I love this interview:
The attack on teachers is a classic example of what [cognitive linguist George] Lakoff calls “framing.” We’re hearing from every politician and editorial board in the land – including The New York Times and The Washington Post and The New Yorker – that we need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom. And everyone, including you and me, nods stupidly. Because what am I going to say? “My granddaughter deserves that lazy, incompetent teacher!” They’re getting the conclusion that they want by framing the question as a statement. So there’s only one answer; no one can take the other side of that proposition. But what if I got to the podium first and said, “Every kid in America deserves an intellectually grounded, morally committed, compassionate, caring, intelligent, thoughtful, well-rested and well-paid teacher in the classroom”? We’d agree with that, too! So, who gets to say what we’re talking about?
There’s always been a contest in this country between the notion of the public and the notion of the private individual. This is in our DNA: the struggle between a kind of radical individualism – that cowboy, pioneer, explorer mentality – and the idea of the common good. And this is fought out constantly. Since 1980, a sustained attack has been going on against the very idea of the public – that nothing public is useful or good, including the schools.
In the past five years, that attack on public education has ratcheted up to dimensions that were unthinkable 30 years ago. And so people talk about the public schools in a way that is disingenuous and dishonest – and also frightening in its characterization: they say the schools are run by a group of self-interested, selfish, undertrained, undercommitted teachers, who have a union that protects them.
An example: The New Yorker does a profile of a thing called the “rubber room” – a space in the central office where people who are judged incompetent to teach are awaiting adjudication under the contract. Remember, the contract doesn’t only belong to the union, even though in The New Yorker and in the New York Times editorials, it’s as if the contract is all the union – the school board is also party to the contract; they negotiated it! Anyway, The New Yorker profiles 15 teachers – and I have to admit, just like everyone else, it was lip-smackingly interesting to read about these very, very crazy people; how fun! But there were 15 of them, in this system of tens of thousands. Why is that what we’re focused on? It’s because a case is being built that somehow teachers and their unions are the whole cause of the misery.
What they’re ignoring in all of these examples is the reality of poverty. They’re ignoring the reality of lots and lots and lots of Americans who do not have a living wage. And if you want to change what’s going on in schools, you have to realize that. We’d do more for education with a full-employment economy with a living wage than anything anyone can do by tinkering with the schools and firing teachers.
[Washington, DC, Chancellor of Education] Michelle Rhee got a cover story in Time Magazine right after Obama’s election. She’s the poster child for what they’re calling “reform.” The pivotal paragraph in that story says, “In the year and a half she’s been on the job, Rhee has made more changes than most school leaders make in five years.” It said she’d fired 36 principals, closed 21 schools, fired 270 teachers. Not a word about connecting the schools to their communities. Not a word about teacher retention. Not a word about the curriculum. Not a word about bringing resources to the starving system. She’s a “reformer” because she’s doing what the bosses of Enron did to Enron. That’s ridiculous! A school is not like a business, and the market metaphor that’s dominating the conversation actually misses everything important about schools.
This is the real tragedy for teachers: Education is like love. You can give it all away and still have plenty. You can share all the knowledge you have and not lose anything – except if you’re in a system where one school is being judged against another school, one classroom against another classroom, one state against another state. Well, then – I’m not giving you my shit. You go ahead and struggle on your own, because you and I are in a vicious fight for the Race to the Top money, for teacher jobs, for everything. That’s a catastrophe for the reality of how teaching is done at its best.
I speak to young teacher groups all the time, and I often start by asking, “Are any of you going into teaching because you think you’ll get rich?” And they laugh. And then I say, “Are any of you thinking you’ll have the overwhelming respect of your community?” They laugh again. And then they tell me, “My parents, my brother, my sister, my partner all told me not to teach.” So I say, “Why are you gonna do it? What’s wrong with you?” And what’s “wrong” with them is a desire to do moral work in an immoral world. Yet, we’re putting a stake in their hearts