Guest Essayist, Bernie Keller

Retired Bronx high school Master English teacher

IMG_0268In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not a big supporter of charter schools or the current reform efforts. While those who espouse and advocate the current “solutions” may be well meaning, I am reminded of a saying I used to hear growing up that asserted, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

For me, if we are talking about people’s lives, (and we are), we can’t just “mean well”. Whatever we propose has got to work, it can’t be some experiment-in-progress or theory. In theory, the reforms and the charter schools will change the landscape of education. That sounds great, but here’s the problem I have with the theory. I taught forty years. I, along with my colleagues during those years, and traditional schools and practices produced or helped to produce doctors, lawyers, civil servants, policemen, firemen, CEO’s, teachers, counselors, social workers, principals, parents and a whole bunch of contributing members of society. In fact, former chancellor of New York City schools millionaire Joel Klein and John King, formerly the commissioner of education for the state of New York and currently the replacement for the former head of the United States Department of Education, Arne Duncan are not only graduates or products of the traditional public school setting, but both men assert that public schools saved and changed their lives. Not charter schools, not reforms- traditional public schools!

Seeing as how these men, (and millions of others), are successful, contributing members of society, produced by these traditional schools, it strikes me that the reforms we need are those qualities that existed when these men, and those like them, attended school and school empowered them to enjoy success. Just think, there were no SmartBoards, the teachers were the educational authority in the classroom, there were no computers, teachers were not responsible to “entertain” or “engage” students, (which usually happens when teachers are given the freedom to create their own lessons as opposed to following some theoretical method in lockstep), or to make every moment in the classroom a “fun learning experience.” Any teacher, including good or great teachers, will tell you these “requirements” stifle teaching and make it harder to do an already challenging job. The teachers understood their job was to challenge their students, to encourage them to acquire and accumulate knowledge, (better known as learning), and for the students who were fortunate enough to have great teachers who had great passion for their subjects, as many of the people I had both the opportunity and the privilege to work and teach with had), they even had some fun learning. There were also administrators and supervisors who knew how to mentor teachers and how to develop and improve teachers’ skills as opposed to being people whose job is to simply “manage” a staff of educators.

Think about this- for all the talk about how charters and the current reforms are such powerful change agents, not one proponent of charters or the current reforms, such as common core, is a product of the systems or methods they propose, espouse or support! To the contrary, their very success is, in fact, the product of having attended traditional public schools! For me, that’s a big problem. When I work with students to improve their essay writing skills, I don’t propose methods I don’t use. Whatever method I propose, advocate, espouse or support I actually use as a part of my writing process. Not to do that would be a lot like a doctor telling his/her patient to eat green leafy vegetables, but when asked by the patient if he/she ate those types of foods, the doctor were to reply, “Me? I never touch the stuff!”

Lives are not widgets to be played with or gambled on or used for experimentation. The fact that there was success before charters and these new reforms ever existed is proof positive that the seeds for improvement are already present in much the same way that when George Washington Carver identified the 300 uses of the peanut he didn’t invent any of the uses. The seeds were already there- all they needed was for someone to do the work to uncover them. To me, it is obvious that we must improve schools, and it is equally obvious that what needs to be improved already exists within public education. This must be true, otherwise there’d be no Bloombergs, or John Kings, or Joel Kleins or Bill Clintons, etc., etc.

Since it is my practice to teach students never to complain or to disagree without providing some sort of viable alternative, I want to offer some ideas I contend already exist that would improve the educational landscape, and interestingly and amazingly enough none of these ideas would cost the billions of dollars currently being spent on consultants, “experts”, theorists, experimenters and curriculum writers.

One thing that needs to be addressed is the idea that students must step up and take on their share of this issue. I teach students they have a role, purpose, responsibility in their educations, that they cannot just sit there, doing nothing, and “wait to be rescued” or taught. Frederick Douglass said, “Who would be free, must strike the blow.” That statement asserts no one can be free just waiting for others to free him/her. He/she has to take some action. In fact, one might well argue that Douglass’ statement suggests the individual must strike the first blow, must start the process him/herself. Analogously, students “must strike the blow” for themselves. Regardless of the schools, or the teachers, (which students cannot control), students must focus on and address what they can control- their responsibility, their role, their purpose in the education process, their blow to “free themselves.”

Another seed that needs to be nourished is the “revitalization” of administrators/supervisors who are not merely “managers or CEO’s, but who are actually people with expertise in the subjects being taught, with formidable experience in the teaching of those subjects, as well as the ability to mentor, develop and hone successful teachers, as opposed to people who obsequiously follow and adhere to a checklist of one dimensional, theoretical concepts “experts” assert or guarantee will make learning take place. Having supervisors/administrators who lack expertise in the subjects they supervise and experience in the delivery/teaching of those subjects is like a post office not having any stamps. In both cases the main reason/purpose for their existence is not present! Teaching, and most certainly good or great teaching, doesn’t just happen. It must be worked at and developed, and that cannot happen if the people charged with the responsibility of working with the teachers do not have knowledge of the subjects, experience teaching the subjects, or the ability to “transfer” that knowledge to those entrusted to their care.

Yet another “reform” that needs to take place is the restoration of the teachers as the educational authority in the classroom. Teachers must be restored to this position or responsibility. After all, that is exactly why you hire them. That is why you demand they attain advanced degrees in order to keep their jobs. The concept that students can initiate the learning process better and do a better job at teaching themselves and other students than the people whose knowledge has been developed over twelve years of school, plus four years of college, and in many cases another two years of advanced work is ludicrously inane. While students may be able to “bounce ideas” off one another or “teach each other”, they are not able to do this innately. They must learn to think, to examine, to challenge themselves, and to look between the lines and below the surface- all things teachers show students how to do. Students don’t magically learn to teach each other, that is something they have to learn to do, something they must be taught, just as teachers taught the Clintons, and the Obamas, and the Chisholm’s, and the John Kings and the millions and millions of other successful, contributing members of this city, this state, this country and this society.

Finally, parents must be added to this equation. They can’t just “drop the kid off” and say, “I did my job.” Parents need to understand that they are part of “the team”, and they have to pull their weight. They need to encourage, pressure, cajole and challenge their children to attend school and classes regularly, to take their role and responsibilities as students in the education process seriously by doing homework and studying for tests. Parents need to stop looking for, and helping their children to find “the easy way out.” Parents need to attend parent teacher conferences, meetings about and for their children and get and review report cards regardless of whether their children attend charters, specialized schools or traditional schools. Remember, it’s not the building that makes the learning process successful, it is the earnest effort of everyone on “the team”- from the student, to the parent, to the teacher, to the supervisors/administrators. You don’t need an advanced degree to do these things and I know these things work because my parents, who had sixth and ninth grade educations, did these things for their five children, all of whom graduated from public elementary, junior high and high schools, attended and graduated college, and became positive, contributing members of society.

We really don’t need to change the whole education process from the floor to the ceiling. In fact, much of what we need to reform or improve schools and education already exists and none of it will cost the billions and billions of dollars we are currently spending on education reform. Seems to me making these very simple changes would make reform a win- win.

What do you think?

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