The Crucible

Crucible 3

Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible survives to this day as a metaphor for accusations without merit that damage reputations and lives. The advertisement that appeared this week in USA Today after the Vergara decision contained such an accusation, which might as well have been of witchcraft and evil spells cast upon students by malevolent kindergarten teachers. The same organization that created that ad had another rejected by the Chicago Tribune, because it conflated teacher unionism with racist segregationist attitudes a la George Wallace. Teachers can likely expect a continued barrage of similar ads in the media, funded by privatization interests.

Maintaining a sense of dignity depends on the deference and support shown to you by society in light of your contributions. When major media publications accept ads portraying student feet protruding from a garbage can, and accuse teachers of placing students in that demeaning position, they accept hate speech as a legitimate source of income. Teacher sensitivity to outright lies is less a product of being targeted for criticism—that’s part of life in the public sector— than it is due to the duplicity of the bad actors that create those lies. They demonize teachers on the one hand and extend the other for profits to be earned by displacing unionized teachers with ill-trained, easily controlled dupes working in charter schools, among their many crimes. The “Center for Union Lies” does not criticize teachers; it intentionally distorts and mischaracterizes their achievements to enable corporate gain.

When you deprive teachers of dignity and meaning in their work, you strike a blow against public education. Of course, that is exactly the point for some. For others, it is “collateral damage” that must be accepted to improve instruction and raise test scores. If test scores rise, then education must be improved. If living and breathing teachers who will demand immediate compensation can be replaced with technology that raises test scores on tests written by testing companies whose shareholders seek short-term profits…well, all the better.

What is lost if public education is lost? Just as terrorism is a front in the war for the soul of Islam, attacks on public education—one of the sources of our common good— constitute one front in the war for the soul of democracy. Democracy can withstand challenges from without which are obvious and overt; whether democracy can withstand challenges from within is unknown. Dismantling public institutions encourages individualism and loss of community. That loss of community opens a democracy to manipulation and exploitation by powerful  corporations.

Still, we teachers as a group fail to see the forest for the trees. We imagine that what we experience in the form of attacks by individuals and organizations on teachers and education is somehow unique and unrelated to other events. We feel our institution being assailed, and we forget that there are others in the public service enduring similar mistreatment.

How have we ended up in this situation? Corporatists have built a myth of excellence and efficiency in the private sector, and a specter of malfeasance and incompetence in public institutions. Their tactics include attacks on public institutions, accompanied by demands for firings and accountability measures. They then demand new “standards” for performance that are clearly impossible to reach, and place blame on those same institutions when they fail to attain them and attempt to cover it up. Finally, they seek to withdraw financial support from those institutions, citing the failures they themselves engineered. This has happened in education with NCLB and RttT, and will occur with CCSS, if it is not more widely abandoned. It has happened as well with the Veterans Administration. The VA (underfunded and overwhelmed by demands resulting from the Iraq/Afghanistan debacle) was accused of not providing timely care for those who deserved better. The solution? A standard was set that could not be met, a 14-day window for care, and accountability measures for not achieving success. When that couldn’t be accomplished, managers found ways of lying to make it appear that things were fine. Uncovered, the VA was again blamed for incompetence. Calls were made to privatize an institution that attempts to fulfill a public obligation to those who have stood in the line of fire for us all.

We teachers can easily comprehend what VA employees face. Our experiences are not unique; they are part and parcel of a wider attack on democracy. The sooner we accept that and coordinate our actions with other institutions that are also suffering, the sooner we will begin to turn the corner. We become powerful when we recognize our community, and weak when we abandon it. Badass Teachers know what it means to acquire community; we need to remind our colleagues of the role their unions need to play in preserving, protecting, and extending that community of public service employees. NEA and AFT have accomplished much in the past, but are only lately stepping up to the plate on this issue. They can do much more, and will need grass roots support to do so.

We are not just educators. We are warriors for democracy, and we fight a dangerous opponent. We fight for free, fair and appropriate public education, just as our brothers and sisters fight battles for better public health care, better public transportation, and improved public security. Part of our fight is to act with dignity and demand dignified treatment from society. We need to build a new myth of the public employee, one that recognizes our commitment to service and champions our achievements in creating community.

Arthur Miller is calling to us now.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Who’s Selling You Shovels?

