The Attacks on American Education
The American Education system is under attack. Betsy Devos. ALEC. The Walton Family Foundation. The American Federation for Children. I do not think saying this is extremely provocative or mind-blowing. We are greatly aware of this fact and ever vigilant to defend what is good and great about the vision and implementation of public education for all. It is why we stay alert, mindful, and ready to defend our profession. I want to contend, however, there is another threat to our passion for education. This particular threat is the attacks from others within our ranks. The cannibalization of education from within stood out to me when witnessing the response of educators to the recent XQ Super School Live program. If you are not familiar with this show it was a live broadcast this previous Friday (September 08, 2017) which simultaneously aired on all four major networks. I have read much response to this program. Some good, some mixed and some seething. It is this last category of response which I am seeking to address in this essay. I want to counter the major issues this intensely negative line of reaction has centered upon and use those counter arguments to address the twin root causes of pride and inability to withstand criticism.
The first major reaction was to the opening of the program. I will admit I initially had some uneasy feelings during this portion of the broadcast as well. The opening shared the narrative that the public education system has largely remained the same while the world around it has changed significantly in the last century. I reacted strongly here because my classroom for sure does not look like a 1900 classroom. Then when I took an emotional step back from myself I realized that a number of classrooms in my building and on my very hall look much like that classroom of the past. I would go as far as saying the only two differences in some of them is white boards replacing chalkboards and the lack of a coal burning stove for heat. The negative reaction here can only come from a sense of hurt pride. Not every teacher tries innovative ways to arrange and decorate their classroom. Not every teacher is willing to go from rows to a horseshoe arrangement, much less group stations or standing desk or differentiated seating. Not every teacher tries to utilize available tech as much as possible. Now on this point I will say budgetary restrictions come into play. But then why attack an organization trying to help bring more technology into the classroom? The program was by no means saying this is every classroom. I am not even sure they were saying it is most classrooms. They were saying this model still exists. I am here to say it does still exist. I have witnessed this with my own eyes even today.
The second point of concern for the Negative Nancy’s is the following comment from Bill Hader. When students cross this threshold, they bring their hopes and dreams only to encounter a system that no longer helps them achieve these goals. Again I will admit at first hearing this attacks my pride (hmm there is that word repeating itself). Again, though, this necessitates a deeper examination. I know I love my students. It is why I drive for hours on a Friday evening to go watch them play a sport. It is why I hold them in an embrace after a classmate has lost his life. It is why I give so much of my time in teaching, lesson planning, grading, class sponsorship, building a parade float, working the scoreboard at home games, going to workshops to hone my craft, and a million other things. The easy way to do this job would be to give some notes, pass out some worksheets and go home and binge evening television. That is not the way I do my job and not the way many others do their job. Yet many do their jobs just this way. Many complain about students every chance they get and say things such as “never believe a single thing a student says”. Now when a career teacher can say and believe the preceding statement then yes they have forgotten that education is about students not them.
The third negative response centers around Chance the Rapper. This response is much similar to the first. Pushback against the narrative which claims the world is changing while schools are not. It is at this point of reading the Negative Nancy’s that I become absolutely flabbergasted. Attacking Little Chano from 79th street, (his twitter name) really??? Here is what I know about Chance the Rapper. He not only loves Public Education; he is willing to put up his own money to support that love. The current Governor of Illinois is trying to follow the path of Kansas, Indiana, Oklahoma et. al. and cut public ed funding past the bare bones. This is creating a massive effect on the Chicago Public Schools system. Here is where Chance comes in with his support of public ed. Over the last year, Chance has met with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to discuss funding for Chicago public schools (CPS), donated $1 million to help CPS, raised $2.2 million in grant money for CPS, and, most recently, he announced Chicago will host an awards show in 2018, the Twilight Awards, for “teachers, parents, principals, and students that convey leadership.” Chance is not criticizing public school teachers at large. Rather he is pointing to a new way and a plan to move forward.
