Chicken Little 2: The CRPE is Falling!

Chicken Little Final Version

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” A Nation at Risk, National Commission on Excellence in Education, April, 1983

“…powerful special interest groups, led by the nation’s teachers unions, have largely succeeded in blocking efforts to reform our broken public school system. K-12 education is a $600 billion-a-year industry–and the unions aren’t about to give up any of their market share without a fight.”  Enemies and the Future of American Education, Heritage Foundation, January 15, 2010

“We could lose this thing.”                                                                                 Introduction: A Nations’s Accountability Systems At Risk, Center on Reinventing Public Education, September, 2014

Lovers of children’s literature may feel compelled to read the re-write of the old story, Chicken Little, recently published by The Fordham Institute in cooperation with the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Apparently unaware that they were lifting the essential backstory of the fairy tale, the inept authors attempted to capitalize on past successes by suggesting that their tale is a sequel to the 1983 smash hit, A Nation at Risk. In the end, however, neither the new version nor its thirty-year old predecessor adds anything to the original.

Poor Chicken Little. He was a young and simple chick, without much worldly experience, and had the (apparent) misfortune of having his world crash down upon him. His reaction, of course, was to immediately warn his neighbors of imminent danger, stirring a panic which was later found unwarranted. A bit more life experience, a bit more courage, and the danger of a falling acorn might have been understood as minimal.

It would have been wise for the authors of the latest version of the story to discuss their plot line with Diane Ravitch, who was closely associated with the ’83 version through its legal descendant, No Child Left Behind. She has since disavowed the story, and has worked hard to dispel its myths.

Mark Toner and Joe Jones of the Center for Reinventing Children’s Fiction seem to have completely forgotten the basic appeal of Chicken Little as a character. Innocent and naive, what could be expected of him? Chicken Little seems to have been largely written out of the story this time…according to the Toner/Jones retelling, there are only very experienced and world-weary “experts” who intend to spread panic, and for less reason than Chicken Little had. A good reading of the original tale causes the reader to feel like a bystander watching a toddler scream because it has seen its own shadow. You want to comfort and calm Chicken Little, not add your voice to the chaos.

Minus an innocent protagonist, the threat has to be even more overblown than ever for the story to “work.” The CRPE danger pales next to a falling acorn, though. Dr. Jones wants us to fear the end of accountability schemes in education. In essence, Dr. Jones wants to turn a real danger into a victim. He wants us to panic because the very things that have distorted the goals of public education have been effectively challenged. Those of us who have witnessed the damage done to humanistic efforts in education due to excessive standardized testing and Value-Added Measures of teacher effectiveness are hardly likely to accept either as endangered species needing protection.

And what of the moral of the story? Writing out the main character and substituting evil for good has robbed Dr. Jones of any hope for teaching a lesson. I have a suggestion for a re-write, though. Consider casting a first-year teacher as Chicken Little, and drop Dr. Jones’ story on them instead of an acorn. The moral is played out in public schools every day; inexperienced teachers are “held accountable” to ridiculous demands, and learn over time to respond with courage and professional perspective. Now that’s a tale to tell children.

Dr. Jones, it’s clear you and your partners at CRPE read the story of Chicken Little, but it’s equally apparent that you haven’t take its message to heart. You and the rest of your brood ought to buck up, get out of the hutch and enjoy some sunshine. The sky hasn’t fallen yet, and isn’t going to because you may “lose this thing.” The real danger to public education is a continuing reliance on metrics that have little relation to the development of citizens who are prepared to challenge authority and who have the right to demand that schools expand the boundaries of learning beyond the narrow confines of standardized exams.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

The Crucible

Crucible 3

Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible survives to this day as a metaphor for accusations without merit that damage reputations and lives. The advertisement that appeared this week in USA Today after the Vergara decision contained such an accusation, which might as well have been of witchcraft and evil spells cast upon students by malevolent kindergarten teachers. The same organization that created that ad had another rejected by the Chicago Tribune, because it conflated teacher unionism with racist segregationist attitudes a la George Wallace. Teachers can likely expect a continued barrage of similar ads in the media, funded by privatization interests.