Pearson Snake Oil

In 1848, Sam Brannan ran up and down the streets of San Francisco yelling, ”Gold! There’s gold in the American River!” Brannan had no intention to dig for gold himself, of course. Just before he made the announcement, he had purchased every pickaxe, shovel and pan available in Northern California. He knew that the people who came to California to dig for gold were suckers; a few might find wealth, but most would simply line his pockets.

Today, politicians, state education officials, district superintendents and school board members are suckers in the new “gold rush.”

In the “Race to the Top,” we have lined the pockets of gurus, computer hucksters, and corporate consultants galore—and the further we go, the higher the price tag gets. In the search for “gold,” we spend plenty of it.

So who’s our Sam Brannan? Well, Pearson Publishing has applied for the position, and appears to be the front-runner. But watch out, because these guys are famous for sloppy in-house “research” to support their money-making initiatives.

Take, for example, Cogmed, a “brain-training” system Pearson claims will “effectively change the way the brain functions to perform at its maximum capacity.” According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, it’s all bunk. Dr. Douglas K. Detterman, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and founding editor of the influential academic journal Intelligence says, “Save your money. Look at the studies the commercial services have done to support their results. You’ll find very poorly done studies, with no control groups and all kinds of problems.”

Pearson also markets “SIOP” (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) as a “scientifically based” program for ELL students. The Institute of Education Sciences found that No studies of … (SIOP) … meet … evidence standards.” Another study also found major deficiencies, stating “Because of the widespread use of the SIOP and its far-reaching advertising, published research supporting the SIOP should be made of sterner stuff.”

The Common Core and PARCC tests are baloney, too. There is no evidence that the CCSS “standards” positively affect learning or that performing well (or poorly) on these tests is any indication of future performance in college or career—and test results certainly have no relevance to becoming a productive member of our society. All evidence indicates that Pearson is making plenty of money, however.

Sam Brannan was a heartless capitalist, but at least his picks and shovels did the job. The guys at Pearson who have concocted the Kommon Kore Swizzle Quizzes can’t even claim that. They’re flogging bogus products, a pattern of behavior that seems well established.

Why have we allowed ourselves to be suckered? Several obvious factors include:

  • A sincere, but misguided desire to “guarantee” that all students make lockstep progress, despite poverty or other intervening variables.
  • Political and financial pressure—Arne Duncan demands that states accept the CCSS and use test scores to evaluate teachers…or face restricted use of federal funds for education.
  • Unwitting and unwarranted trust in companies that sell products to assist already overworked educators.

In the end, the only people who find gold in education today are companies like Pearson, whose main objective is a higher profit margin, not the development of young citizens for active participation in a democracy. They are snake oil salesmen of the lowest variety. They cynically peddle their products with false promises of better learning which is “scientifically based,” leading school districts to expend limited funds on unnecessary and unhelpful items. Those expenses rob students themselves of funds that might better be spent on decreased class size and an expanded, more personal curriculum.

So what does one teacher do?

You can start at your own staff meetings by forcing public acknowledgment of the stark realities of Testing über Alles:

  • Ask your administrators if the tests you are required to give have been tested for reliability and validity—and to supply the research on which that determination is based. If they can’t, assume it doesn’t exist.
  • Ask them for specific examples of “instructional decisions” that the tests will influence for the students you have at present. I’ll bet the results won’t be available until the little darlings have flown your coop.
  • Ask them how much money is spent per pupil on each test…and if they’d prefer to spend the money on some other frippery…like maybe additional staff?
  • Ask administrators for evidence that test scores actually reflect differences in classroom learning, and not income level or other intervening variable. All evidence is to the contrary.
  • Let members of your community know that it is legal to opt-out of standardized testing—and ask your administration for specific district guidelines parents should follow to do so. Advocate that those guidelines be published and distributed to parents along with all other information about standardized testing.
  • Then, when you are accused of being “unprofessional” because you are forcefully challenging decisions made by district or state officials above your pay grade, ask them how it can be unprofessional to expect that educational decisions be based on “real science” that shows a benefit to both teacher and student rather than the wallets of Pearson investors?

The moral of the story is that since we aren’t in the gold digging business, we don’t need to buy shovels from anyone.

And if you just can’t accept that, at least don’t buy your shovels from companies like Pearson, whose only goal is gold by any means necessary.