A reader sent the following comment:
For the past twelve years I have been a pre-k teacher in a public urban inner city school. I also owned a business for twenty-five years. I attended a public elementary school and a private high school. I attended public, private, and online universities.
I know the difference between public good and free market.
When I returned to teaching twelve years ago things were just starting to change. In my district a lot of early childhood supervisors who knew a lot about early childhood retired and/or moved to other states. The staff developer in my building told me they had seen the handwriting on the wall and were getting out while they still could. Truthfully, I did not understand her comments. Pre-K had been separate from the rest of the NYC DOE and I couldn’t imagine that it would change. Teachers were supported and encouraged to use solid, child development research in creating the best atmosphere for our students. My staff developer said, “Wait. When they get through mucking everything else up, they will focus on pre-k.” To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention because I was free to create my own curriculum based on my children’s needs. I wasn’t worried about performance tasks and rubrics. My students thrived.
I did notice that in Kindergarten and other grades teachers and students were being asked to do things that, to me, didn’t make sense but it didn’t impact on me, so I more or less ignored it. I figured I would be exempt.
Teachers would complain during lunch but since I was not immediately involved, I didn’t comment. At first I thought they were just complaining. Then I noticed some of the work that was being produced on their bulletin boards. The work didn’t seem to fit what I knew were developmentally appropriate activities.
My parents started asking for homework notebooks. At first, my principal defended my position of no homework notebooks and encouraged family projects. A year or two later, my principal asked if I could use a homework notebook and request projects. That seemed reasonable so I complied. The next year my principal asked if I could do a few worksheets just to make the parents happy. I resisted but in the end acquiesced.
It was such a slow process that I didn’t immediately realize what was happening. Looking back I think I was the frog in the pot of water on the stove. If the water is boiling, the frog jumps out. But if the water is cold and increases in temperature, the frog gets cooked. That was me; a cooked frog.
At the same time, the Mayor decided to eliminate the Universal Pre-K umbrella that had more or less protected us from the whims of curriculum changes over the years. Suddenly my principal had complete control. Now I was expected to have my students reading and writing legibly by the end of the year. My principal said my students didn’t need to nap. It took away from academic rigor. The fact that some of my students fell over on the carpet after lunch was ignored. I was to wake them so they could learn.
By accident I read “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”. I didn’t read it because I was trying to raise my voice against the system. I had read “The Language Police” and wanted to read more about what Diane Ravitch had to say. For me, much of what is in the book is my history. As I read, I remembered living through much of those times. I just didn’t realize back then that it was a carefully planned attack by people with money and power to manipulate the system for their own agenda. Clearly, this assault on teachers and education had been going on for quite a while.
I remembered back when Sputnik went up and the battle cry was more math and more science. How are we going to beat the Russians? I made my mother go to a PTA meeting against her will where she spoke up for more classes in ethics and civics and fewer classes in math and science because she felt that if people couldn’t be human to each other, all the knowledge in the world wouldn’t help. She was asked to leave the meeting and not bother to return anytime soon.
I started thinking about how my classroom had changed and how I had been slowly brought around to doing educational practices which were against what I knew to be wrong but did them anyway to keep peace and my job. I still didn’t fully understand the big picture.
Then I started speaking up and colleagues would just look at me and tell me it was just a small thing I shouldn’t make waves. I read the papers. No one was speaking out. The dominant media had fallen in love with charter schools and public education was under fire. I followed the stories. At first an article spoke about how charter schools were the answer to schools that were failing. I didn’t know any failing schools but figured there must be some and thought the charter schools might take on special needs students for whom a public school was not working. As time passed I read more articles about how unions protect teachers against bad teaching and if only there were no unions principals could fire all the bad teachers and we would have wonderful schools. I never saw an article opposing that reasoning. I knew there were some teachers in my school who were not as knowledgeable as other teachers but in every profession there are some who excel and some who are just adequate and some who should find another career. But no one talked about that. The news stories featured only teachers. Then the articles got bolder. In some newspapers it seemed that reporters were given assignments to find dirt on a public school teacher and make it a front page headline. Politicians sensing there was power and money to be made jumped on the bandwagon and reassured the public that they would do everything in their power to root out bad teachers so their children would soar academically. There was no more hiding their agenda. It was out in the open. Shakespeare was being rewritten to “Let’s kill all the teachers.”
I noticed after quite a while; sometimes I process things slower than most, that all the vitriolic rhetoric towards teachers was aimed at schools and teachers in low income communities. Schools in affluent areas didn’t seem to be affected at all. It didn’t make sense. There must be ineffective teachers everywhere; why just in poverty pockets?
Then it dawned on me; those areas were easy targets. Parents everywhere want the best for their children. Poverty, crime, sometimes inadequate nutrition, family issues were not in play. It was the teachers to blame for their child’s poor performance in school. The politicians were going to save their children. It was a slick marketing campaign and it worked.
By then my voice was just a whisper against the massive voice that had been created. I was very depressed. It saddened me because I love teaching and I want the best for my students and I see how the reformers are looking at them as OPC (other people’s children) and creating curricular that is damaging many of them to the point that they will simply drop out of school when they can rather than face continued frustration and failure.
Then I remembered. When we liberated the death camps after WW2, everyone said “how come no one knew?” People knew but the dominant voice made it dangerous to speak out. Many who challenged the politicians disappeared. After Joe McCarthy was dethroned, people asked, “how did we let this happen?” There were voices but again the dominant voice made it dangerous. Those that spoke out often lost their jobs and careers were destroyed. They sent a clear message to those who would challenge the agenda of the day. Be quiet or risk your career.
I hope that when this dreadful period of time in American history comes to an end it has not destroyed one of the pillars of democracy; that of a free and public education.
In the end, historians and social psychologists will study this era for many years just as they study Nazi Germany and Joe McCarthy to try and understand how it happened.
It seems to be in our nature not to learn from history.
However, I have not given up hope. My daughter, whom I had been asking for years to read your book (she is also a teacher) read it this summer and said, “WOW” If she has finally found her voice, there will be others to follow. When it’s all over people will say they knew nothing about it and how could it have happened. Some will say, “Never Again”.