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STEM and Standardized Testing Are Not a Solution to What Ails Us: A High School Teacher’s Truth-Telling Public Letter of Resignation in The Washington Post

Monday, April 8, 2013 1:08
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I came to teaching forty years ago this month and have been lucky enough to work at a small liberal arts college, a major university and this superior secondary school. To me, history has been so very much more than a mere job, it has truly been my life, always driving my travel, guiding all of my reading and even dictating my television and movie viewing. Rarely have I engaged in any of these activities without an eye to my classroom and what I might employ in a lesson, a lecture or a presentation.  

With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that  “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. 

STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.

I was talking to a Chicago high school teacher on Friday of last week. I asked him what he was going to do in light of the decision by Rahm Emanuel’s administration to (for all intents and purposes) privatize the city’s schools under the umbrella of “charter schools” and close dozens of said schools? His answer was quick and direct: “I am retiring.”

“The kids are bad, the situation is unstable, and anyone with a bit of sense is getting the hell out of there.”

As such, our young people are left to the dead-enders who are counting down the clock to their retirement, professional bureaucrats who could give a damn, those with no marketable skill sets, and dedicated souls who are fighting an uphill battle. We all, everyone of us in this country, will lose because of such an arrangement. A quality public education is a right. As the social safety net and Common Good are eviscerated, it too is left with many holes.

Ultimately, my informer’s answer corresponds with those others within the Chicago Public School system who I have talked to about recent developments.

The Washington Post featured a resignation letter from Gerald J. Conti who teaches at what would seem to be a school that is far superior to the failing one here in Chicago. While his school is preferable to most, the sense of exhaustion and spent energy on his part is apparently quite similar to those others who share his vocation:

A long train of failures has brought us to this unfortunate pass. In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education… The repercussions of these ill-conceived policies will be telling and shall resound to the detriment of education for years to come. The analogy that this process is like building the airplane while we are flying would strike terror in the heart of anyone should it be applied to an actual airplane flight, a medical procedure, or even a home repair. Why should it be acceptable in our careers and in the education of our children?

My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic “assessments”) or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. 

Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case. 

I know good people who have left college and university teaching because of the onerous rise of student evaluations as a means of harassing and monitoring faculty, mismanagement of budgets by administrators, and the adjuncitization of the profession.

Many universities and colleges–what should be centers of free thinking, teaching, inquiry, and learning, are being turned into McDonald’s-like degree mills–and are better suited for providing unnecessary sports stadiums to win over the parents and students who are paying exorbitant tuitions, than preparing the next generation of thinkers and citizens.

Pleasing the customer is the new mantra; education has/is taken a back seat to growing enrollments and elevating mediocrity to the level of “excellence” and “A” performance.

Some of these good folks have gone on to teach at elite college preparatory high schools and have shared with me that this was the best decision they have ever made.

There are other folks who are doing everything they can to escape teaching in the public schools. The pressures of standardized testing, corporatization, and the lie that “charter schools” equal improved educational outcomes, has forced a good number of the truest, most talented, and best teachers out of the profession.

If college teachers of a certain generation, one where tenure is dead and the itinerant adjunct trade is their life sentence are leaving, where does that leave the students of today and tomorrow? Likewise, if accomplished and good public school teachers are leaving the trade, what of the students in those institutions? Are they just being prepared for wage labor and prison…especially those in the worst and most under-served communities?

A slavish devotion to STEM programs is not the way forward. Yes, we need more scientists, engineers, and medical professionals. But, that should not come at the expense of the humanities, arts, and social sciences. The move towards privatization is a Right-wing austerity assault on the Enlightenment project, and a basic understanding that all parts of the mind and intellect should be nourished and trained for the Good Society.

One can be talented in mathematics, but not be able to fully dream, as they were robbed of training in the creative arts and literature. A student can be adept at the natural and physical sciences, but be robbed of a knowledge of the social context within which their empirical truth–and the implications for it–exists, if not privy to the great thinkers in history, philosophy, sociology, economics, anthropology, and political science.

The corporate charter school model of education is a function of hyper-conservatism/neoliberalism run amok. As such, it is primarily a dressed up version of vocational training with the goal of creating passive, anti-intellectual, and insecure citizens who are not equipped to ask basic questions about society, power, justice, and politics in an era of scarcity and post-industrial political economy. Technicians are not necessarily good citizens.

For those of you on the front lines of this debate, please share your stories and insight. If you were going to fix the beast that is public education with the claws of profit maximizing corporatization deep in its nerves and sinews, and run by those who are trained in the ethic of creative destruction that is extreme capitalism, what would you do to improve America’s schools? “No” is not an option.



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