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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Improbable Scholars by David L Kirp


I have always been intrigued and amused by the titles of educational scholarly treatises, be they articles or books. This one is no exception, Improbable Scholars, The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools by David L. Kirp. Of course the title grabbed me for two reasons: ‘scholars is what I called my students and this is a book about the futile attempts to explain American education. His credentials don’t impress, instead they send up red flags.
I can still hear my dad, also an educator laughing so hard he teared after he asked me in 1974, why I became a teacher. I responded because I wanted to be in a job without politics. Now forty years later, I would laugh, but instead I am crying at how stupid I was, not about teaching but about the politics. Education is more political than even politics and that is sad, depressing, and why education is so troubled in this country. Get politics out of education and then we can speak about reform and about creating a very good educational policy driven by pedagogy and not politics.
This tome begins with an account of schools published in April 2012, like its many predecessors, going back To a Nation at Risk, that advocates essentially for the abandonment of public schools for Charter Schools. This is from Joel Klein and Condi Rice, two very unqualified individuals on the subject of education. Klein proved his incompetence during his tenure in NYC by constantly uprooting any plan he put into effect the very next year with another ill-advised idea. Education is like tea, it takes a little time to brew. We cannot expect to see the results they hoped for when teachers had so little time to prepare and implement the crazy ideas espoused from Tweed and then have all that change the next school year. Schools are not to be run like business, yet educational leaders have been chosen to emulate business practice, and well we know how that has worked out in business and education. Please leave education to educators not career politicians or bored businessmen and crackpots with connections.
Kirp turns his focus Union City’s George Washington Elementary School. In his Introduction he mentions business folks, politicians, journalists, school administrators, but not teachers. Education is about teachers and children, not these other buffoons. He does mention Obama’s reference to the fact we all have a teacher I our life we can point to as an important person in our lives. I’d like to think we have more than one, I do. Kirp spends too much time with the useless folks in our schools, the administrators. Get thee to the classroom, Kirp and close the door and observe, patiently.
Finally on page 18, we finally meet a third grade (one of five) teacher, Alina Bossbaly, curvy and no schoolmarm. YIKES!!! A quick Richard Elmore reference about the importance of the teacher and Kirp is back in his comfortable office of generalities and political tripe. Eventually we get into the classroom and the rituals and routines. Good! There’s a discussion of the SWBAT, students will be able to, multiple intelligence classroom structure, and an understanding of how students must take control of their own education, too. But in the end it is still compartmentalized, divided by time stamps and borders; when in fact we should be coloring outside the lines and getting out of this infernal box education keeps getting packaged in. Educators know this, but administrators don’t as they visit and want to see a schedule that is followed to the letter and time stamp for visitors who have too little knowledge about the workings of education except what they read rather than do. One important tool in education is to let teachers teach teachers by inter class visitation and team teaching. We still isolate teachers and introduce another teacher for a specific function for a limited time each day thereby interrupting any flow. We still don’t get it and Kirp is proving that point with each page we turn. As we learn last year’s class different from this year’s class. That is education in the raw not neat; it is messy and outsiders quite frankly become uncomfortable and anxious. Teaching is an art, but here the artist is interfered with unlike the teacher’s counterparts. Were we to watch painters, sculptures, cooks and others work we would be flabbergasted, but not with the teacher, we hear criticism and unwanted or unneeded advice at every turn. Let the teacher work without this constant interruption and ill-timed cacophony.
Kirp truly shows his ineptness when he speaks of the principal who now has to be an educational leader. Hello David, how do you think the name principal came to be? Let me give you a hint, the principal, back in the day, was the “principal teacher.” The problem was that bureaucratic crap was foisted onto this lead teacher’s back and educational duties were slowly chipped away. There was a time when principals actually taught a class or two. Not any more, since politicians and business leaders have brought their wares to education. So often and too often in my career I have seen great teachers become administrators and instantly forget their roots like they are subject to that much wanted light pen in Men in Black. All administrators should be issued a pair of dark glasses to protect them from the lobotomy that unfortunately happens. How often do we hear and see that tyrannical principal who continues while teachers drop like flies. Damn you Peter Senge. We continue to hear about improving schools. So where is the teacher training, the collaboration ideas and plans? Where is the voice of the teacher who knows instead of the constant drone of writers, journalists, politicians, administrators, and outsiders? Some happens here just in passing with the traditional teaching coaches (very suspect since those I encountered in NYC were unsatisfactory teachers who had to have a job, so they became coaches), and mentor teachers who do work over and above regular assignments without proper time off or even additional pay. Education is a profession where incompetency is rewarded and there isn’t meritocracy as in other professions. Those who can do more for little recompense, again unlike other professions that reward overtime and merit. Do administrators understand that when they poke their heads into a classroom just to say “Hi” in what they believe is helpful is actually very destructive to continuity, flow, and instruction? No I think not, cause they do it all the time and compliment themselves on their “hands on” and “being involved” attitude and approach.  Oh and how about those constant PA announcements? YIKES!!
Kirp does get props for understanding the value of veteran teachers and speaking about a Dream team of teachers. This is what this book should be about so policy makers hear it from a voice they trust and hire. I also like the absence of Teach for America volunteers at this school. Wise move. Experience always counts more in everything, especially teaching. Joel Klein never got this in NYC which is why he is so unqualified to speak about education. And Condi Rice, haha. A most telling comment from a new teacher in a learning mode exclaims, “Now I get it.” Teaching is always about these epiphanies and schools must provide these opportunities to happen on a daily basis, but alas, they don’t. You see teaching is not a static job, it is ever changing, so the kind of evaluation outsiders attempt will not work today as it did yesterday. Constant adjustments must be made which standardized tests can’t account for.
“Good Schools = Good Politics. Oh no. Talk about an oxymoron. Good Politics? And in the same breathe with Good Schools? Where is the Pedagogy? Educational policy has to be an equal balance of good pedagogy and good politics. Why are we still associating good education only with politics? Where is the pedagogy? I know where Kirp is coming from. My biggest disappointment with Obama is his educational policy. He campaigned with Linda Darling-Hammond as his educational mouthpiece. Excellent choice, brilliant. Then he appointed Duncan over Klein. Oh my goodness, what a mistake, as we have seen. Where is the pedagogy?
Once government got it’s foot into the schoolhouse, Brown vs BOE of Topeka KA, Nation at Risk, NCLB, US Ed Reform and National Security (what a scary title) and other lesser potent reports sprinkled amongst these reports; Education has taken a nose dive. The simple answer is the inclusion of politicians and we all see very clearly what politicians can do to a finely tuned lean mean fighting machine. That some of the biggest scandals in NYC politics are school related shouldn’t be surprising, (Boss Tweed for one) and how publishers have held education at ransom with their texts and now tests makes education America’s second biggest moneymaker behind the military. Who controls the educational purse strings? Politicians, not educators.
Another well-intentioned attempt at speaking well of education, but with no real focus or direction, let alone a need. Good grad school fodder to be used for a semester than shelved alongside other attempts waiting for the next installment of more useless blabber.  Oh where are the voices of Dewey, Skinner, Montessori, Freire and others?

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