How do teachers come to loathe the vocation they once loved?

     It is insufficient to point out that our society is NOT completely rational. Quite to the contrary, in the real world educators might be justified in seeking restraint orders to protect themselves from society-at-large. Even when the best of us find our way into the classroom, seldom do more than five years elapse before we understand that success in the classroom requires an unsustainable level of personal sacrifice. Even those for whom intangible rewards satisfy their emotional needs eventually find themselves exhausted by the constant edicts to do more for every child. This is how teachers end up settling for “something”  [read that: “anything”?] else. 

     During my quarter-century as a classroom instructor, the opening of the school year invariably saw some representative of the educational leadership team stand before the faculty and exhort classroom instructors to extend themselves beyond the limits of human endurance with a hale and hearty “Do it for the children!” Administrators would implore, with the force of a moral imperative, that teachers expend whatever effort might be required to reach each-and-every child despite that pile of unfulfilled wishlists in the principal’s inbox.

     Guilt is the poorest of motivators for those who already give all they have. 

     Do folks really believe that teachers remain in the classroom because of the great pay, lucrative benefits and retirement packages, stellar working climate and reasonable work load? No, for most career educators, the love of their subject matter and the joy of the daily interactions in the classroom keep them hanging around despite the myriad challenges…teachers have been doing so since time immemorial. The harshest critics of teachers have no idea what drives rank-and-file teachers to devote such energy to children! 

     Persistence and grit are reinforced in those moments when a student’s eyes sparkle with a sense of wonder or accomplishment. Students occasionally return years later to share how much they loved your class or how much they learned there. These little rewards render bearable the innumerable daily aggravations.

     Infrequent morsels of positive feedback suffice to keep some teachers around for a while, but after a decade or so, when buried once more up to the neck in papers to be corrected prior to tomorrow’s deadline for semester grades for 100 plus students, ideals begin to matter a bit less. So long, written assessments; hello, multiple choice!

     Theater performers complain about the weekly matinée; teachers are compelled, on a daily basis, to do three, four, five, and even six shows a day. What is more, teachers must conceive, write, produce, direct, decorate, block, and perform every show. Furthermore, first period might be a drama, period two a musical, and period three a farce. Then the teacher must assess whether the audience was attentive and do an encore for those who dozed. So long, public service; hello, private sector!

     Teachers are locked in a room for nearly 300 minutes a day with thirty children who become indignant when directed to use their transit time between classes for biological needs. Teachers sometimes relent and write that hall pass. Meanwhile, teachers themselves are forbidden to abandon their classes for even the most basic of human needs. So long, bladder infections; hello, bathroom breaks!

     Sure… teachers have a nine-week hiatus in the summer, but more than one study has shown that teachers work more hours during the 40 weeks that school is in session than other jobs require in a 50-week work year. Therefore, the summer hiatus is necessary to recuperate from the damage inflicted by the potboiler school year. And while summer should be a time for teacher reflection on the improvement of instruction, most teachers supplement their income with summer jobs and usually for significantly less than a teacher’s rate of compensation.

     A few teachers may get the chance to work in their field, but the deplorably infrequent “professional” opportunities for curriculum writing are paid at a per-diem rate that is half that of regular pay for any save the most junior teacher. Go ahead! Suggest to your doctor, lawyer, plumber or electrician that time or services beyond the contract be billed at half the regular rate. Do you hear them laughing?

     True, it has never been solely about the money for teachers. Still, vows of poverty & eternal toil were not included in the paperwork to accept the position of classroom instructor.

How does that old song go?
 “…you load sixteen tons,
and what do you get?
Another day older,
and deeper in debt.”

     It is discouraging when college classmates, with fewer credentials, make twice your annual salary, and wonder out loud “Why on earth are you still in the classroom?” It is disheartening when blue-collar union brethren go on strike and teachers discover that the average striking union truck driver earns 30 percent more than the average teacher (who does not, by the way, even have the right to strike!). Nothing against truck drivers receiving their just due, but they do park their trucks at quitting time.

     Ask any parent if they want their child’s teacher to give rigorous assignments and assessments. You can rest assured the response will be affirmative. And while parents have been known to demand that schools give their children more work, they seldom bother to ascertain when teachers will be reviewing that student work and offering feedback that is prompt and appropriate. It certainly will never be accomplished in the contractually allotted 50 minutes for planning.

