Have you ever noticed that most of what we read about education is not written by educators? Our glimpses inside the classroom are provided by news reporters who usually begin their stories with pre-conceived notions about the downfall of education as we know it and then proceed to validate their opinions with a few visits to the local elementary school. As a result, public opinion regarding education in America is shaped by whatever article, book or movie seems to be getting attention from the mass media. The juicier the story, the more convinced the public is that the story is true. Throw in a few cutesy pictures and a couple of tears and you’ve got the public hanging on your every word. Unfortunately, the misinformation that gets published in newspapers and announced on television news programs can have a tremendous impact on the programs and policies on public education.
As the fickle public continues to swing and sway to media trends, politicians do their part to keep in time to the music by grasping at flavor-of-month program that will appease their constituents. These programs are ushered into schools by ambitious politicians and equally ambitious district officials ready to stop at nothing raise test scores, eliminate the elusive achievement gap, and perhaps end world hunger. Many of these programs are “awarded” to school districts along with hefty cash awards to ensure “effective implementation.” As a result, teachers are expected to embrace and fully utilize the latest and most popular learning program that flies into their classroom window. It has only been a few years since teachers in a district where I was working had to implement an ill-conceived and poorly researched “back to basics” phonics program forced upon them by corrupt politicians. The bad news is that The Reading First program was a waste of time and money for the schools that were unlucky enough to be a part of it. The good news is that it is gone now and our students no longer have to participate in phonics drills day after boring day. It turns out that politicians profited from the implementation from this initiative by forcing schools districts to purchase programs that provided donations to the Republican politicians. This wasn’t the first time the hands of politicians reached in to scrape their fingernails against the classroom chalkboard. For the past few years Washington has been having a love affair with charter schools. One of the pluses for these schools, according to news reports, is that charter school officials often have “flexibility” in hiring and firing teachers. On the surface, statements like this serve to appease a dissatisfied public. However, this “flexibility” has resulted in a dramatic salary drop for teachers at these schools. The bad news is that pay for teachers has never been high to begin with. However, parents shouldn’t worry about their local charter school finding trained professionals who are willing to work for low pay because many of these schools do not require their teachers to have credentials anyway. As I watch the disturbing trends in education, it is difficult not to become discouraged. As a veteran teacher of twenty-six years, I can’t help but wonder if the voice of the classroom teacher will ever be able to rise above the clever slogans and heartwarming pictures.
What will it take for teachers to earn a voice in education? Why do we have a Secretary of Education who has never been a teacher and never even worked in a public school? Perhaps if our politicians were in touch with what teachers face on a daily basis, they would have been willing to step in to help the teachers in Wisconsin who continue to struggle for basic rights as public employees. I encourage teachers across the country to share their stories—without sound bites, clever phrases of the week or worn out clichés. However, you can go ahead and throw in a picture of a kitten or two for the heck of it.