Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reclaim our classrooms and schools. Demand a comprehensive, rigorous curriculum for all students.

This has been the most difficult school year for Milwaukee teachers and students since I started working for MPS more than 30 years ago.

Teachers not only face larger class sizes and less support. They are besieged by top-down mandates and testing requirements that have little to do with improving teaching.

Data, instead of a tool to help teachers, has become an obsession and an end in itself. Too many principals, worried that their schools may not make appropriate “data” benchmarks, are pushing teachers to adopt pedagogically unsound practices.

But good education is not “data driven.” It is “child driven and data informed.”  Good education is not based on fear and dictatorial orders. It is grounded in quality teaching and a rigorous, comprehensive curriculum.

As union president, every day I hear dedicated teachers express their frustrations and concerns.  Some of the increasingly common remarks: “I feel disrespected.” “There’s no time to teach.” “We’re not being treated like professionals.” “I’m spending time inputting data instead of planning my teaching and helping my students.” “They’ve taken the joy out of teaching and learning.”  “We’re turning both teachers and students into robots.”

The de-professionalization of teaching and the drill-and-kill/memorization approach to learning is happening throughout the United States. But it is most pronounced in urban school districts like Milwaukee, which predominantly serve low-income students of color.

Which raises a troubling but much-neglected question. Are we institutionalizing a dual system of education, not only in terms of segregation and resources, but also curriculum?  

Writer Jonathan Kozol has eloquently described the “savage inequalities” in funding between most suburban and urban school districts. He has, in equally eloquent language, written of the “educational apartheid” that separates teaching and curriculum. Poor children in urban schools (especially those who did not get into highly sought-after admissions schools) tend to get a narrower, skills-centered, textbook- and test-driven curriculum. Schools serving more affluent students, especially in suburban areas, tend to receive a full repertoire of art, music, and physical education, along with classrooms in which they work on projects, read entire books, and grabble with ideas and solve problems.

On the bright side, concerned people throughout the nation are fighting back. The Save Our Schools rally this summer in Washington D.C., attended by hundred of Wisconsin teachers, is just one example. Others include:

Parents organizing to defend quality education in public schools. This weekend in Milwaukee, parents met to launch a Milwaukee chapter of Parents for Public Schools. For more information contact Jasmine Alinder, 414-378-7262.

Meanwhile, Chicago parent activist Julie Woestehoff, who is also Legislative Chair of Parents Across America, wrote a letter to Congress noting the lack of parent input in Senate hearings on the reauthorization of the NCLB. She called for “less emphasis on standardized testing and more reliable accountability and assessment practices including local, teacher-designed assessments supplemented by other measures such as site visits and teacher and parent surveys.”

Principals speaking out.
Scores of Long Island, NY principals recently wrote an open letter critical of tying pay and evaluations to student scores on standardized tests. “Our students, teachers and communities deserve better,” they wrote and called for changes in state legislation.

School board members speaking out.
A school board member took the NY test administered to 10th graders and wrote: “If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.”

Academics speaking out.
Educational historian Diane Ravitch, an outspoken critic of testing, recently told a Seattle Times reporter, “"Schools have taken the fun out of learning with endless standardized tests. Some schools are testing monthly, even weekly. It's terrible."  

Speaking on Dec. 9 at the National Opportunity to Learn Summit, Ravitch criticized market-based reforms and the NCLB and goes on to say this about standardized testing: “One thing we know for certain about standardized testing. Poor and minority kids consistently get lower test scores than white and privileged kids. So why would we make testing the most important measure of education? Why would we take the technology that is most discouraging to children in the bottom half and then insist that it matters more than anything else? Why would we give more credibility to standardized tests than to teachers’ and parents’ judgments about children’s potential?”

Teachers speaking out.
Rethinking Schools editor and veteran New Jersey teacher Stan Karp spoke this fall at the Northwest Teachers for Social Justice Conference explains how there is “heroic resistance” to the corporate-supported “school reform” which rests on standardized testing and privatization.

Both here in Milwaukee and across the country, there are teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members who understand that education reform means more than filling in bubbles on a standardized test.  That a good education means more than training children to mindlessly regurgitate numbers and decontextualized facts.

Together we can, and must, do what is best for our students.

All children deserve art, music and phy-ed. All children deserve teachers who help them to think, question and problem solve. All children deserve a multicultural, challenging curriculum that speaks to their lives and prepares them for the future.

It is time to reclaim our classrooms and schools.


  1. How true, Bob! It's time to get off the 'blame the teacher' track and realize how much parents, family life and the child's environment affect his or her ability to learn, much less show up for class and pay attention. It's about the price that poverty exacts upon students. Read this from the Dec. 12 New York Times op-ed page.

  2. Tired teachers no longer talk about transferring to a more desirable school or school district, they talk about leaving teaching.

  3. I see and hear so much from the educator's point of view. It's good to see that parents and Board members are also chiming in. Unfortunately, until there is a media blitz, there will be little or nothing done to change legislators' minds about NCLB and the testing as the top priority in schools. If only John Stewart and Steven Colbert would take this on as a pet project, THEN something might happen. People actually do listen to them, when the regular news media tend to look the other way.