Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Are Teachers An Endangered Species?

Despite its apparent hyperbole, I mean this title to be taken seriously. For over half a century, I have personally witnessed and experienced the conflict and resolution that has been the hallmark of the education/learning process in the United States. But things are changing in the current foment. In particular, the recent flare ups in Chicago, Wisconsin, Indiana and so on have focused attention on what people contend and pretend is best “for the children.” In all the noise, from the film “Won’t Back Down” to the latest spew from Arne Duncan, a constant mantra grows louder and clearer: The teachers are in the way. They are not performing “in the best interests of the children.”

This is a critical issue in our culture, not only because it expresses disdain and contempt for what people pretend to think is a vital cultural institution in a democracy, namely universal education, but also because it ignores cultural phenomena that have been festering in our society for at least 35 years. We have become a disparate and “sorted” society (see Bill Bishop, The Big Sort, and others), with a micro-understanding of what community and citizenship mean. Even Pres. Obama’s education ramp up has the title, “Race To The Top,” implying that in education there will be winners and losers and second, third and fourth place finishers. And that seems to be acceptable to the vast majority of Americans. This perspective amplifies the competitive individualism that has always been an undercurrent in our culture but usually recedes in times of national crisis or distress. These, however, are different times, and our society has become something very unlike what it had been not many years ago.

The economic gap that deepened and widened exponentially over the last 25 years increased the desperation felt nationwide as our society morphed from an industrial to a service/information society. Most people who are discussing and analyzing the education crisis do not say much about this, because the cause/effect dynamic is not especially clear. Be that as it may, I’ll venture a clarification. Because of our cultural nature, the U.S. is not real good at seeing what lies ahead until we need to react; we’re not terribly proactive. (Incidentally, this tendency will probably have disastrous consequences with climate change.) In short, we failed to prepare for what would happen to our large industrial centers when their operations costs made them head for cheaper operations costs in other countries. This left people stranded in non-viable communities, which still had to provide education. States and municipalities quite literally went begging for money. And the money came…but with strings attached. The strings said, “Do it our way and you will be blessed.” So like most things public in America, education now became wholly reliant on the kindness of strangers, so to speak, and these strangers (despite their complete lack of schooling about schooling) have the answer: Education is best served by the corporate model.

 In this new corporate format, teachers are no longer the arbiters of the learning experiences of their students; instead, teachers now are necessary, cumbersome cogs in a technological, mechanistic, line production prospectus for learning and achievement. Everything is managed downward from the Common Core theory of essentials through an engorged middle management to standardized checkpoints in a factory floor style of the corporate classroom. This new role was behind Chicago’s striking teachers references to being disrespected. The feeling is that it is one thing to be paid as a piece worker, but it’s something much worse to take away my autonomy. “This classroom is our classroom while my students and I are in it.” [See my 9/18/12 post “Dedicated And Disrespected”]

With this background, let’s consider the possibility of this post’s title. First a definition: “An endangered species is a population of organisms, which is facing a high risk of becoming extinct because it is either few in numbers, or threatened by changing environmental or predation parameters.” If we apply this to what has been developing within the teaching profession (and notice how this term is rarely used any more regarding teachers as a group, no matter what achievements they have made) and our economy, I think it has a high degree of possibility.

The first clause, “it is…few in numbers,” appears to be credible for two reasons. First, increasing numbers of college graduates with low prospects for gainful employment are going into Teach For America, which is a two-year commitment with decent enough pay to remove large chunks of their college debt, a tendency which gives school systems a cheap and growing pool of temporary workers (no benefits included). And second, in the face of the social disdain targeting teachers, one can reasonably conclude that fewer people will be attracted to the job as permanent employment.

The second clause, “threatened by changing environmental or predation parameters,” is supported by the foregoing discussion of the significant and irresolvable changes in our cultural attitudes and societal structures. No doubt, all teachers will struggle to adapt to this new mechanized format. And, in fact, some will even welcome it. It requires less energy and, once mastered, it is more or less lock step. But those “attributes” can be found in other employment with fewer of the more distinctly teacher experiences, such as the story I heard this weekend from a first year male elementary school teacher who got punched in the stomach be a student when he tried to break up a fight.

For a diminishing number, however, for those who teach because they thrive on witnessing the learning they engender, because they see each student in his or her struggle to learn, and because ironically they can never be absolutely certain that somebody learned something that day, no matter what the tests say…for those people, that group who force themselves to ignore the implicit and explicit expressions of disdain, the numbers will most likely diminish. Their kind of learning experience seems not to be what our society any longer thinks it needs. Things probably will continue toward extinction, unless, as with all endangered species, enough determined small numbers of people will exert their energies and push back against the endangering forces to try slowly and persistently to save the species.

Special note to foreign visitors to my blog: Please comment on this post as it relates to the teaching experiences in your countries. Thank you.


Vicki said...

Roger: did you watch that PBS Frontline Program on Education this week? Wow, that was so depressing.

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