Straw men; Straw teachers

Liberal Words
. . . . Public education in general, and teachers in particular, have been the whipping boy of politicians, parents and pundits for as long as I can remember, and I am a fairly old man. A favorite propagandizing tool is the blanket reference to “Americas failed education system.”
. . . . Groups and individuals, with no more experience in public schools than Mary’s Little Lamb, are becoming leaders of the “flavor of the month” plans for change, which they claim will save America. After all, all one really needs is a trendy slogan for his or her idea and a straw man to kick in the pants.
. . . . In the 60s, there was the teacher-proof curriculum. Teachers were at fault, Sputnik was the rallying cry, and teachers were the failures who caused all of the problems. As usual, the brain trust became tired of playing with their toys and we went into another bright idea. Today the same repackaged brainstorms are blowing through the halls of public education; however, this time the winds are a deadly hurricane that threatens to destroy public schools, our hope in progress that has been our cultural and social leveler, and a life-giving transfusion for this nation.
. . . . Nationally, the Race to the Top is the latest proposition promulgated by the federal government; and the straw man is the teacher and the teachers’ union. Inexperienced, business-oriented leaders like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan threaten the very fabric of public education; while well-meaning amateurs, like Bill Gates, pour money into what they do not understand. And the smiling specter of Jeb Bush lurks in the shadows, waiting for the opportunity to make a buck. (William Cuthbert’s Stop lurching between gimmicks, Daytona Beach News Journal, December 27, 2010)
. . . . Cuthbert has a fine grasp of the English language, and turns phrases nicely. One may even agree with a point or two until he arrives at the final paragraph, where his left-leaning is clear. While it is correct that teachers and schools are convenient whipping boys, neither teachers nor schools are straw men. The face-to-face contact between teachers and students generates the primary product of our schools. Each school’s performance is the composite of the teachers’ products, as measured by student learning (growth) in their assigned classes. Unless teachers can be held accountable for their students’ performance, then the schools are not accountable either. There are, of course, other factors that influence student learning, for better or worse, but they are secondary in importance to classroom instruction.
. . . . As for the unions being a whipping boy, one should differentiate between teachers associations in the Southeast, and the unions along the northeast coast. Teachers in the southern states may favor liberal thought, but the direct influence of teachers’ associations on educational policy has been minimal. By contrast the schools in the Northeast are heavily influenced by organized teachers’ unions that are centrally involved in many school systems’ policies, procedures, and practices.
. . . . It is not necessary to dig very deeply to discover that the unions in the Northeast advocate practices that are contrary to the professional conduct of teachers. As for broad union policy, their universal opposition to the use of tests to measure student learning is well known. Any alternative to measuring a teacher’s effectiveness than through what their students’ learn would be off the mark, a straw man. Measuring teachers’ performance runs counter to the unions’ use of tenure as their primary teacher evaluation.
. . . . Union feather-bedding through job banks is a well known practice for avoiding worker accountability, as they were in the old railroad and more recent automobile industries. Washington DC’s school system had the equivalent of the same holding areas for non-performing teachers, based upon a careful reading of reform efforts there.
. . . . There is ample evidence that Michelle Rhee was hitting the nail on the head in the DC schools. If a heavy dose of accountability is needed anywhere, it was in the DC school system. Her experience in DC highlights the importance of broad community support for any serious change to occur, and the instability of reform when politics plays a major role in school policy. If a deadly hurricane threatens to destroy the public schools it is more likely the influence of organized teachers unions, rather than Michelle Rhee.
. . . . As for the smiling specter of Jeb Bush lurking in the shadows to make a buck, this preposterous statement represents both whipping boy and straw man, and bears no relationship to anything going on in the nation’s schools. Such comments undermine any credibility, particularly when coming from a career teacher and school administrator.
The Antidote:
. . . . It is likely that the federal initiatives, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, serve primarily to take some educators’ eyes off their primary job; to support, encourage, and enhance what goes on in the classroom. So much emphasis may be placed upon minimum competencies or college preparation that the majority of students in the middle are left begging. In this context Michelle Rhee’s current drive to advocate for students makes perfect sense.
. . . . While substantial improvement in instruction is needed at all levels within the schools, there is evidence that the nation’s schools perform better for students within the academic programs. These are for students who have conscientiously applied themselves through twelve years of school, and intend to continue in college. These students are also the ones who tend to succeed in spite of obstacles which appear in their paths.
. . . . It follows that too little is being done for those students who would choose career, vocational, and work-skills programs, rather than academic programs. If skill development for post-secondary employment was emphasized within the public schools, and was not considered a second-class program, a large number of students would choose these programs to college preparation. Real world realities dictate comprehensive middle and high school programs which address these needs. (Antidote published in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Meet every child’s need, 1/6/2011)

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