     Thank goodness that a job well done occasionally delivers its own rewards.

     One day, though, retirement looms large on horizon. Teachers look at those yearly statements of retirement benefits and wonder how they will survive on the deferred income set aside at the retirement agency. Hence, it is incumbent on teachers to set aside even more than the customary 6% of their less-than-professional compensation in order to maintain their standard of living at retirement.

     Now, hear this! 

     Teachers always “do it for the children”! They always have; they always will. Not much else keeps teachers going into their classroom every day. Were it not for the moral certitude that our services enrich the next generation, who among us would endure inadequate compensation, interminable labor, and a conspicuous lack of the most rudimentary resources needed to accomplish the assigned task of reaching every child.   Like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, many would prefer not to do so, and that is reflected by the more than half of instructors who depart the profession within five years.

     So, cease dangling before educators their own well-practiced altruism as a motivational tool: a simple “thank you” would be preferred. Always working within the confines of “The Heroic Model of Teaching” suggests that other reasonable aspirations will remain somehow always beyond the reach of committed professionals. It also suggests, as one colleague recently offered, that “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the Prince George’s Journal in January, 2000. It has been revised for clarity and readability…]




Why the “minimum wage” should be a “living wage”

For the working class in this nation, the path toward progress has been a rocky road starting as we did with an investor class that believed labor to be no more than chattel. We must never forget that from this nation’s founding, the relationship between the investor class and labor has been oppressive, at its worst, and antagonistic at its best. Centuries of enslavement and indentured servitude for the working class would lead to a small group of people amassing vast intergenerational wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. 

In 1932, half a century before Ronald Reagan would recycle trickle down economics and make them seem once more a plausible alternative the following lines appeared in a column by Will Rogers: “ Mr. Hoover… knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow’s hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue.”

It is nearly a century later, and the prescience of Will Rogers still amazes as wealth percolates upward at a prodigious rate while the wages of the working class have remained stagnant for three decades. In the most recent financial crisis, taxpayers saved the banks who, in turn, foreclosed on homes, and small investors lost $3 trillion in holdings while hedge fund managers gained $3 trillion for betting against the economy. In 2019, 26 individuals possess as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population, 

Establishing a fair level of compensation for all labor arrived with the enactment of the Minimum Wage in 1933 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” Workers can no longer support a family or prepare for retirement on today’s minimum wage.

Two fortunate outcomes arise from putting a few more dollars in the pocket of workers. First, the working class pays taxes on those new wages thereby furnishing revenues for more public works. Second, workers with disposable income spend it on more products and services spurring on the economy.

We can no longer afford to establish a minimum wage and allow inflation to degrade its buying power for decades until that minimum wage becomes subsistence pay. Clearly, adjusting wages at that point needlessly puts a choke on the economy. Instead, we need to establish a livable wage and tie it to the Consumer Price Index for annual review.

Also, it is time to channel our inner George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life and ask the important questions, “…you are all businessmen here. Don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers?”

It is a thoroughly reasonable expectation that street sweepers should sweep streets as though the hosts of heaven might walk there. It is, however, also a reasonable expectation that those hosts of heaven not find street sweepers sleeping under the overpasses for want of adequate wages.

This Commentary originally appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on May 26, 2016. It has been slightly reworked, here. 

Curiosity: all too easy to stifle

Curiosity, genuine intellectual curiosity, is not a habit of mind than can easily be taught in the classroom. However, a long career in the classroom has crystallized into this one inescapable conclusion: curiosity is a behavior – a life skill even –  that children must bring to the classroom to ensure their academic success. 

Teachers coax some academic performance from students with any number of motivational gimmicks. Teachers modify behavior with positive and negative feedback. Teachers lead students to the proverbial fountain of knowledge, but students will not drink sufficiently long and deep in the absence of a thirst for understanding. Teachers may sometimes inspire a cautious ascent up the psychologist’s hierarchy of needs, but should a student lack intrinsic curiosity, then the climb to that ultimate goal of self actualization will be torturous.

It must be noted that teachers can also squelch nascent curiosity. If teachers mistake meanness for rigor or bitterness for pragmatism, the effects can be devastating and long lasting. 

Absolutely everyone shares in the responsibility for the cultivation of curious minds. 

How important is curiosity? The ‘question’ is the foundation for all rational thought. It has been said that Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity – which thoroughly revolutionized the way humanity looks at the Cosmos – began with a seminal event in his fifth year and bore fruit nearly two decades laters. 

