My teachers in elementary school mostly worked for no salaries at all — they were nuns whose devotion to their vocations led them to careers in teaching back in the day when the Catholic schools in Philadelphia were thriving. Among these good sisters, some had formal training in education, but many learned ‘on the job’ in those halcyon years in the ’50’s and early 1960’s when the rising tide of vocations raced to keep up with the baby boom. We didn’t have many educational gizmos. We spent a lot of time memorizing lessons from the blue-covered books that were standard texts in our schools, especially the Baltimore Catechism, and we perfected the art of diagramming sentences. But we learned — God knows, we learned very well!
Heaven help the girl or boy who got caught whispering in class — not only was there a long afternoon in store clapping erasers on the school steps, but then there was the scene at home when our parents learned of our transgression. Parents and teachers were a pretty awesome force in the educational dynamic of those Catholic schools. Parents spent evenings supervising homework and reinforcing the day’s lessons about self-control, discipline and the deep importance of shined shoes as evidence of a tidy soul.
We could spell and write better than the demon ‘publics’ who, we were told, were suffering in schools that reflected “godless communism” even though, rumor had it, they had a lot more ‘stuff’ like televisions in their classrooms, and they didn’t have to wear uniforms. They also didn’t get punished for whispering in class, but then again, we heard their schools were anarchies (a word we discovered in our box of vocabulary cards.) We prayed for the “godless communists” and “pagan babies” every day, and endlessly rehearsed the hymns for Sunday Mass et in saecula saeculorum… (or at least it sometimes seemed like it would go on forever…)
Apparently, we didn’t pray hard enough. Public education is in so much trouble these days.
I was thinking about the billions of dollars in the value of free labor that generations of Catholic women religious devoted to the education of generations of children when I read the most recent “Manifesto” on “How to Fix Our Schools” in the Washington Post last Sunday. Organized by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, this declaration drew support from 14 other big city chancellors and superintendents, as well as the Council of Great City Schools.
This ‘manifesto’ broke no new ground, and in a somewhat superficial way, it simply repeated the well-worn diagnosis and prescription of the current school reform movement: schools fail because teachers fail. Ergo, by removing ineffective teachers and hiring great teachers, children will learn. Addendum: to hire the best teachers, increasingly lucrative financial incentives are necessary.
The ‘manifesto’ puts it this way:
“District leaders also need the authority to use financial incentives to attract and retain the best teachers. When teachers are highly effective — measured in significant part by how well students are doing academically — or are willing to take a job in a tough school or in a hard-to-staff subject area such as advanced math or science, we should be able to pay them more. Important initiatives, such as the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, are helping bring great educators to struggling communities, but we have to change the rules to professionalize teaching.
“Let’s stop ignoring basic economic principles of supply and demand and focus on how we can establish a performance-driven culture in every American school — a culture that rewards excellence, elevates the status of teachers and is positioned to help as many students as possible beat the odds. We need the best teacher for every child, and the best principal for every school. Of course, we must also do a better job of providing meaningful training for teachers who seek to improve, but let’s stop pretending that everyone who goes into the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence.”
When I read those passages, I found myself thinking of Sister Mary Richard, my fifth grade teacher. She would have had some harsh words for the convoluted construction of some of those sentences. She would have started diagramming to demonstrate the presence of several dangling thoughts, like the phrase, “but we have to change the rules to professionalize teaching” which seems unrelated to the antecedent phrase. (That dangling phrase is curious, since teaching has long been professionalized. Do the writers mean to suggest that all of the millions of people who previously worked in teaching were not professionals?)
More to the point, however, I thought of Sister Mary Richard and the other nuns who worked without taking salaries at all, and who labored under some fairly primitive conditions in terms of facilities and amenities. I then thought of all of the other countless teachers and educators I have known who have chosen the life in teaching for the reward of helping children and young adults to thrive without demanding equal recompense.
Nobody disputes the need for excellence in teaching. The current controversy over education reform is not about goals, but methods. The controversy is also about the fundamental differences of ideology and philosophy.
Money does not make great teachers or great principals or school leaders. To suggest that the ‘basic economic principles of supply and demand’ should now replace the sense of vocation that real teachers bring to their calling is a formula for even more disaster, not less. Great teaching and learning is not merely transactional, a commodity that can be bought or sold for the right price. While, certainly, teachers and educators should earn just and fair wages, the contention that school reform is all about money misses the point entirely.
Nor can school reform be all about the teachers alone. Catholic schools, long hailed as among the most effective educational models before the “free labor” of the nuns disappeared, enjoyed strong partnerships with parents and communities. Parents are integral players in the educational dynamic. The ‘manifesto’ of the chancellors completely ignores parents.
The ‘manifesto’ also completely ignores poverty, see my previous blog on this topic.
Curiously, the ‘manifesto’ ends with a huge endorsement of charter schools, where, in fact, neither the chancellor nor the mayor have any control over the teachers. After saying that it’s ok to close failing schools in poor neighborhoods, the ‘manifesto’ then says that charter schools can step in. Problem is, not all charter schools are excellent, by any measure, and many neighborhoods simply do not have this option available to the neediest children and families. But shouldn’t public school leaders be advocating in favor of their own public schools, rather than saying that their own schools should be shut down and the children sent elsewhere?
Curious, and wrong.
Failing urban public schools are not the fault of one group of people. Blaming teachers is scandalous, and the current war against teachers will have no good end except to drive good people out of the profession. Certainly, have rigorous standards to weed out the bad teachers, but stop blaming the teaching profession for the pervasive, systemic failures of urban education.
Those failures have well-documented root causes in the social conditions of neighborhoods and families, and the ways in which those conditions make some schools impossibly difficult and dangerous places to teach, and make it impossible for children to absorb the lessons taught.
To say the teacher is at fault because a child scores poorly on a standardized test is an abysmal default position for educational and civic leaders who should know better than to play the blame game. Whether a child can learn properly arises from a host of factors, some of which are in the teacher’s control, some not. Whether the child, having learned something, can reflect that learning on a standardized test is another question. Whether the teacher’s pay and performance evaluation should be based on test scores is a bad excuse for creating a fairer and more equitable assessment system for both the student and the teacher.
Schools will not get better by brute force. The best schools are those where the entire professional workforce collectively reflect a deep sense of mission and vocation — yes, words borrowed from the nuns, and qualities that are strangely, sadly missing from the ‘manifesto’ for school reform. Without that sense of dedication that transcends the current fixation on money and power, too many urban schools will continue to lack the real moral and spiritual resources necessary to heal the ills that repress the potential of children.