America’s national pastime is alive and well: scapegoating. Of late, teachers seem to be the target of convenience. I thought I’d collect some thoughts from a couple of teachers with more than 60 years of collective teaching experience.
Vickie Mahrt, who is president of the Unit 5 Education Association, and Tri-Valley social studies teacher Robin Roberts were eager to oblige.
“Is the public education system failing?” I began.
“Sure, some districts perform better than others but to lump all districts together and brand the entire system a failure is just wrong,” stated Roberts.
“The ‘No Child Left Behind’ law sets up every public school in the nation to eventually be labeled ‘failing’ because the stated goal of the law is for 100 percent of our students to be performing on grade level in certain subjects,” added Mahrt. “Any reasonable person understands that we have a significant number of public school students who will not be able to perform on grade level in any given year. For example, students with disabilities, students who do not speak English, students who do not attend regularly or who are transient will struggle, no matter what their teachers do to help them learn.”
“Kinda sounds like ‘Mission Impossible,’ ” I offered.
“Well, Illinois is currently working on designing a new test which will measure student growth. Educators are part of the design team. So this is a good thing,” observed Mahrt.
“I worry about high-quality college graduates viewing teaching as a career of choice. The extension of the retirement age and reduction in benefits for new teachers, along with the assault on collective bargaining, in at least a couple of states, have teachers feeling threatened,” added Roberts.
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Mahrt. “I think many young people are discouraged from considering a career in education because of the increasingly strident teacher-bashing in the media.”
And the collective bargaining thing?
“It is important that the people who are doing the actual work have a voice in how the organization operates,” said Mahrt. “In our school district, unions provide the framework for giving teachers — the education experts — a voice in the district’s decision-making process. Additionally, we focus on the collaborative relationship between the union, administration, and school board. We are continually looking for ways we can work together to improve educational opportunities for our students.”
So the governor of Wisconsin excluding teachers and their expertise from public school curricula design and assessment is kinda like …
Roberts jumped in. “It would be like you advising an astronaut on how to fly the space shuttle. It is not your area of expertise. When trying to save money, I often wonder if people understand price vs. cost.”
“Price is the amount of funding required to provide an equal opportunity for all students to receive a quality education,” said Roberts.
“Costs to the students and society are very high if we don’t succeed. Let me just say, the increase in classroom size, unfunded mandates, the expectation of doing more with less … well, I just sometimes wonder where peoples’ priorities are when it comes to the education of our children,” he said.
“When we do our job by providing feedback on areas for improvement, when we offer expert opinions based on years of experience and research, teachers often tell me that they feel vilified,” added Mahrt.
And in your expert opinions?
“A teacher typically teaches seven, 45-minute classes in a school day. Holding the attention of a K-12 student for just one 45-minute class is hard work. I’m proud of the work I do. I hope others recognize how important teaching is to all of us,” said Roberts.
“I think we need to give teachers a strong voice in how schools are organized and run, and in the design of instruction and assessment,” said Mahrt. “I think we need to develop an attitude of honor and respect for teachers as public servants, who care for, nurture and educate the nation’s children.”
-- Schwartz is director of the McLean County Diversity Project and a former mayor of Downs.