On Einstein’s fifth birthday, his father bought the young genius a compass. Albert asked what compelled the needle to point northward. His father explained that invisible lines of magnetic force emanated from the Earth and pulled the suspended magnet in the direction of the North Pole. 

Albert Einstein spent his entire life answering an endless series of follow-up questions, completely obsessed with understanding the workings of electromagnetism and gravity. Or, so the story goes…

Countless times in nearly three decades, I stood in front of a classroom full of students shouting like some modern Richard III, “A question! A question! My kingdom for a question!”

Three-quarters of a class might perform abysmally on a relatively simple assessment, but when surveyed the respondents would willingly indicate that they had not opened the book, or practiced the skill, a few would indicate inability to decode the cues despite near-daily repetition of a base vocabulary for multiple semesters. No small portion of students would exhibit handwriting that was marginally legible. A couple students would crumple the paper upon receipt. The principle symptom of “senioritis” manifested as acute affected disinterest.

These aspects of daily life in the classroom, in and of themselves, are not particularly bothersome.

What is troubling is the collective response to the teacher’s prompt: “Are there any questions about the quiz?”

Most frequently, none would be posed. Seldom would a hand be raised. 

It mattered little that this skill would likely appear again in the unit exam. It mattered even less that this was a foundational skill, scaffolding for future knowledge. No, what mattered more was that raising your hand and asking pertinent and cogent questions might lead to labeling as a “nerd” by classmates. 

“How can you not have any questions?” I would ask. A few indifferent shrugs constituted the reply. You know you are in trouble when the bell rings and it fails to awaken a student who has learned to sleep with his eyes open. 

How has it come to this? What has become of the human passion for understanding? Where is the will to learn? How do our young people arrive in the modern classroom so totally unprepared to participate in the process of improving their minds in preparation for the Age of Information. 

Some years ago, this confirmed people-watcher occupied a bench in a local mall waiting for his wife to exit a store. Not far away, a mother and her son were having lunch in the food court. No scene could have appeared more benign. 

The little boy was engaged in that “Why is the sky blue?” questioning behavior typical of toddlers. His little voice was barely audible, but the nature of the conversation could be surmised by the mother’s increasingly agitated replies. 

“I don’t know.” “Stop asking so many questions and eat your lunch.” Because they do, that’s why.” “I don’t know that, either.” “You’ll have to ask your daddy.” “You ask too many questions.” “You are starting to get on my nerves with all these questions.” “Eat your lunch or we won’t be able to go to the movie.” “That’s it, we are going home.”

Everyone has felt similarly exasperated with an ambitiously inquisitive child. Curiosity may not have killed the cat, but it had consigned one young man to perdition – judging by the wailing as his mother led him away – for a behavior that most teachers would heartily welcome in the classroom. If such conditioning were to be commonplace, it is not too difficult to imagine some future teacher calling little Jonathan’s parents to express concern about his lack of participation in class. 

Teachers may sometimes succeed at reawakening stifled curiosity during instruction, but their jobs would be infinitely easier if everyone would simply nurture the natural inquisitiveness of children instead of stifling it. To paraphrase George Sand, curiosity is a delicate flower that never blooms once trampled underfoot. 

The “Viewpoint” originally appeared in the Prince George’s Journal on April 20, 2001. It has been revised. 

How Do We Get There From Here?

An old Winston Churchill quote has been getting a lot of play of late, but it bears repeating. “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” The quip is applicable for so many of our national endeavors, except for public education where we try the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. 

It has become abundantly clear that funding education with the proceeds of a property tax favors schools located in affluent jurisdictions and disfavors those schools serving jurisdictions predominantly inhabited by the economically disadvantaged. However, we continue to rely on the same funding mechanisms that have failed to deliver equity for all children.

Why do we burden property owners with the responsibility of providing public education for all children? Is it not time to find a path to spread that responsibility more evenly across the tax base?

Educators, those closest to the work of preparing children for this new century, advocate strenuously for sufficient human and material resources to reach every child in every classroom. Achieving equity for the children most in need will be expensive, but poverty is the rogue elephant in our classrooms and pea shooters will not stop its charge.

Instead of compensating for that poverty with resources,  so-called education reformers allocated millions to fund new standardized assessments that do nothing but validate what all classroom teachers know in their heart: aggregate test scores are a reliable indicator of socio-economic status and little else.

