“Improving Education”–Without Teachers?

OK, I know I am preaching to the converted, but… There is only one thing that can be said about the mass firing of Central Falls, R.I. teachers on February 26: it was anti-teacher, anti-union, and anti-education. We all know the basics of the story: the test scores of the students, mainly low income, immigrant, learners who moved around school districts, were abysmally low. Despite this, the students described the majority of their teachers as committed and hard working, in the words of some, “like family.” The students recently held a lively demonstration in support of their teachers. Would they do that for non-caring teachers?

Why were they summarily fired? The teachers refused a contract that would add to their working hours, without being paid for the overtime. This is a simple union matter. Who signs on for more work at less pay, especially those who already have long, grueling days of teaching the most needy students in the state? Yet teachers are being targeted as opponents of “Education Reform,” because they insist on decent working conditions. May we respectfully point out to President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the editorial board of the Boston Globe (excepting Joan Vennochi in a good column on March 11) who never tire of trashing teachers and their unions, that worse pay and working conditions will not attract superior teachers to our underserved schools?

As a dedicated community college teacher, I often took extra time to help out my needy students. Most of my colleagues did the same, some forgoing lunch breaks to do so. Like the teachers in K-12, we sometimes spent our own funds for student projects. But as an equally dedicated union member of the MCCC-MTA and grievance coordinator for our local, I would never allow adminstrators to unilaterally alter our contractual workloads. Why? Because exhausted, burned out and resentful employees do not make for good teaching.

Yes, we may agree that high standards and expectations should exist for all students. We should not write off any students because they are poor, come from troubled families or are immigrants. But we don’t help them by firing the very teachers most willing to work with them, or grade teaching simply by standardized tests. The recipe for better education has already been written and tested: smaller classes, individual attention, interesting assignments, community and parent involvement. Superstars like Jaime Escalante (subject of the film Stand and Deliver) helped his poor immigrant students excel by heroic commitment and sacrifice of his personal life. We can’t all be Jaime Escalantes, but we are, most of us, committed to our students.

The over-emphasis on standardized testing has not significantly raised students’ abilities. Rather it has deadened their interest in learning, as their last years of high school have been reduced to endless testing. I can confirm this, as I taught the products of standardized tests in Massachusetts in my college composition classes.

What to do? As I previously wrote— get out and organize. Start a massive letter writing campaign to President Obama and members of Congress. Urge our unions to take a stand against “teacher-bashing and union-busting.” Build for massive rallies outside state houses and the White House. Our slogan: Let teachers and students, not bureaucrats, define good teaching.

–Susan Jhirad, retired Professor of English and member of the MCCC-MTA

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