Maintaining a sense of dignity depends on the deference and support shown to you by society in light of your contributions. When major media publications accept ads portraying student feet protruding from a garbage can, and accuse teachers of placing students in that demeaning position, they accept hate speech as a legitimate source of income. Teacher sensitivity to outright lies is less a product of being targeted for criticism—that’s part of life in the public sector— than it is due to the duplicity of the bad actors that create those lies. They demonize teachers on the one hand and extend the other for profits to be earned by displacing unionized teachers with ill-trained, easily controlled dupes working in charter schools, among their many crimes. The “Center for Union Lies” does not criticize teachers; it intentionally distorts and mischaracterizes their achievements to enable corporate gain.

When you deprive teachers of dignity and meaning in their work, you strike a blow against public education. Of course, that is exactly the point for some. For others, it is “collateral damage” that must be accepted to improve instruction and raise test scores. If test scores rise, then education must be improved. If living and breathing teachers who will demand immediate compensation can be replaced with technology that raises test scores on tests written by testing companies whose shareholders seek short-term profits…well, all the better.

What is lost if public education is lost? Just as terrorism is a front in the war for the soul of Islam, attacks on public education—one of the sources of our common good— constitute one front in the war for the soul of democracy. Democracy can withstand challenges from without which are obvious and overt; whether democracy can withstand challenges from within is unknown. Dismantling public institutions encourages individualism and loss of community. That loss of community opens a democracy to manipulation and exploitation by powerful  corporations.

Still, we teachers as a group fail to see the forest for the trees. We imagine that what we experience in the form of attacks by individuals and organizations on teachers and education is somehow unique and unrelated to other events. We feel our institution being assailed, and we forget that there are others in the public service enduring similar mistreatment.

How have we ended up in this situation? Corporatists have built a myth of excellence and efficiency in the private sector, and a specter of malfeasance and incompetence in public institutions. Their tactics include attacks on public institutions, accompanied by demands for firings and accountability measures. They then demand new “standards” for performance that are clearly impossible to reach, and place blame on those same institutions when they fail to attain them and attempt to cover it up. Finally, they seek to withdraw financial support from those institutions, citing the failures they themselves engineered. This has happened in education with NCLB and RttT, and will occur with CCSS, if it is not more widely abandoned. It has happened as well with the Veterans Administration. The VA (underfunded and overwhelmed by demands resulting from the Iraq/Afghanistan debacle) was accused of not providing timely care for those who deserved better. The solution? A standard was set that could not be met, a 14-day window for care, and accountability measures for not achieving success. When that couldn’t be accomplished, managers found ways of lying to make it appear that things were fine. Uncovered, the VA was again blamed for incompetence. Calls were made to privatize an institution that attempts to fulfill a public obligation to those who have stood in the line of fire for us all.

We teachers can easily comprehend what VA employees face. Our experiences are not unique; they are part and parcel of a wider attack on democracy. The sooner we accept that and coordinate our actions with other institutions that are also suffering, the sooner we will begin to turn the corner. We become powerful when we recognize our community, and weak when we abandon it. Badass Teachers know what it means to acquire community; we need to remind our colleagues of the role their unions need to play in preserving, protecting, and extending that community of public service employees. NEA and AFT have accomplished much in the past, but are only lately stepping up to the plate on this issue. They can do much more, and will need grass roots support to do so.

We are not just educators. We are warriors for democracy, and we fight a dangerous opponent. We fight for free, fair and appropriate public education, just as our brothers and sisters fight battles for better public health care, better public transportation, and improved public security. Part of our fight is to act with dignity and demand dignified treatment from society. We need to build a new myth of the public employee, one that recognizes our commitment to service and champions our achievements in creating community.

Arthur Miller is calling to us now.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014