and adult agendas in order to give America’s children a first-rate education.  Ironically, its policies are driven by—you guessed it!—politics and adult agendas. 

The first order of business of studentsfirst.org seems to be to keep Rhee herself before the public eye.  She proudly announces on the website that she is Founder and CEO of the organization, and has set up an “About Michelle Rhee” page to shamelessly tout her past achievements.  “If you are a member of the media,” the website says, “and would like to set up an interview or TV appearance with Michelle, contact media@studentsfirst.org.”

The second order of business is to cleverly disparage and attack teachers’ unions and America’s hard working educators themselves.  This is done quite tactfully, under the guise of supporting “great teachers”.  Of course, Rhee’s plan for keeping “great teachers” is oversimplified and misinformed. 

An example of her overgeneralization of the complexities of teaching in a 21st century urban environment (and her deep-seeded bias against organized labor) is her plan to reform education in Pennsylvania.  On her website it states:

With the current fiscal crisis, Pennsylvania is at risk of losing thousands of their best teachers to layoffs. Currently, layoffs are based on seniority, an outdated and bureaucratic practice known as “Last in, First Out” (LIFO). LIFO means that the last teacher hired has to be the first teacher fired, regardless of how good teachers are. This harms students and teachers in three ways:

  1. Research indicates that when districts with LIFO conduct layoffs, they end up firing some of their most highly effective educators.
  2. LIFO policies increase the number of teachers that districts have to lay off. Because junior teachers make less money, districts have to lay off more of them in order to fill their budget gaps.
  3. LIFO disproportionately and negatively impacts the highest need schools. These schools have larger numbers of new teachers, who are the first to lose their jobs in a layoff.

The only problem with these claims about LIFO is that they are FALSE.  Here are the facts:

  • Research DOES NOT indicate that when LIFO layoffs take place, the most highly effective educators are fired.  In 2005, Research for Action, a Philadelphia non-profit education research organization affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, found in the their “Quest for Quality” study that almost 50 percent of first-year teachers hired in Philadelphia in 2003 didn’t even have a certification.  In fact, 70 percent of new teachers in Philadelphia drop out in five years; new teachers in many schools don’t even last long enough to get laid off via LIFO.  To assert that inexperienced—and many times uncertified—teachers are more effective than tenured master teachers is just flat-out propaganda. 
  • LIFO policies DO NOT increase the number of teachers that districts have to lay off to fill budget gaps.  All teachers, regardless of years of experience or pay scale, are accorded the same monetary value in a school district budget.  In the Philadelphia School District, a teacher costs a principal $90,000 a year, regardless of whether that teacher is actually salaried $90,000 or $45,000.  Rhee’s claim otherwise is made either out of sheer ignorance (wasn’t she Chancellor of D.C. public schools?), or is simply her attempt to once again mislead the public.
  • LIFO DOES NOT disproportionately and negatively impact the highest need schools.  Research shows the poorest schools have high teacher turnover rates because new teachers quit, not because they are the first to be laid off.  In fact, in Philadelphia in 2005, the teacher turnover rate was higher than the student dropout rate; high need schools have shortages of teachers, not surpluses.  This is exactly why policies favoring veteran teachers in hard-to-staff schools should be supported, not attacked.                                    

Of course, Michelle Rhee is not known for sticking to the facts.  When Rhee served a short stint as a schoolteacher at Harlem Park Elementary School, before she folded under the pressures of running an urban classroom and left for administrative work, she boasted of test score gains that turned out to be much smaller than she first claimed.  The modest gains made by D.C. public schools when Rhee was chancellor were also questioned by public officials, and a cheating scandal ensued.  Diane Ravitch, noted education historian and professor, questioned the legitimacy of Rhee’s results claiming that “cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum” marked Rhee’s tenure as schools’ chief. 

America’s most experienced teachers should be supported, not attacked.  Stripping teachers of seniority is no way to reward their years of hard work and dedication, nor is it any way to attract the best and brightest to the job.   

For the benefit of schoolchildren everywhere, let’s hope Rhee tones down her propagandistic crusade against hard working schoolteachers.  She should use her influence to support tenured, experienced educators, rather than working to tarnish their reputations with misinformation in an attempt to keep Rhee’s own name before the public eye.

