Does staying out of the ed reform debate make you out of touch, a peacekeeper, or a self-serving a-hole?
There was a time, not long ago, when I was a Bill Gates defender.
His foundation has done incredible things to slow the spread of HIV in the third world. They are improving infrastructure and healthcare and schooling in so many impoverished countries. With all his money, he could be doing nothing more than sitting on a golden throne drinking from a diamond-encrusted goblet while Wolfgang Puck scrambles caviar eggs in his kitchen and Kanye West performs in his living room. Instead, he’s putting his fortune toward all kinds of projects that will save lives and heal the world.
In that light, I could still defend him. Because those things are still true.
But in the last year or so, I’ve been hearing more people – teachers, especially – say some harsh things about Gates. And it took me a long time to get interested in digging around and learning what was behind that criticism.
Overcoming the Good Kid Syndrome
Here’s why I resisted learning more about the problems with reform: For a long time, I was pretty happy being one of the “good ones.” When I heard talk about the bad teachers out there and how we needed to find them, get rid of them, and reward those who are better, I thought Bring it on. My students will kick ass on tests. I don’t need tenure to keep my job. More money for me? Yes please.
I’d had my share of ineffective teachers. I had taught in the same building with them. My own children had been in their classrooms. I had developed this sense that there was an “us” and a “them,” a team of good teachers and a team of bad teachers, and we wanted different things. The good ones cared about the kids. The bad ones cared about themselves. When I read stories about teacher protests — like the one about Seattle teachers boycotting standardized tests, I didn’t really get it. As much as I hate to admit it, I assumed they were probably not very good at their jobs, they didn’t want to be held accountable, and were more interested in complaining than in doing the hard work of real, quality teaching.
What a difference a year makes.
I know a lot more now, and even though I mostly kept my “us” versus “them” thoughts to myself all those years, I’d like to go on record now with this:
Sorry. That was a dick move.
I could blame it on the fact that I’ve been out of the classroom for a while: Maybe I don’t really get what it’s like now. But that’s only partially true. Because this goody-two-shoes attitude goes back to when I was in the classroom full-time. I was in the group my principal chose to pilot new strategies. Other teachers resisted it. Not me! I was on the A-team, the first string, and happy to be there. And now I understand: That attitude was unhealthy. It only helped me. It didn’t validate the concerns of my co-workers. It didn’t move all of us toward improvement. Just me.
Yes, there are ineffective teachers in every building, but like our students, we all bring different talents and skills to the table. Most average teachers have the potential to be great; they just need a little more support, more time to collaborate, and more opportunity for growth. And I could have done so much to lift up my colleagues. If I had been more sympathetic toward – no, even simply more interested in – their position, I could have used my good relationship with my principal to give voice to my colleagues’ concerns. I could have advocated for them. We could have grown together.
Instead, I mentally lumped them all into one broad category: crap teachers. And that’s exactly what education reformers are doing. Because quantifying the work of teaching is so complex, because doing so takes time and patience and attention, it’s just easier to assume that any teacher with a complaint is crap. And any teacher whose students aren’t performing on test scores is crap. And if you’re both of these – with low test scores and complaints – you’re crap times two.
Since then, I have started to pay attention. Though it made me uncomfortable at first, I have read Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody and Mercedes Schneider. I have only scratched the surface of the information these people and others like them are working feverishly to gather and disseminate, but I’ve gone deep enough to know that they are on the side of teachers, and they are on the side of students.
And Gates and other reformers, while their intentions may be good, are steering the ship in the wrong direction.
Feet to the Fire? Not So Much
So when I waited to hear Gates speak last Friday, surrounded by my fellow NBCTs at the National Board’s first ever Teaching & Learning Conference in Washington, D.C., I was anxious. The National Board had asked attendees to submit questions ahead of time – George Stephanopoulos was going to interview him using our questions. So I thought things might get ugly.
Well that was just dumb: Gates was one of the sponsors of the conference. Of course it wasn’t going to get ugly. For the first twenty minutes, he just talked to us from the podium. It was basically one long commercial for the Common Core. Then Stephanopoulos came out and the interview began. And there I was, about thirty rows back, mentally rubbing my hands together in anticipation. Now it was going to get meatier. Come on, George, I thought.
But no. The questions were benign and non-confrontational, with too much time devoted to topics like “Is technology making it harder for our kids to concentrate on books?” and “What’s your opinion of the flipped classroom concept?” I had submitted questions. Surely others had, too. So where were those? Where was the ugly?
I looked around the room, at my fellow accomplished teachers, and I saw no outrage. I mean, no one was cheering, but there was no cynicism, either. Mostly I just saw phones and cameras pointed toward the stage. Blogger Mary Tedrow, who also attended, described the dynamic perfectly: “The audience was polite…Gates stayed on stage to take questions from George Stephanopoulos. Not much there that I can recall, except my worry that a star-struck audience might get distracted from substantive issues.”
But what did I expect? In my fantasy, I hoped to hear something along these lines: We have made mistakes. We understand now that we need lots and lots of teacher input to make this right, and that’s what we plan to do, starting by answering some of your most important questions today.
So yeah, that didn’t happen. Because no one pushed him to that. Instead, there was this tacit understanding that everyone in the room supported every initiative Gates had launched. In his opening speech, Gates urged us to defend the Common Core to a critical public. And when I hear some of the criticism – especially what’s coming from the far right about socialist propaganda and “ridiculous” approaches to math – I could defend it. I do still think the standards have merit. But honestly, that’s beside the point now. At this stage, defending the Common Core has become synonymous with defending the whole package – merit pay and high-stakes testing and charter schools and Race to the Top. And that package,once you open it up and start really looking at what’s inside, is causing a whole lot of trouble.
The top of this fence is getting uncomfortable.
This puts a Goody-Two-Shoes like me in a tough position. I’m used to following rules, to pleasing those above me. I also don’t like conflict. And my guess is that like me, other NBCTs love the recognition they’ve gotten, and are not comfortable with the prospect of letting that go, with stirring up trouble and losing those gold stars.
But we might be the only ones who can re-steer the ship. Because Gates has his money behind everything, and now it has made its way into the National Board coffers as well. That money can do incredible things – like make it possible for more people to pursue and complete National Board Certification – but if it turns us all into a bunch of grinning yes-men, then is it worth it?
The tagline for this site is “Teacher nerds, unite.” And this past weekend, that phrase took on new meaning for me. If anyone is a teacher nerd, it’s a National Board Certified Teacher, and Gates wants us on his side. We can sit pretty and cooperate, or we can hop off the fence and get dirty. Step into the fray and learn more about why so many others are so pissed. Tell the National Board to disentangle itself from the Gates Foundation so we can all maintain the credibility we worked so hard to earn. Instead of allowing the reformers to divide us into two teams, we can stop being the star students, stop protecting our own self-interest, and stop being so damn polite.
We are all on the same side. Let’s start acting like it.♦