Evaluating teachers on their students’ performance has elicited much public comment of late. In essence, this view assumes that if students aren’t learning, the fault lies squarely with their teachers. Well, perhaps. But not necessarily. While the logic of this view seems compelling at first, a moment’s reflection shows that it ignores several factors over which teachers have no control.
These factors include: the home life of children; the social dislocations of our time; America’s Gospel of Instant Gratification; commercial TV; school sports; the restlessness of American society and its ingrained anti-intellectualism and ambivalence toward knowledge; youth’s distrust of the adult world and the school; youth culture and its rejection of tradition; the Millennial Generation and its outlook on life; technology’s negative impact on learning; Facebook; the eclipse of reading, and our youth’s literal-mindedness, lack of intellectual curiosity, inability to ask significant questions and disinclination to cultivate a critical mind. These are far more relevant factors that affect student learning, and an article could be written on each of them.
The issue of teacher responsibility for student learning must be placed within the broader context of what has been happening in American society for more than a generation outside the classroom. Only in this way will the discussion of the crisis within public education become more realistic, and honest, in confronting what has been occurring for decades, and why singling out teachers distorts the true nature of both the problem and its solution.
The emotional, familial and social problems of too many inner-city students are often so deeply embedded and, in many cases, treatable only by professional help, that the paltry resources of the school cannot even begin to address them. As if that weren’t enough, insult is added to injury when cash-strapped schools are then routinely accused of academically “failing their students,” when they should rather be praised for courageously carrying on in the face of such impossible odds.
But what makes matters worse is that these same schools are now set up for additional failure by being denied vitally needed funding now diverted to charter schools as part of a cleverly devised right-wing strategy of privatizing public education across the country to reward political cronies and contributors.
Rather than blaming these schools for “failing” their children, consider the war zone within which many of these schools are located: decaying neighborhoods, virtual armed camps where students must live amidst gang wars, homicides, drugs, alcoholism, unemployment, poverty, despair and hopelessness. These youngsters are defeated even before they arrive at school!
More to the point, consider the historical reasons that caused this blight: decades-old neglect
that simply wrote off the inner cities to die on the vine, as state and federal funding were diverted to facilitating “white flight” to the suburbs. Blaming the “failure of schools,” as suggested by the film “Waiting for Superman,” is a willful distortion of the facts.
That sentimentalized polemic against America’s public schools is a barefaced lie that conceals the real reason for the “failure” of these schools: the deep and ingrained class and racial divisions in our nation’s history. How much easier to wax moralistic and blame the schools as the villains, the helpless victims of this enduring legacy of generations of social injustice. Much better to blame the schools, the victims of racist policies, rather than the policies themselves — or even to change them!
But what politician would dare take this on? That would mean real leadership and reform, not the crowd-pleasing pseudo-reform quick fix of demonizing teachers, blaming them for the responsibility that government abdicated decades ago. Instead of hectoring teachers to do more and more with less and less, genuine reform will only begin when government redirects its resources to address our educational infrastructure at home rather than adventures abroad. But, then again, it’s always more profitable to Haliburtonize the world than our inner cities!
Until that happens, talk of reform will be dismissed by teachers as empty, self-serving political bombast, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing but sound bites designed for the six o’clock news, launching pads for those who aspire to higher political office, even the White House.
Those who sit at the Table of the Mighty in this country have always known the answer to these seemingly intractable problems. What is wanting is simply the political will.
Until those in power dare to show true leadership by helping the poor rather than protecting the rich, until they use the power of their office to effect real change rather than scapegoating teachers and schools that are working against hopeless odds to do the impossible, rather than waiting for Superman, we’ll be waiting for Godot.
Frank Breslin is a high-school teacher with 40 years of experience. He has taught Latin and social studies and currently teaches English and German.