My Experience on the Glenn Beck Show

by Christopher Paslay

When it comes to Glenn Beck, adjectives like “kook,” “nut-job,” and “right-wing radical” have a tendency to get thrown around.  At least these descriptors are used in more liberal circles—places like Philadelphia where 85 percent of the population is registered democrat.

My colleagues at Swenson Arts and Technology High School have used similar terms to describe Mr. Beck, so when I told them that I was going to be on the Glenn Beck show on Friday, May 6th, I received mixed reactions (I’ll get to my experience on the show in a moment). 

Personally, I am a fan of Glenn Beck.  Although I disagree with some of his views on education (Glenn, like most journalists and talking-heads, has a more superficial understanding of public schools), I do agree with much of what he preaches otherwise—that our country must rediscover its traditional values; that personal responsibility is the key to change; that too much reliance on government and social programs is killing America’s entrepreneurial spirit; that both the Republicans and Democrats are corrupt; and that in order to restore honor in our country we must become more principle-centered.

Interestingly, there are many people (like my mother and father) who are fans of Glenn Beck as well.  His show has dominated its time slot for nearly two years, coming in at #1 on the Neilson Ratings for most of that time and never falling below #3; for the first three months of 2011, the Glenn Beck show had an audience of almost 2 million viewers. 

So he has a sizable following.  And the core of this following is made up of well-educated, well-informed people such as my parents and myself, people with diverse experiences and opinions; we’re hardly the right-wing radical Neanderthal “nut-jobs” we’re made out to be (to those name-callers who try to pigeon-hole Beck and his supporters I offer this challenge: watch his show every day for one week and then you can sling your mud.  I mean really watch the show, watch and listen and try to see all sides of the issue).

Now back to my experience on Beck’s show.  The theme of the show was “teachers who love their jobs but are frustrated with the education system.”  It was an audience-participation show that featured 40 teachers from the tri-state area, myself and my father (who taught 37 years in the Philadelphia School District) included. 

Before the show was taped we were each given a questionnaire to complete.  It asked us, among other things, to describe the things about education that frustrated us.  It also asked our opinions about teachers’ unions, and directed us to pose questions to Glenn Beck himself. 

Here were two of my responses. 

Concerning my frustration, I wrote: Education is one of the few professions in America in which policies are written and decisions are made by governing bodies outside the field. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers all govern themselves. Their panels and boards of directors are made up of other doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Not teachers, though. Politicians make the decisions when it comes to education in K-12 schools. So do researchers, think tanks, and lobbyists. Does it matter that most of these people have little to no experience teaching in a K-12 classroom? No, because they have the data and the power.   

When it came to teachers’ unions, I wrote: Teachers unions, like everything, have pros and cons.  The pros are that they protect the rights of workers and ensure teachers don’t get exploited or taken advantage of by school administrators or politicians (which was the case many years ago).  Another positive is that they serve as a teacher’s voice—something that isn’t given much value in American society.  On the other hand, in an effort to protect rights and maintain solidarity, unions do in some cases allow bad teachers to keep their jobs.  Also, they are too heavily rooted in politics.  Teachers need unions that police themselves and are more balanced politically.

When the show began (you can watch the show below), Glenn listed our concerns and frustrations with education.  Some of them were:

  • eliminate teachers’ tenure
  • teachers unions equal political machines
  • frustration with the NEA
  • huge retirement packages
  • teachers pensions are a problem

I must admit my gut reaction to this was anger; I felt like I’d been duped.  Which teacher in the audience, I wondered, wanted tenure eliminated?  Which teacher didn’t want the pension they’d been paying into their whole career?  Which teacher wanted no union representation? 

At this point I felt that Glenn and his producers had spun a few things, to put it lightly.  Our supposed “frustrations” sounded too scripted, too much like Glenn’s preset agenda.  In fact, by the end of the show, after 40 minutes of a town-hall style discussion, I felt like the whole thing was a bait-and-switch; I left the studio more frustrated than ever. 

That was my initial perception.  The funny thing about perceptions, however, is that they are not always accurate. 

