“Fair game – noun. Open to legitimate pursuit, attack or ridicule.” – Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictonary
In 18th Century England, animals that were legal to hunt, either with shotgun or pack of rabid dogs, were considered “fair game.”
In the frontier wilderness of northern New York, American rangers harassed John Burgoyne’s British army by doing the unthinkable—hunting officers as if they were animals, or “fair game.”
In 1917, the German navy declared open season on all Atlantic shipping. Unarmed ocean liners and cargo ships were considered “fair game.”
So in the 21st Century, according to David Brooks, author, New York Times columnist and contributor to the Atlantic, teachers are also to be subject to the hunting dogs and shotguns, as we are now “fair game.”
The recent “Ideas” edition of the Atlantic had an interesting—albeit provocative—piece by Brooks, a liberal-turned-conservative who has recently joined the education reform crusade. He has penned column after column of Times opinions lambasting teacher unions, exalting charter schools and school choice, and glorifying the current trend towards “data-driven” instruction.
To wit, Brooks breaks no real new ground in his article “Teachers are Fair Game.” He also says little that is new in terms of the changing reaction to teacher unions: anti-union bias has usually stood ascendant in times of economic distress i.e. the 1930s, and the immediate postwar recession.
Yet what sets this piece apart is its tone: not of someone willing to work with others, but that of a hunter stalking its prey.
That prey is us. We are that game.
His arguments are hardly original: improving teacher quality, the cessation of tenure and other teacher protections and the perceived intransigence of the education establishment. That establishment, according to Brooks,
“is both softhearted and hardheaded. They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque [interesting adjective there] when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship…union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal alws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien regime.”
Yet Brooks errs on two huge factors. First, he sees the unions in it of themselves as a problem, without leaving any opening for those union leaders willing to work with administrators to find real solutions. This is where Brooks the rabid union-hunter aims for his kill. He remarks with unrestrained glee about the shift in opinion amongst the media and political leaders against perceived union abuses. “The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet.” Brooks states. “They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class. They still fight to preserve their interest but they’ve lost their moral authority…”
Tally ho! Let's hunt an algebra teacher, boys!
Moral authority? The authority a union has is to its membership, and the use of morality has all too often been used by administrators to abuse and harass such members. It does education reformers absolutely no good to attack a union per se. Unions are here, and unions will stay into the foreseeable future. Even the vaunted charter schools have unionized to some extent, by consent of their faculty.
There is room for reforms that benefit instruction, and there are unions and union leaders who are willing to work together with school districts to reform education. Putting unions in a corner with attacks, however, is not only fruitless, but counterproductive. By placing unions on the defensive, without reaching out an olive branch of cooperation, nothing will get done. Cooperation will get results: not all the results you want, but that is life. Something is better than nothing.
Brook’s second error involves his argument about teacher quality. He correctly states that a core issue of education is the relationship between teacher and student. Like Brooks, I too have issues with teacher quality, particularly in teacher training. In a post last year, I lamented the ease with which I earned my masters degree in education, stating that for teachers to gain respect their education should be of a competitive caliber. My guess is Brooks and I are in full agreement on this.
Yet his solution involves more than just tweaking graduate education. As if he released a pack of rabid lions on Christian martyrs, Brooks exalts that “aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come to the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America [oh brother]. These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit.”
I will not rehash my feelings on Teach for America, the institution. Let’s just say it’s less than positive.
That last sentence, however, bears the obvious taint of hypocrisy. “Data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit.” In the past few years, I have been knee-deep in the use of standardized tests to guide instruction. You can even say I’m the poster boy for “data-driven” instruction.
In my experience, the entire exercise of using data, as it is now, is bullshit.
If you look at standard assessments and practice assessments in many school districts, you may see a disturbing pattern. The state exams tend to be much easier than the practice tests. The practice tests, for the most part, exhibit an eerie upward trajectory in scores as test time gets closer.
A more naïve soul, an earnest “no-bullshit” TFA-er, for example, would see this as proof of instruction driven by data from the previous assessment, thus an upward sloping path.