Still, the nation doubled down on the ’test & punish’ strategy of No Child Left Behind by enacting an even more onerous Race to The Top, and this despite mounting evidence that both students and educators were losing too much time for teaching-and-learning to the administration of tests.

The media report regularly on the rampant turnover in the teaching profession. The exodus and/or migration of educators remains the logical outcome following years of vilification of teachers in the public debate and the fetid mix of inadequate compensation, unreasonable workload and little professional autonomy.

From where will the next generation of lifelong, committed educators arise given the current working conditions? Why would any of them stay anywhere but an affluent neighborhood with guaranteed optimal test scores?

Little has changed in the five centuries that have elapsed since Montaigne observed “…the greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education children.” It does seem like time at least to start exhausting the possibilities so that we can finally arrive at doing the right thing for all children. 

[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on July 29, 2015] 

Federal deregulation is a path to disaster (II)

“Decades of corporate government deregulation and reduced funding of important government departments has the country well along the path to a lawless society.”
Steven Magee

James Carville is reputed to have said, “Businessmen want fewer regulations for the same reason criminals want fewer police; it’s easier to get away with murder!” One must hope that Mr. Carville was speaking metaphorically, but any number of our industrial products and by-products now jeopardize our health and, very possibly, our continued tenure as the dominant species on Earth. 

Decades of reliance on insecticides have increased food production, but at what cost? In the seventies we were talking about the thinning of eggshells for birds in the wild. Today, we are losing bees, our principal pollinators, at an alarming rate. In January 2017, bumblebees have been placed on the endangered species list. The risks to the food supply cannot be overstated if we lose the bees, or even if climate change alters the delicate timing of blooms and the awakening of the insects that feed on their pollen.

Nor can we be certain of the health consequences on human beings of chronic exposure to these powerful toxins that kill insects by disrupting their nervous systems.  Joni Mitchell said it best decades ago, “Give me spots on my apples; but, leave me the birds and the bees, now!” We really will not understand what we have until its gone. But, cheer up, chemical companies will have made a fortune in the process! 

The opening line of a study from the National Institute of Health [NIH] study Epidemiologic Evidence on the Health Effects of Perflourooctanic Acid should do little to calm your jitters.  “Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) does not occur naturally but is present in the serum of most residents of industrialized countries.” Our exposure rates are very low and PFOA does not qualify as an acute toxin. However, our exposure qualifies as chronic since so many cook with Teflon-coated pans. The study continues, “It does not break down in nature and has a half-life of three years in the human body PFOA is not directly genotoxic; animal data indicate that it can cause several types of tumors and neonatal death and may have toxic effects on the immune, liver, and endocrine systems. Data on the human health effects of PFOA are sparse.”

There is much we do not know, with certainty, about this product, but corporate America is reaping a fortune on a decidedly unnatural molecule that most citizens are carrying in their bloodstream. Regulation may have failed us, here, but some might argue that more regulations, not fewer, should be in place. 

Those ubiquitous plastic bottles and containers from which we imbibe the universal solvent – water – and ingest micro-waved foodstuffs are another potential health hazard. Bisphenol-A (BPA), another chemical brought to you by the chemical industry, is used in the production of those containers. Much more is known about the health consequences of this little beastie, consider the insert, below, from the NIH

“Why are people concerned about BPA?

One reason people may be concerned about BPA is because human exposure to BPA is widespread. The 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of 2517 urine samples from people six years and older. The CDC NHANES data are considered representative of exposures in the United States. Another reason for concern, especially for parents, may be because some animal studies report effects in fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.”

Again, dear reader, does this suggest to you that industrialists are in need of fewer regulations, or more? 

More recently, Gary Taubes has published his new work The Case Against Sugar in which he recounts the history of refined sugar and its evolution toward dietary staple, and the possible links to the so-called ‘diseases of civilization‘.  His arguments are compelling, but inconclusive, since we are unable to subject human beings to experimentation that controls for all variables. However, Big Sugar has spent millions on lobbying over decades to increase its market-share of calories consumed while simultaneously sponsoring less-than-rigorous research with the express goal of attributing those diseases to other macro-nutrients. 