After watching the show air Friday at 5:00 pm, (after a good night’s sleep to clear my head) my overall opinion changed.  Although Glenn did steer the conversation towards promoting school vouchers and reeling-in out-of-control unions, he did keep an open mind.  In fact, he both welcomed and respected the push-back he received from many teachers in the audience, myself included. 

In retrospect, I thought the show ended up being pretty well balanced.  Even Glenn himself admitted that he supported unions (and that his mother-in-law marched with Jesse Jackson).  It was the abuse of power and corruption, he noted, that he stood against, a point I must admit is valid. 

In the end, my experience on Glenn Beck was a positive one.  I was happy to have a discussion with such an influencial man, and to represent the concerns and issues of teachers from Philadelphia as well as the rest of America.             

Please click on the video below to watch the entire episode, commercial free (my father’s comment comes at 11:58 of the tape, and my two comments come at 13:15 and 25:58).

Public Servants Are Scapegoats for Private Sector’s Greed

by Christopher Paslay

 

“The economic and political landscape for public education, and for the people who work in our public schools, is as dangerous as I have ever seen.  In the guise of ‘reform,’ ‘efficiency,’ ‘shared sacrifice,’ and ‘belt tightening,’ efforts are under way in a number of states to gut collective bargaining, weaken public employees’ pensions, and offload public schools and services to the private sector.  It could take years—if not generations—to recover from the deep and continuing cuts to public education.  And many so-called reforms gaining traction will eliminate teacher voice and move us away from the goal of ensuring that all children have access to the excellent education they need to succeed in life.”

 

These are the words of Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, in her recent article “Your voice is essential to combat this crisis,” published in this month’s issue of American Teacher.  Weingarten goes on to call on AFT members and their allies at the national, state, and local levels to combat these threats through political action and promoting ideas for constructive change.

 

Weingarten’s focus on the threats against public employees is not new.  All across America, the fight to defend public services is being waged on many different fronts.  Interestingly, though, not much is being said about what actually caused the collapse of the nation’s economy and set in motion the circumstances that are wrongfully being pinned on schoolteachers, police, fire fighters, and public servants in general.   

 

National polls show the majority of Americans think public employees make too much money.  These polls also reveal that many Americans think public workers are greedy—that they are unfairly enjoying health benefits and pensions at the expense of overextended taxpayers.  Although there is no denying that many states are facing legitimate budget deficits, the notion that schoolteachers are greedy and overpaid—and a root cause of our nation’s financial woes—is absurd to say the least.

 

Public workers and their unions are not responsible for our country’s current economic recession.  To the contrary, it is the private sector that is largely to blame.  Accountants on Wall Street did their fair share to “cook the books” and disrupt the American stock exchange something awful.  Overinflated assets and underreported liabilities—not union greed—set the stage for the collapse of public pensions, hedge funds that had been stable for decades because millions of hard working public employees had been paying into them their whole careers.    

 

In addition to corrupt Wall Street accountants, both the real estate market and mortgage industry gamed the system and literally brought the American banking system to the brink of total collapse.  Phil Gramm, the ex-Texas senator and economic advisory to John McCain, was a major architect of the legislation that was a true catalyst to our country’s financial meltdown. 

 

In July of 2008, right before John McCain fired Gramm as his economic advisor for calling Americans “whiners” and denying the existence of an American recession, I wrote about Gramm’s sordid economic past and the need for McCain to cut ties with Gramm in a Philadelphia Daily News commentary:

 

“The collapse of the real-estate bubble, also known as the ‘sub-prime mortgage meltdown,’ has clear ties to Gramm. In December 2000, at the urging of lobbyists from Enron, Gramm pushed through Congress the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.

 

Known as the ‘Enron loophole,’ this law protected financial institutions from overregulation by the government. In essence, it opened the door for something called ‘credit default swaps,’ and allowed many Americans with bad credit and no money to get mortgages they had no right receiving. Of course, when these same Americans defaulted on their mortgages, the result was billions of dollars in foreclosures.

 

The Commodity Futures Modernization Act is also associated with rising gas prices. Critics argue that this legislation is responsible for driving up the price of oil because it exempts energy speculators, who make trades electronically, from the regulation of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In other words, big banks are free to manipulate the price of oil by buying huge blocks of energy futures and driving up demand.

