Updated April 29
When you work to change public education, people who don’t want change will try to reduce what you’re doing to a cliché. Then they’ll attack the cliché.
Here’s an example. If you publicly argue that merit should play a role in a teacher’s career — in compensation, job security, or advancement — your likely destination is a box labeled “Anti-Teacher.” Before long, you’ll also be cited in an article about the “war on teachers.”
Being in the box implies several things: You don’t understand schools or how hard teachers work and you think you can fire your way to improvement. The box implies the inverse as well: improving teaching is not necessary and an effort at reform, anywhere, is an attack on teachers everywhere.
Although less known, there’s another box out there that resembles “Anti-Teacher.” It’s labeled “Some Kids Can’t Learn” and, surprisingly, it contains the names of many teachers.
As of this week, the most notable occupant of that box is American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten.
Weingarten has shown a flair for mistakes on social media that seem a product of not reading beyond headlines. Examples include this tweet
questioning Teach for America’s commitment to diversity as well as inappropriate remarks
relating to race and school choice. But her recent retweetin
g of an op-ed and editorial cartoon from the Duluth News Tribune in response to the teacher tenure lawsuit filed there
makes earlier examples look tame.
The cartoon that illustrates the editorial (shown below) shocks in what it reveals about the eponymous, insipid passive/aggressive behavior called “Minnesota Nice.” More tellingly, though, Weingarten’s retweet shows what she and perhaps many of her members believe about our kids — that their entire identities can be reduced to the challenges they bring to the classroom, and that those challenges obviate and absolve the teacher’s responsibility in the learning equation.
To rephrase, they’re saying, “You’ve got the wrong parents kids…sorry, you lose.”
The facts about kids in the country’s public schools are as hard as they are cold. The majority of students live in poverty now
. Schools in America remain deeply segregated
by both race and opportunity.
What’s strange, however, is the unwillingness of Weingarten and many self-regarding teachers to acknowledge that the reality they say they cannot change — one where poverty and parenting are insurmountable — is the reality with which they must now deal. Poor kids from tough places are no longer the outlier in America’s schools — they’re the majority of students. No amount of handwringing or heartache will change this in our lifetime.
Weingarten famously panned the film “Waiting for Superman” as anti-public education and anti-teacher. Apparently, “Waiting for Rich Kids before We Can Teach” is now screening at AFT headquarters and stars many union members in action. It’s a film they may enjoy but it’s also one no child should have to see, ever.
Teaching is at a crossroads in this country but the issue isn’t which way we proceed with value-added scores or licensure and certification. It’s whether you’re up to the challenge of teaching poor kids or you’re not. There are no “better kids” waiting in the wings. There is no rosy scenario where poor kids in the hood have college-educated parents reading them lilting poetry in the evenings.
If Weingarten and teachers she leads are having such a dream, they need to wake up from it this morning.
I don’t pretend this is an easy conversation but it needs to be had, and bluntly, with anyone who shares Weingarten’s assumptions: namely, that mistakes of a child’s parent should be visited upon that child in the classroom — even as teachers, “realistic” about the supposedly insurmountable challenges that are their students, collect salaries and pensions shielded from scrutiny for jobs they say they cannot do.
We are supposed to hope to become Finland tomorrow, but our kids are in America today.
As a once-poor kid, I often extoll the virtues of the teachers who moved heaven and earth to ensure I was well educated. Today I worry those people are in short supply; it’s easier not to take on the challenge. I don’t know how else the president of a national teachers union could consider it acceptable to endorse giving up on children in such a dehumanizing and vile fashion. The likelihood that her attitude resonates with other teachers — that it may be the conventional wisdom — is the only thing more troubling.