The 2011-2012 school year has finally ended, and none too soon. It has been the hardest year of my career as a teacher, and judging from conversations I’ve had with a range of teachers and students in a number of places, that is true for almost everyone. At least in Rhode Island. Even the students said that this year was different and worse—but not in a normal way. A qualitative shift took place this year, and we are all the worse for it.
Before I launch into a post-mortem, however, there is one group of teachers that did not see this as the worst year of their career. For teachers in the Central Falls diaspora, it was not the worst year. For Providence teachers whose schools were closed last year—provided they found appropriate placements—it was not the worst year. In other words, for people who’ve already been through the wringer, things seemed a bit better.
So what’s going on here? I suspect that for those of us in districts that were not previously hit with restructuring (such as CF and Providence), the “reforms” in those districts spread to the suburbs. And now, we’re all in the same boat…more or less.
For all teachers, and for all of public education, the main contradiction is this: on the one hand, a fanatical “education reform” movement that is advancing on multiple fronts with varied detachments (the charter schools, the “venture philanthropists”, the Broad-trained bureaucrats and bought-off politicians, the flat-out union busting); and on the other, the crushing weight of funding crises and budget cuts.
How does this play out? There are multiple and intersecting effects, and the end result is that while everyone has some idea why things are so messy, no one can quite grasp how they got that bad. It sets up like this:
1) Administrators, given directives from Duncan and Gist, are under pressure to tighten the screws on their teachers; those that don’t tighten the screws enough are liable to be fired. While superintendents and school committees have pushed hard in contract negotiations, building administrators have found a million and one ways to violate contract language—even language they themselves wanted in the first place—when it suits the needs of command and control, also known as “management rights”.
2) The new evaluation system is a train wreck in the unfolding. There’s the obvious: that the original system was going to be a tremendous burden on the building administrators, who appear to have rebelled against it to a certain extent. Not, of course, like the principals in New York State who signed a petition against their system there—but why else would the state have backed off the original six observations? Then, the ridiculous: there is NO CREDIBLE STUDY that shows that “student achievement data” reflects anything about the quality of the teacher. Then, the draconian: that teachers can lose not just their jobs but also their certification if they do not get adequate ratings. The pressure to perform is intense.
3) The stress and pressure that teachers are feeling, they naturally and often unwittingly transfer to their students. Suddenly, the student that complains about the test, or that misbehaves in class, or that tries to leave him or herself behind, is no longer just an irritation; that student is now a mortal threat to the teacher’s career. Small wonder, then, that the teacher’s response is not one of correcting and guiding, but of cracking down and controlling.
4) The threat of budget cuts has everyone, particularly the elective teachers, living in dread of what the future may bring. Teachers are scurrying to do extra things, to show how important and popular their own particular subject is. Numerous teachers in my school organized trips to competitions or for cultural experiences this year—almost completely unsupported by the school in any official capacity. Then there’s the pressure to ramp up the curriculum, in the hopes that a more solid curriculum in one area will save it from the chopping block (with the corollary that we’re all in competition, of course). In my school, the district has put tremendous weight on offering Advanced Placement courses. Of course, when those courses are implemented hastily and without the proper support or class sizes, the weight falls on the teachers as the students’ grades come back as 1s. But it also means that teachers are scurrying to develop curriculum and instruction at an accelerated pace. And, we’re in competition with each other for the best students.
5) New teachers are pitted against the old. While the old teachers are balking at the wave of shit being launched at all teachers, new teachers lack the perspective to understand just how much more unnecessary work is being thrust upon us, and with no extra compensation nor even consideration, not to mention respect. When the administration makes demands—backed, of course, with education-reform jargon, some of which makes sense to pedagogically progressive teachers, and some of which is sheer nonsense—the old teachers want to know if we’re getting any time or money to do xyz, while the new teachers see the demand as part of the job and get frustrated at the old teachers for “holding things up”. In the worst cases, those teachers are propped up and promoted by administrators, and may even collude with the administration against their fellow teachers. The new teachers are not wrong to want to develop their teaching, curriculum and instruction—but the conditions for doing those things are not advantageous to all teachers, as they once were. New are pitted against old; both are divided so that each can be conquered.
6) The best, most responsible teachers—those that are both most likely to want to take responsibility for their area, but also most likely to want to defend their rights and those of their colleagues against the administration—are overwhelmed. It is natural, it should be our goal, that educators control the conditions of our labor and our profession. But in a situation of weakened organization, reduced staff, increased demands from the state and federal levels, and an all-out offensive from administration, this is simply not possible. In effect, these teachers—if they are allowed to take responsibility for their department or area—are forced to go well above and beyond the call of duty. And, given what I’ve described above, they do so without the aid of other teachers, without a real team of people who have their back.
7) And lastly, the effect: I have no statistics on this, but there appears to have been a real sharp increase in the amount of illness, both physical and mental, among teachers. And the rest of us are just drinking a lot more.
The question it leaves me with is: is it just my building, or is it like this everywhere? The best answer I can come up with is that, while every building and district vary somewhat on the basis of the differing personalities of their administrators, their communities, the collective dynamic and history of their teachers—nonetheless, these symptoms are effects of the same contradiction that confronts us all. I could be wrong, but I suspect, to quote Tom Waits, things are tough all over, it ain’t gettin’ any better.
But rather than end on that note, I’d like instead to point out the hopeful signs—may they flourish and grow! After all, it was not all darkness in 2011-2012. We started the year with a setback for the Achievement First bid to put a school in Cranston. Principals in New York State rebelled against the Obama/Duncan evaluation system. The Occupy movement reconfigured the public discourse, such that we now have a shorthand for austerity and corporate greed—the 1%–versus the needs of the rest of us, the 99%. While Occupy may not be in the parks anymore, the model has inspired parents and teachers fighting against school closures.
Three last sparks of hope: 1) the Providence Teachers for a Democratic Union put together an opposition slate, and Anna Kuperman got 227 out of 580 votes, a significant challenge to Steve Smith’s class-collaborationist leadership. Though they didn’t win, there’s more for TDU to do—and I intend to elaborate on it in the future. 2) In Quebec, university students spent most of the spring semester on strike against a 75% hike in tuition. Their June 22 protest brought out many more than expected, and the Maple Spring is likely to produce a hot autumn. 3) In Chicago, 90% of the members of the CTU (98% of those voting) voted to authorize a strike against the administration of Rahm Emanuel, the ruthless, middle-fingerless mayor of Chicago, the close friend and confidant of Barack Obama. It’s quite something for the CTU to be preparing to strike against such a close Obama ally, in the midst of a close election. It’s also potentially the most important event in American education in years.
So with that, the blessed summer begins. I’ll be attending Socialism 2012 in two days, excited to hear from leaders of the Quebec student struggle and the Chicago Teachers’ Union. I’ll also be hearing from contributors to the new book, Education and Capitalism. And for those of you who can’t make it from Providence to Chicago, the CDPE will be holding a study group on the book this summer—watch for details. 2012-2013 promises to be a year of struggle—here’s hoping it’s better than the last.