 

Not to mention that the ‘Enron loophole’ was a major factor in the Enron scandal, which wrecked the California electricity market and cost consumers billions. . . .”

 

Of course, Americans have short-term memories.  Amazingly, in the span of several years, we’ve forgotten all about Enron, Phil Gramm, credit default swaps, and the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.  Somehow, in our out-of-sight-out-of-mind society, we’ve been duped into believing that public employees—schoolteachers, police, fire fighters and their greedy unions—are primarily to blame for the continuing mess that is known as today’s economy. 

 

Through clever politics, the corruptions of the private sector have been transformed into the sins of public servants. 

 

As Randi Weingarten suggests, these kinds of accusations are indeed dangerous.  Although public servants must make some sacrifices and do their part to help revive the economy, schoolteachers should not be attacked and manipulated by government officials in an effort to forward political agendas.         

 

And as the title of Weingarten’s article states, the voices of public servants are essential to combat this crisis.   

                 

Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher and the author of “The Village Proposal,” to be published this fall.

 

A New Era of Teacher Voices?

by Christopher Paslay

 February was quite a month for America’s public schoolteachers.  Within the span of 10 days, Central Bucks East teacher Natalie Munroe was terminated for blogging about the poor attitude and work ethic of her 11th grade students.  In Philadelphia, Audenried teacher Hope Moffett was sent to “teacher jail” for apparently voicing opposition to the district’s Renaissance School Initiative, a reform policy that implements the wholesale firing of teachers as a means of turning around failing schools.  That same week TAG Philly—the Teacher Action Group—held a rally against intimidation by the Philadelphia School District at 440 North Broad Street which drew over 600 teachers, students, parents and community members.    

And in Madison, Wisconsin, thousands of public schoolteachers called out of work and descended on the state capitol in response to Governor Scott Walker’s bill which put an end to collective bargaining. 

As a teacher and blogger who frequently questions the workings of public education, I find these recent events quite curious.  There appears to be a new boldness forming in America’s educators to make their opinions heard, a boldness not often seen in an era where teachers are paid to perform, not talk.

If I didn’t know better I’d think teachers were tired.  Tired of being relegated to the bottom of the educational pecking order, tired of being blamed for all of the problems involving the economy and public education.   

The most frustrating part is that the very teachers who get criticized for such short-comings are rarely given a say in shaping the policy that attempts to bring about solutions.  Interestingly, everyone involved in public education is an expert but the teachers.  As a rule, school reform is done to teachers, not with them.                                  

Teachers are indeed the most valuable part of America’s public schools.  Good ones must be respected and rewarded, the struggling ones should receive proper support, and those not cut out for the challenge should find a new profession. 

With that said, however, the attacks on schoolteachers can at times be unwarranted.  The fact that the Providence public school system in Rhode Island recently fired all of its schoolteachers—nearly 2,000 of them—is a case in point.  The move was made by mayor Angel Taveras not because of performance issues but to give the district more flexibility to recall teachers the following school year based on student need.  However, critics of the decision say it was clearly a union-busting tactic. 

Not that teachers’ unions will get any sympathy from the American public.  In the slick, carefully packaged documentary “Waiting for Superman,” director Davis Guggenheim did an outstanding job of disparaging teachers and their villainous unions while advancing his own reputation and film career in the process.  Not surprisingly, Guggenheim told only one side of a very complex story. 

Newsweek has also forgotten its manners when it comes to our nation’s educators.  In 2010, the magazine launched a full-scale attack on teachers, dedicating their March 15 issue to the campaign for their termination.  One story in that issue was headlined “Why We Can’t Get Rid of Failing Teachers” and blamed America’s troubled school system solely on teachers, noting that “teaching in public schools has not always attracted the best and the brightest.” 

Educating young people is a complex task.  There are many factors involved with failure and success.  Engaging lessons are difficult to write.  It takes stand-up comedians months and sometimes even years to develop a successful 45 minute act, one that engages the audience and keeps their attention.  Teachers must do this four or five times a day, every day, for an entire year.  Jerry Seinfeld isn’t that good.

