My Life as an NYC Teacher
Chapter 55: The Dangers of Political and Personal Agendas
When those in authority have an agenda, those in the trenches get hurt.
Mayor de Blasio has been rightly criticized for helping to create the anti-cop atmosphere that now grips New York City. De Blasio has positioned himself as the savior of minority America not just for the city of New York but with far greater ambitions in mind. He’s hoping to ride his interracial family to the D.C. top. Thus he has sided with the protestors regarding the recent grand jury decisions and clings to con-master "Rev." Al Sharpton's coat tails. It’s ironic but no less tragic that two minority cops are the first victims of this great leader of minorities.
His agenda is his personal ambition. In pursuit of this agenda de Blasio has either blinded himself to the realities of the street or he is callously ignoring them.
Police officers understand the realities of the street. They are fully aware of the fact that there are criminal minded people out there for whom murder is not merely a justifiable means to their criminal ends but in some cases an actual badge of dishonor. This isn’t to mention the evil people who kill for enjoyment or those with real or self deluded political motives who will also kill (or throw trash cans on people’s heads) to get what they think the people deserve. Disturbing as it is to acknowledge, there are those who are beyond rehabilitation. This is the white elephant in the room at City Hall.
Part of the problem is that we live in what I call the post-Tarantino world. Quentin Tarantino is justly celebrated for his artistic sensibilities. His particular artistic sensibilities, however, have gone a long way toward desensitizing the American movie going public to the horrors of real life violence. By turning graphic violence into comedy, Tarantino has helped create generations of people who are immune to the reality of violence. To them it is all movie screen fun, like seeing the head of a real life dictator blown to bits. Really funny stuff! To be sure, Tarantino has had plenty of help from video game makers, the NRA, gangster rap, the marketing of professional sports violence and his own imitators. I single out Tarantino because of his talent. The more artistic the violent comedy, the more dehumanizing.
As a teacher I see an analogy between de Blasio and his agenda and the eduction reformers and their various agendas. As with the cops on the street, when there is an agenda, the people in the trenches get hurt.
Teachers and high functioning students are the people in the trenches of education. Teachers and students are the ones suffering as a result of the agendas of the reformers. Education reformers have agendas ranging from Pearson’s quest to monopolize educational publishing profits TO Arne Duncan’s need to satisfy the lobbyists and political cronies who installed him in Washington TO the Danielson Group and like minded parasitic consulting outfits looking to skim big bucks off the top of the public education dole TO state governors’ lust for the federal money that has been dangled in front of them TO private interests longing to cash in on public money through investment in charter schools TO the Michael Bloomberg’s who want to change public education into a free market driven business model TO demagogues hoping to destroy the public education system altogether TO those whose primary goal is to destroy the last remaining labor unions with any clout TO petty bureaucrats trying to hang onto their bloated salaries TO rabble rousing pundits who have never set foot in a classroom but who know a divisive story when they smell it.
All of these agendas blind their proponents to the realities of education. One of the realities of public education in New York and other large cities is that there are highly dysfunctional students who shouldn’t be graduating from high school for many and varied reasons. To brazenly proclaim that there should be a 100% graduation rate and that everyone should be “college ready” is to ignore reality.
If you haven’t walked a beat for at least five years, you shouldn’t be talking about policing, let alone setting policy for police departments. If you haven’t been in the classroom for at least five years, you should not be talking about education reform, let alone setting policy for it. If you haven’t confronted the day to day problems of disruptive, dysfunctional students who care little for their own education and less for that of others in the room, you don’t understand the reality of teaching in New York City.
Dysfunctional students are another white elephant in de Blasio’s office at City Hall, in Carmen Farina’s office at 65 Court St., in John King’s office in Albany and Merryl Tisch’s office at the Board of Regents and at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It is politically incorrect to blame students for their own failure. According to political correctness, since these students often come from impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds, they are not to blame for their own academic failure in spite of the fact that so many from these same backgrounds succeed against all odds. As I’ve said elsewhere in these pages, it’s these high functioning “disadvantaged” students who suffer the most from the reformers and their agendas that refuse to track them into groups of their peers. Instead they are placed with the dysfunctional and sacrificed at the altar of differentiation, heterogeneous grouping, peer-to-peer accountable talk and the like - educational reform drivel, all of it.
It is suicide for a teacher to blame students for their own failures because that teacher opens him/herself up to the easy accusation that the teacher is blaming the student and not accepting the responsibility of his/her job. Most teachers won’t broach the subject for this reason and for the fear of retribution from above. But even the most idealistic teacher knows that there are those students that they just cannot and will not reach. That doesn’t mean they stop trying. But they understand the reality of the situation.
There is an atmosphere of anxiety and fear among teachers because they are being blamed for things that are beyond their control. Yet to speak out about it is to risk losing your job. The reformers and their agendas are in positions of authority. But it is a sure road to insanity to be held responsible for something you cannot control. Expect a rise in the number of teacher suicides, especially among young teachers who have accepted the propaganda that they are responsible for the failure of their students, as a result of teacher “evaluation” systems that rate teachers according to the performance of students, something that is beyond the teacher’s control.
The truth is that the vast majority of students who fail not only should shoulder the blame themselves but know full well that they themselves failed, not the school or the teacher. On occasion I’ve run into students that I failed years before. I ask how they’re doing. They say they are going for a G.E.D. or are still lacking this or that credit. Sometimes they say that they got their credits or did whatever it took to pass their Regents exams and are now doing well in college or beyond. If I remind them that I failed them, they just smile and nod their heads. They don’t blame me for failing them. They blame themselves.
Only the school reformers blame teachers for the failure of students.
Now there is an uproar about the fact that 91% of NYC teachers were rated as either effective or highly effective for the 2013-14 school year when the graduation rate was only 64%. See, for example, the New York Post article dated Dec. 17, 2014, “Students can't pass tests, but teachers are 'A' OK.” Worse still, the percentage that is ready for college hovers around 25%. But it is disingenuous to suggest that if only 64% of students are graduating, then only 64% of teachers are doing an effective job or that if only 25% of students are ready for college, then only 25% of teachers are doing an effective job. This is a classic and deliberate distortion of statistics.
Teachers know full well that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink. For some students the best teaching and best planned lesson make no difference at all. We’re faced with that in the trenches in the classroom every day just as cops are faced with the possibility of real life violence in the trenches with every encounter on the street.
Those with the agendas know that data can be mined for whatever conclusion they want to draw. That’s why today everything in education is data driven even though it’s perfectly obvious that education does not lend itself to data analysis in the way business models do or assembly line production does or even stop and frisk statistics do.
Cops and teachers deal with people. The only real statistic, albeit, a nebulous one, is that a certain percentage of people are crazy. They may be violently insane, in which case the cop cannot be blamed for the consequences of their behavior, or educationally dysfunctional, in which case the teacher cannot be blamed for their academic failure. These are the same people for whom rehabilitation and restorative justice are nothing more than licenses to continue their criminal and delinquent ways.
What’s needed are agendas that take this reality into account.
P.S.If there is an impeachment process for the mayor of New York City, let’s hope someone without an agenda gets it started as soon as possible.
NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.