Diane\'s Blog

Kevin Parker

November 22, 2010

To Diane Ravitch:

First I wanted to thank you for Death and Life…. As someone who has become enraged by nearly every article, editorial, and interview regarding education, your example has been uplifting. Your book and your voice have been clear, courageous, and consistent in support of true improvement (I am reluctant to use the word “reform”) to the public education system. Even after I correspond with journalists — sometimes heatedly, sometimes civilly — I still feel as though too few of those who claim media attention or provide media coverage truly understand education. Bill Gates’ recent comments only underscore that point. However, I can consistently count on you for ideas testified to by history and verified by evidence.

Beyond my gratitude, I wanted to express a concern I have yet to see addressed: educational “reform” as an assault on the middle-class. From my perspective, I view two opposing viewpoints of the teaching profession. The first, more traditional, sees teaching as a process-based craft that requires careful, reflective practice that must be repeated and honed over years. True, we enter the profession with an array of strategies and mastered content, but we learn how to connect with students and how to manage them over time. We revise — both minutely and drastically — our curriculum and lesson plans based on our own experiences and observations. I have often thought of teaching in this sense as a craft, and it’s one that requires a lifetime to master. The second, as advocated by Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and others, sees teaching as outcome-based curriculum taught according to a pre-determined plan looking for a determined, quantified outcome. In this sense, teachers are expendable, easily replaced by a new recruit. Their long-term happiness with their position and the stability of staff for the morale of the school is irrelevant. Teaching, for these reformers and the teachers they hire, is a short-term indulgence before moving on to a more lucrative career. Teach for America, the abolition of tenure, and “value-added” assessments fit perfectly into this view.

Should this second view predominate, it’s hard to imagine teaching retaining any of its prestige, tarnished now but not destroyed. Further, should this second view predominate, I would predict an increase in the turnover rate (already disconcertingly high at the five-year mark). I have been teaching for nine years, am working on a second Masters based specifically on the curriculum I teach, dedicate additional hours as a union officer, and eagerly volunteer for school activities be they for the professional development of colleagues, improvement of district policy or curriculum, or student-related dances or concerts. However, my wife (also a teacher) and I have decided that if we follow this second, path we would rather abandon public education than abandon teaching as a craft. It pains us to think so, but the calling of teaching is too important to us. I understand the place of outcome-based, quantitative assessment, but how wise is to focus so much on outcomes when so many factors beyond a teacher’s control can influence those outcomes?

I am hopeful that the “long arc of history” will, in this case, bend towards a rational, effective and humane educational policy. But how long will that take? How much damage to the profession and to students must we first endure?

Kevin Parker