 The time-honored practice of making teachers scapegoats for all the problems of society and public education appears to finally be meeting some much needed opposition.  As Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall wrote on March 4th in her article, “Punished teacher part of larger stage”:

 “After talking to Hope Moffett—the Audenried High English teacher banished to ‘teacher jail’ since Feb. 17 for daring to publicly question a School District decision—it struck me that I was witnessing a pivotal moment in time.  You know, a flashpoint. At a time when politicians are bullying teachers as sport, and the execution of educators’ rights comes disguised in the form of state budget cuts all across the nation, Moffett has emerged as a local symbol of courage and a unifying force—for public education, for teachers, for unions, and against acts of intimidation.”

To the folks like Hope Moffett I tip my hat, and hope more of America’s educators have the courage to stand up for their convictions and make their voices heard.    

Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher.  His new book, The Village Proposal: Education as Shared Responsibility, will be published in the fall of 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield.

Can better marketing stop teacher bashing?

This week I came across an interesting article written by Cindi Rigsbee, a reading and literacy teacher at

Gravelly Hill Middle School in Durham, North Carolina.  Rigsbee is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, a frequent contributor to Teacher Magazine, and was named North Carolina’s 2008 Teacher of the Year.      

 

 

 

In a blog post headlined Marketing Ourselves as Teachers, Rigsbee explained that she recently attended a conference on education policy hosted by congressmen and professors from America’s most prestigious universities. 

 

A group of teachers were there, too, Rigsbee states on her blog, and I was honored to be among them, hopefully there to advocate for my profession and represent what’s going on at the school level in our country while at the same time learning some innovations that I could share with educators in my state.

 

We weren’t there long before we started feeling uncomfortable and fidgeting in our seats. Many speakers who stood before us repeatedly uttered phrases like “bad teachers” and “fix teaching.” Soon we felt defensive…and even angry…and wondered what all the “teacher bashing,” as one of my colleagues put it, was about . . . .

 

. . . A congressman who sat in a breakout session with me mentioned the inequities of technology. He said, “I saw a classroom that had only five laptop computers…not very effective, but more effective than a teacher in the room.”

 

One presenter said, “There are schools where the principal doesn’t do all the leading; the teachers actually work together, and that’s the nature of the work.” I thought DUH! Does the world outside of our school buildings not know that we’ve been collaborating like that for years?

 

So after I calmed myself from the range of emotions I felt at this conference I had to ask myself why these seemingly important people were so misinformed. I also wondered why all of the answers seemed to be relative to teachers instead of directed toward other stakeholders in education. Here’s what I came up with:

 

First, all of the research points to the teacher as being the most important factor in whether a child learns or not. It’s not the parent, or the school administration, or the football coach, it’s the teacher. So because so much is focused on there being a quality teacher in every classroom, that’s where the finger gets pointed when things go wrong.

 

And while I do agree that there should be a highly qualified teacher (as No Child Left Behind mandates) in every classroom, I can tell you that I can’t deliver quality instruction without the support of the parents, the instructional leadership of my school administration, and the collaboration I have with other important individuals in my students’ lives – like the football coach and the band director.

 

Another reason those who aren’t in the school buildings point to “bad teachers” is because we, as a profession, don’t market ourselves well . . .

 

. . . just today I read this “status update” on a Facebook page – “Another long day at the pool. Being a teacher in the summer is hard work.” Last week I read this one – “Summer – the reason I teach.”

 

Although most teachers spend their entire summers “off” at trainings and planning with other teachers (I’ve seen half the staff at my school this week), those bragging about their leisurely summers are not getting any points with the policymakers who work all year. No wonder they don’t want to raise teacher salaries.

 

In addition, the teacher “venting” that occurs in our communities most likely indicates to others that we are not committed to doing whatever it takes to teach our children. It probably sounds like we’re only committed to whining about how difficult our jobs are.

 

So teachers, it is up to us to change the thinking of legislators, higher ed representatives, and policymakers. It is up to us to market ourselves as professionals who can make a difference in the lives of children, instead of “bad teachers” who are uncomfortable with technology.

 

The last session I attended at the conference included presenters who were working on a report outlining the qualities of a teacher leader. At the beginning of the presentation, the participants were given a handout listing the members of the committee working on the report. I immediately scanned the list to see how many teachers had been included. I wasn’t surprised to see that there were none.

 

I guess they figured we were all at the pool.