Your veteran teacher, however, isn’t fooled so easily. When a rookie teacher sees achievement, a veteran sees manipulation. What is to stop states, school districts—and the test-prep companies in their pocket—to engineer a series of tests so that it seems that students are doing better?
The federal contest for Race to the Top funds doesn’t help in this regard at all. In fact, it allows for more manipulation and outright fraud in student data than ever before. Because of the need for increased test scores, school districts are more open to the temptation of test-rigging—with the often-tacit approval of state education departments. After all, doesn’t everyone win in this scenario: teachers “look good,” administrators “look good,” feds see that the kids are “doing better” and reward states that “sustain student achievement”?
The students don’t win: not by a long shot. Sometimes when I assess them, their scores fall, often far below other previous tests. This is natural: new material and new concepts often make this happen, as well as normal student jitters about tests. To me, it does the student little use to give them a false sense of achievement. They may have stumbled, but at least I can get an authentic view of what they know and don’t know—at least as authentic as possible using a test.
What does Brooks really want? “No-bullshit” types that really use data in a fruitful way, regardless of the results? Or does he want teachers that make sure students do “well” on tests at all costs? Higher education, for example, is only “data-driven” in the case of admissions: the SAT and AP scores, etc. Colleges and universities require thinking, reasoning, and research skills that often cannot be quantified.
If students are only taught “to tests”, doesn’t this give them a disadvantage in higher education? Do education “reformers” really even care about disadvantaged students if their methods effectively bar them from higher education, leaving it to better prepared, richer and “whiter” students?
[Oh dear, did I let the cat out of the bag? Did it slip out that the current craze of education reform is simply a ruse to create a permanent underclass that is educated just enough to show that disadvantaged students “can learn” and “make academic progress.” Aren’t these “data driven” students still woefully ill-prepared for much-needed college and university education?…that’s for another post.]
Brooks may have the best of intentions, but his methods and ideologies do nothing but entrench established interests on both sides. The TFA, data-driven method is flawed—in some cases dreadfully so. Attacking unions as the ultimate problem alienates and immobilizes those teachers (like me) who still feel educational reform can still happen with a strong union and administration in partnership.
Lastly, what better way to make teachers—among the hardest working Americans out there—feel like subhuman carrion than by labeling them as prey for the hunters. If Mr. Brooks wants to play that game, here’s my announcement for my fellow teachers:
Those TFA “data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit”? They’re “fair game.” Unleash the hounds.
Dear Secretary Duncan: Stop the Rape of Social Studies in America
Dear Secretary Duncan:
(We’re not that formal here in the Neighborhood…is Arne okay?)
You may not know us, Arne, but we do know you.
We know how your corporate mentality, go-get’em attitude and boardroom smile have wowed the spastic, slightly deranged menagerie known as the education establishment.
The goofy minions at Teach for America, the boys who started those KIPP academies, the slack-jawed tweed-types at Teachers’ College all fell for your spell. Lucy Calkins must’ve soiled herself at the sight of you.
We know how as Secretary of Education, you’ve basically continued the half-brained policies of a certain Gentlemen’s C student that we need not mention. Never mind that those policies have little theoretical or analytical basis, are unrealistic and create a permanent underclass—you’ve got to follow through, just like your jump shots in the vaunted Australian basketball league.
We also know that you’ve got a real hard-on for charter schools (I’m sorry, this is an education blog, we mean “erection”). We don’t blame you—with little oversight, little control over curriculum and pedagogy, no kids with “special needs” and no pesky unions to push adequate wages and whatnot, it’s practically a CEO job. Just give “empowering” goals and let the rest run itself. That certainly has worked in the past, right?
And speaking of goals, we also know how much you love that buzzword of the moment, “accountability.” In your world, Arne, that means standardized tests and oodles of data. Charts now show trends for every stage in a child’s development, in any subject, at any time of day. Have enough kids fart in the wind or give swirlies to a fat kid in the boys’ room, and you better believe there’ll be documentation on it. Of course, the teacher’s always to blame.