It has been said that the most dangerous place on Earth is the spot between Capitalists and their Profit. Certainly, a few obsolete regulations may still be on the books; however, the public should not be duped by businessmen into believing that regulations are placing a chokehold on the ability of business enterprises to turn a profit. As Linda C. Brinson said in “10 Unforeseen Effects of Deregulation”, “Deregulation doesn’t always work as expected. Some economists believe that deregulation usually leads to someone being hurt. It’s just not easy to predict whom.”  Or, even to what degree they might be harmed…


Elections & Consequences in 2016

“In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility towards human life; towards the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of error, and of God”? James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Part II Section 3, Education.

If this quote from the landmark examination of poverty among tenant farmers in the rural South of 1941 resonates with you, then the election results of November 8, 2016 must surely give you pause since it appears that we have apparently elected the reincarnation of Jacob Marley to occupy the Oval Office. Not one of his picks for his cabinet suggests that humankind will become his business for the foreseeable future.  Sure, a few will become richer, but nothing will be said of those who get trampled in the stampede for what little manages to trickle down. 

Of particular note, the appointment of Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos as Secretary of Education must terrify all proponents of equitable opportunity in the public schools, because nothing in her résumé suggests anything but disdain for the cause of public schools as the foundation of an egalitarian society. Her policies, if implemented, will only serve to deepen the social & economic divisions of this nation by systematically dismantling access to equitable educational opportunities for all children. What Gandhi suggested about society-at-large applies also to schools, “No society can survive if it attempts to be exclusive.” 

Vouchers – most of which are delivered into economically privileged households – essentially endorse educational elitism and fail to deliver education equity to the children facing the greatest challenges. 

Reflect for a moment on the possibility that nearly every child is capable of accomplishing some stupendously unimaginable feat that satisfies a salient need of our human species. Why are we not willing to invest in children to such a degree that they might achieve what Simone Weil dubbed their “indispensable destiny“? How can we deny any child the right to that opportunity for self actualization. 

Imagine for a moment each of our most economically disadvantaged children on such trajectories, perhaps forging a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians; or designing the magnetic containment field for a fusion reactor; or isolating a molecule that deactivates the aging gene; or finding an inexpensive way to desalinate and purify seawater; or curing cancer; or leading a successful mission to deflect interplanetary debris from an Earth orbit intersect; or solving any of the host of environmental, medical or economic problems that beset all of humanity.

Which of these indispensable destinies would you sacrifice to tax cuts for the wealthy or larger profits margins for private enterprise?

Now, imagine each of those potential world changers settling for a McJob, simply because politicians could not justify the immense effort and expense of truly educating all children to the limits of their potential. Imagine those children lost in the anonymity of large classes and taught by marginally qualified instructors. Imagine those potential movers and shakers of history competing against what is known, today, as the “digital divide“. Not much imagination is required since our tale of two school systems is right in front of our eyes.

Which of these scenarios constitutes the greater loss for our society?

Too much is currently left to serendipity when it comes to educating children. A few children find their way, against all odds, out of challenging circumstances… A few years ago,  a former student returned to visit his high school teachers at our majority-poverty high school. He had not been a particular standout in high school, but he had just graduated in 3 1/2  years with a double major and was headed for a prestigious medical school.

He was among the fortunate few who undertake what Anne Sexton called “The Awful Rowing Toward God” on the way to achieving his “indispensable destiny” despite large classes and inadequate resources. Still, such success stories should be the trend and not the anomaly. Nor should such statistically insignificant anecdotes suffice as justification that we have, collectively, provided enough to remove the stumbling blocks for all children. 

No child should be allowed to languish in conditions that permit little more than a flourishing of social darwinism. Rather, it is the purview of adults to remove impediments to learning and furnish the resources necessary to achieve self actualization. It is also incumbent on adults to elect representatives who will make such schools possible for all children instead of a privileged few.  Should you believe, as does Jonathan Kozol, that ‘spending more on [prisoners] than [students] is a form of cultural suicide’ then the time for political apathy is long past with an understanding that our national greatness will ultimately be determined by how we treat the least powerful among us. 


Can greatness be a byproduct of Greed, Incorporated?

The Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump, proclaimed in late May 2016, “There’s one more thing we have to do to make America wealthy again. And you have to be wealthy to be great, I’m sorry to say it.” What good is wealth if social justice and progress is not the by-product? 

For most of us, wealth is a wholly inadequate measure of this nation; wisdom, decency and compassion must surely be included as essential variables in any formula for greatness.

