I would like to comment a bit on a fascinating book I read entitled Class Warfare by Stephen Brill. This nonfiction work chronicles the last few decades in American education battles, focusing on efforts to radically change how American students are educated. Brill’s work here is a fascinating and in some ways horrifying read. Here are a few thoughts on why I am so split about this book:
I am both a writer and a teacher. I teach in New Jersey, where repeated efforts by the NJEA to cooperate and move forward with our Governor have been shot down, where tenure laws have been weakened and the LIFO (last in, first out) law is next on the chopping block. This creates an environment where it would make business sense for any top administrator wrestling with the two percent budget cap to cut from the top, eliminating veteran teachers who earn top salaries. But this addresses education as a business, not a craft, and robs students, districts, and communities of master teachers.
So, why should we seek to support veterans teachers? I have seen too many promising young teachers collapse in the face of a particularly unruly or challenged class that no training save actual experience can prepare them to handle. Focusing the attention, cooperation, and efforts of any group of people requires a strength of will, a mastery of dynamics, a performance ability, and mastery of subject craft that cannot be gained without true effort and experience. Brill himself makes several passing comments about young, ambitious TFA teachers learning from masterful veterans. These key passing-of-the-torch moments will be lost if we continue to look at education as merely a business (kids are not developed on an assembly line) instead of the multifaceted craft it is.
Another aspect of Brill’s thesis is that teachers do not care, are burned out, and useless. I have worked with, met and/or observed hundreds of teachers in my career, and can think of only a handful who fit that description. The rest are dedicated professions, even fifteen, twenty, thirty years into their careers. The most heartbreaking aspect of this attempt to privatize education, to have business run schools, is that these dedicated veterans are suffering real, observable stress because of this. I spoke with a school psychologist this year who diagnosed his school’s staff to be “one hundred percent under stress” saying he had never seen such complete saturation in one place. How can this be what is best for our children?
Brill also glosses over the major differences between charter and public schools: public schools are more crowded, cannot choose their students, and cannot dismiss or toss out misbehaving students like charters can. Public schools do not have the express written commitment from parents that charters obtain, agreements on discipline, dress code, homework, etc., and cannot require it. Yes, there is an implied agreement, but even a tiny percentage of noncompliant students can disrupt and slow forward progress on all these fronts. Public schools embrace and work with these students as best we can within evermore restrictive budgets and laws. Charter schools send such challenges back to the public schools. So we are really comparing apples and oranges here.
The bottom line is that all of this is smoke and mirrors. If the government was actually interested in improving education, in creating a truly well-educated populace, politicians would declare a War on Ignorance, and commit real money to the effort, reducing class size, upgrading technology, and developing strategies to polish teacher skills, not force them to always look over their shoulder. But a truly educated populace is a very scary prospect for politicians. So maybe they are who we should be hunting…