Finally, we know all about the Race to the Top. We have to admit, it’s one heck of a devious plot there, Arne. Only the truly misanthropic and soulless would devise a remake of Glengarry Glen Ross (the movie, not the play) where everyone is Levene and Ricky Roma is already on the board of directors. So who gets the steak knives? Does Mississippi get fired?
Yes, Arne, we know a whole hell of a lot about you…but we’re not bastards. We’re willing to forgive.
In fact, we’re willing to turn the other way on a lot of this, and believe me; it’ll take a lot of effort to do so.
Just as long as you can help us with one little problem.
Arne, stop the systematic rape and persecution of social studies in this country.
I’m guessing you’re like so many of the twits of our educational universe that see social studies—history, geography, government, economics—as subjects best left for secondary school, or best, college where kids with “special needs” won’t have to worry about it.
Social studies is usually the first to be cut, the least of resources, the most crunched in terms of time—and most importantly, the least assessed.
Bet that last one got your attention, Arne, didn’t it.
Yes, social studies does not get the rigorous attention the other “better” subjects get when it comes to the old #2 pencil and scan-tron sheet. In New York, until recently, there’s only been one state test in 5th grade, then one in 8th grade. Even these can’t adequately prepare students for the exams in high school.
Now, thanks to our unelected New York Board of Regents, we cannot even administer those last two tests, either.
The Board of Regents voted to cancel testing in social studies in grades 5 and 8 as a cost-saving measure. We won’t go into the details (you’re a busy man, gutting our public schools and whatnot) except that they saw this as the only alternative to saving testing in the “better” subjects. Similar votes are probably being conducted in other states as well.
Normally, this would be a state problem, and we wouldn’t be bothering you or cutting into your goofy smiling time. Yet the Board’s recent action doesn’t jive with a certain application for Phase II funds from a certain contest you’re running.
According to page 106 of New York’s RTTT Phase II application submitted earlier this month, it states that
“New York collects yearly test records of individual students under section 1111(b) of the ESEA [20 U.S.C. 6311(b)] program in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, as well as scores obtained on New York’s secondary-level Regents examinations (see Appendix C_1_2).”
How on Earth does this fit into the Board of Regents’ recent actions? There’s only one response—they lied to you, Arne. Because of these cuts in testing, New York State is no longer compliant under the ESEA. We brought this up in an e-mail to your man James Butler, who’s the point person for RTTT, yet it seems to fall on deaf ears.
Here’s where you can help.
New York was recently named a finalist for Race to the Top. Great. We know you also have a bit of a stiffie over New York’s largest city, also named New York. You love our Oompa-Loompa-like mayor that acts without any thought of popular opinion, and our Nosferatu-esque schools chancellor that dutifully administers policy and takes blame for its failures.
You wouldn’t want them to cut “better” subjects to the kiddies due to lack of funds, would you, Arne?
We think you should really look over New York’s application in this final round. If New York is to be awarded this grant, it should be on the condition that ALL testing in ALL subjects be restored as soon as possible, preferably by the next school year. Remember, Arne, that New York is not compliant anymore—hold their ass to the fire because of it.
They lied to you, buddy. Don’t take that crap lying down.
Besides, pushing for more testing is a win-win for everybody. You get the data you need to show our kids “progressing”, based on whatever formula your cellar-dwellers devise. Social studies gets a fair share of time and resources once the fear of assessment is brought back. Students will learn about their country and its great history—even if it kills them.
Finally, Arne, this action will stop the progressive dumbing-down of our students in terms of their own history , geography and government. Social studies needs a prominent place at the table of education; don’t relegate it to the kiddie table.
We’ll even sweeten the deal for you. We’ll get you a cup of coffee—whatever size, whatever blend—on us.
But this comes only after you help restore social studies testing. After all, coffee is for closers.
Thank you for your time.
Mr. D and the rest of the folks at Mr. D’s Neighborhood
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