First, we are already among the wealthiest nations on the planet. However, we have allowed avarice to drive our economics and permitted the concentration of ostentatious wealth in the hands of too few. Vast intergenerational wealth has been amassed through the centuries-long exploitation of uncompensated and under-compensated labor.

The right to acquire wealth is not absolute. Your right to riches does not extend to harming your neighbors.

Too many of those preoccupied by the acquisition of wealth are more than willing to poison the water table, destabilize the climate, or even instigate wars to sell weaponry. Our history is replete with examples of enterprises whose products generated immense profits but ultimately proved harmful to the citizenry. Also, tales of ruthless and unscrupulous oligarchs adorn every decade. Overall, the obsessive pursuit of immense wealth has proven itself to be damaging to our social fabric.

Together, we must exhibit the wisdom to thwart the despoiling of the environment by industrialists. Collectively, we must have the decency to bequeath a habitable planet to our progeny. In the speech cited above, the Republican nominee proposed eliminating the energy tax and, and, later, the total elimination of governmental regulation of business.  Such acts will herald a century of environmental catastrophes and societal upheaval.

Infinite riches will mean nothing to future generations if the soil will no longer support crops, the water table is poisoned, and the food chain is broken asunder.

Good for the corporate bottom line is not always good for people.

Unbridled capitalism leads to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of too few citizens and threatens the abrogation of our social contract. One need look no further than the recent obscene price gouging on life-saving medications to see that always “charging what the market will bear” further marginalizes the disadvantaged among us.

In his essay “The Problem is Civil Obedience,” Howard Zinn wrote, “The wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require a small reform, but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.” America is already an unimaginably wealthy nation, but its greatness is stymied when the hoarders of capital are permitted to invest heavily in the subversion of a government of, by and for the people.

Greatness will be at hand only if we avoid a descent into some Dickensian nightmare where the masses represent grist in the mills of corporate interest. Greatness will be at hand when more equitable shares of that national wealth are distributed among those who toil a lifetime in service to the common good, expecting little more than the potential of a better life for their children. 

This Commentary first appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on June 08, 2016. It has been slightly expanded and revised. 

Dismissing the factory model school

In his landmark work “Between the World and Me”, Ta-Nehisi Coates laments the hypocritical nature of the message he received in the Baltimore City Schools, “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.” When managing misbehavior replaces academic instruction, intellectual development is stifled.

Such circumstances are vexing for both students and professional educators. The narrator offers praise for some of his individual educators, but criticizes a “system” that focuses on punishment and places children in peril by returning them to the streets as a consequence for misbehavior in school. The argument is not without merit.

Fear of reprisal is a singularly poor motivator for any child. Policies of “zero-tolerance” have proven ineffective at modifying undesired behaviors in the school house. 

Children, especially those children from harsh domestic environments, need more hours in instructional scenarios, not fewer. Those classrooms, however, also need to have the resources to do more than crowd children into sweat boxes for some portion of the day. Elevating young minds beyond their circumstance requires that educators possess the capacity to captivate.

We can no longer take pride in the occasional “against-all-odds” success story while failing to nurture the promise inherent in every child.

“The development of a factory-like system in the nineteenth-century schoolroom was not accidental,” Joel Spring said in “Education and the Rise of the Corporate State”. Educational triage was the primary goal: identify the most capable students, and then ensure that the rest arrive at the functional literacy required to follow instructions on the assembly line and sufficient numeracy to balance a checkbook.

Schooling, back then, had little to do with optimizing learning outcomes and more with learning to acquiesce to tedium and drudgery as preparation for the conditions likely to be encountered in the industrial workplace.

During the age of the robber barons, corporatists imported cheap labor from abroad to keep the cost of labor hopelessly low and profits high for the investor class. Now, they incorporate abroad, access labor at bargain-basement prices offshore, and avoid paying taxes in the United States while taking full advantage of our free market while returning little in the bargain. The public coffers suffer as a result. 

Call the oligarchic elites of America what you will: capitalists, plutocrats, one-percenters, or political puppeteers! They consist mostly of obsessive hoarders-of-wealth. They utilize tiny portions of vast, inter-generational fortunes to persuade the political class that their power-and-privilege constitutes the natural order of things.

Is this society really intent on leaving no child behind? Then, why do we still employ an educational model that assumed a large portion of the school age population would never obtain a diploma? In his landmark work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Paolo Freire explained it quite succinctly. “It would be indeed naïve to expect the oppressor elites to carry out a liberating education.” That duty, therefore, falls to the rest of us. 