The fourth and fifth points of contention are very similar. XQ says the days of hoping someone will come along to save the day are over, and American public high schools are broken. Just as above I would point to nothing more than pure pride being the source of this issue. The celebrities on the program nor XQ live are making sweeping claims that every teacher in this country is horrible and broken. They are not saying you or I are necessarily broken, they are saying by and large the system is. It takes a measure of humility to admit this but they are right. Are we as good as we could be? No. There is more, so much more we could be doing. I dream of the day VR technology gets to the level of full implementation in my history classes. Instead of just lecturing about the ruins in Greece tomorrow the class could put on our glasses and visit the ruins as the lecture and discussion occur. Changes such as this will produce more global and alert citizens prepared for the future. Making this claim is not denigrating you, it is saying there is so much more we could do, oh and it is reaffirming that it is about the student and not the teacher in the classroom.
Point 6 attempts to connect the people behind XQ with the broader voucher and school choice movement. Here is a point I believe the Negative Nancy’s are reading far too much into the program. The people behind school choice are by and large conservative if not ultra-conservative. Their push is slightly racist at times and seems to be nothing more than a re-segregation of schools combined with a brain washing of almost alt-right rhetoric. The people behind XQ are strong progressives. Even Randi Weingarten was in the audience. Ms. Weingarten is the current head of American Federation of Teachers and sits on the Executive Council of AFL-CIO. That is right a board member of Samuel Gompers organization was there in support. I think that in and of itself is enough of a statement to show XQ is not tied to those shadowy groups pushing school choice and privatization.
The final issue brought by the Negative Nancy’s is centered around the segment were various celebrities list what they wish they had learned in high school. Why is this so bad? Does it damage our pride as well? Amazing how much that word pride has repeated itself, but more in that in a moment. Last year when I was taking my U.S. History students through the counter culture era of the late 1960’s I challenged them to take what we had studied and apply it to today. I put them in groups and had them create a poster, song, or essay along with an accompanying social media campaign to address something they wanted to protest in today’s world. I received many that addressed the proposed wall on the Mexican border, a few on the legalization of drugs, and one very amazing project. That amazing project focused on the things they wish they had learned in school. Now was I offended with this project. No I was motivated by these students being willing to speak out on an issue about which they felt strongly. Most of the things they mentioned were social studies or civics related. As a history/social studies teacher this saddened me. However, I did not claim they were denigrating me personally. No I understood that not all classrooms are what they could be. I also know that decades of teaching to the test has robbed some of our students of the ability to learn more than just math and reading at an early age. Yes. there are things I myself wish I had learned in school that I did not. Does that mean I do not value my high school teachers? No I loved them. I still reflect on most of them weekly and attempt to model their strengths on a daily basis. Again our schools could be better. This is not a statement attacking every teacher and school. It is just reality. We could do more, so much more.
We can do more in the realm of public education. Some of the biggest hurdles come in funding. So when a company or individual comes along to help in that funding crisis, such as Chance or XQ, we should thank them and work with them; not attack them. An ancillary criticism of XQ is their use of magnet and charter schools to form their XQ Super Schools. I believe they go this way because we have made the path of change for public schools so difficult. It is easier for them to try new and innovative things on a large scale in the magnet or public charter world. That being said I do want to point out the fact that these XQ Super Schools are majority minority. In contrast to the bleached white world of vouchers and privatization XQ Super Schools serve minorities.
There was a repeated refrain throughout this essay. That refrain is pride. I believe it is this pride that is causing the backlash. Instead of taking the time to investigate and examine what is going on and to realize the amazing support XQ is giving public education we are allowing our pride to be bruised and to lash out instead of saying thank you. For an entire hour this past Friday NBC, CBS, ABC, & Fox showed a program talking about how great students are and treating teachers as celebrities on a red carpet. The only way we react negatively to that is if we are too full of pride we can distinguish what happens in our room from what may not be happening elsewhere. The only way we react negatively to that is if we are so incapable of receiving criticism that we see any statement about education as applying to everyone in those schools. We have to be able to rise above this. We have to rise above the feeling that any criticism of public schools is also a criticism of us as well. We have to learn to join the conversation for the betterment of education in a productive way and not just a reactionary way. We can only get there when we learn to separate broad criticism from personal hurt and we become humble enough to realize we could do things better, even in our already innovative and engaging rooms.
 Chris Weller, “Chance the Rapper is on a mission to prove that public schools still matter,” Business Insider, September 07, 2017, , accessed September 11, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/chance-the-rapper-teacher-awards-proving-why-public-schools-matter-2017-9.