[This commentary appeared originally in the Prince George’s Sentinel on August 19, 2015. It has been slightly re-worked.]  

Those who cannot teach, govern

Wish a heartfelt “Happy New Year!” to all educators embarking on the new school year for it has become clear that many of our national leaders are oblivious of the eternal optimism that compels dedicated educators to stand before their students each fall.

Just a year ago, two candidates for president suggested last year that Americans will need to work harder to get ahead. Another fantasized about punching teacher leaders in the nose. Then, Governor John Kasich declared that as “King of America,” he would abolish all teachers’ lounges “where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us.'”

It is clear that too many candidates for office are clueless about the real lives of those they hope to govern.

First, the nature of the typical school day does not furnish time for lounging anywhere at all. “Lounge” is a terrible misnomer; “Planning Room” would be more fitting. However, for most classroom instructors, the lounge constitutes little more than a way station to address biological needs while suffering the interminable quest to find a working photocopier.

On the rare occasions educators do engage in ‘woe is us’ discussions, it generally occurs in the interminable queue at the lone functional photocopier, likely clutching a ream of paper purchased at retail and a document they need to reproduce for class, awaiting their predictable turn to submit a request for the repair service when the machine inevitably sputters to a stop.

For the record: the teachers’ lounge is frequently the least utilized space in a school.

Decades ago, the National Labor Relations Act exempted professional educators from the provisions for overtime pay. If teachers, like lawyers, had billable hours, school budgets would nearly double. The average conscientious classroom instructor spends an average of nearly twenty hours at home on the tasks of grading papers, record-keeping and lesson planning.

Educators make the case for increasing resources in the school; and they used to hear platitudes about how important their work remains to children. Of late, however, it is far more likely that educators will be named as the scapegoat for all our national ‘failures’ in public education.

Hope hovers on the horizon. A few years ago, the Gates Foundation set out to improve the evaluation process for teachers with the Measures of Effective Teaching project. Hoping to identify the pre-supposed double-digit percentage of marginally competent instructors, their own research discovered that the actual number of struggling teachers hovers around six percent.

With that fact uncovered, the Gates Foundation changed the focus of its work in education and engaged in the work of decreasing teacher isolation in order to facilitate communication and collaboration in the education community so more teachers have increased access to the best practices of their colleagues around the country, a capacity the Gates Foundation is uniquely positioned to implement.

Unfortunately, our political leaders have yet to learn the lesson that improving instructional practice will involve trusting teachers. Instead of threatening to eliminate the federal Department of Education, it is time for the DoE to start hearing the teacher voice prior to implementing policy. 

[This commentary originally appeared on September 2, 2015 in the Prince George’s Sentinel.] 

Don’t delay start of school year to after Labor Day!

Two reasons stand out…

First, during the Agrarian Age — pre-dating the Industrial Age — farmers really did need children to help tend the crops on the family farm during the summer. Speaking as someone who, as a child, helped bring in the harvest in agricultural country, this was time that likely would have been better spent in a classroom.

Second, human beings have proven curiously resistant to changing long-practiced, traditional behaviors even when those behaviors are demonstrably deleterious to the common good. Too many of us still resist seat belts in cars & helmets on motorcycles.

Our agrarian school calendar was never predicated on the assumption of optimal learning conditions for students. Back then school was where the academic wheat was separated from the chaff. At the dawn of the Age of Information, one can only hope that future decisions about our school calendar will be grounded firmly on the concept of improving learning outcomes for every child rather than enhancing profits for private enterprise.

Here in Prince George’s County, the education community has been coping with the rigors of the externally imposed testing regimen, in part, by opening schools prior to Labor Day. The extra days of instruction have yielded dividends in improved performance on the federally mandated statewide assessments.

This local strategy has borne fruit. Some percentage of our increase in test scores can be directly attributed to the extra instructional time before March “Testing” Madness begins.

Most educators concluded long ago that standardized assessments are (how can this be phrased kindly?) less-than-ideal measures of student growth. However, as long as so much rides on those results, the education community must be free, locally, to implement any calendar that prevents the loss of resources for the schools.

Compelling all schools systems to move opening until after Labor Day is terrible public policy for many reasons, not the least of which is once again reducing the role of children to chattel for the labor mills.

[This Commentary first appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on February 5, 2015. It has been revised. ]