An Open Letter to K-12 Teachers: A Call for Solidarity

In the U.S., “solidarity” and “community” are very difficult concepts. Having lived my entire life in the rural South, I’d argue “solidarity” and “community” are nearly foreign concepts here—a very painful claim to make.

But the South is an important phenomenon to examine in order to come to some understanding of what it means to be a K-12 teacher in U.S. public schools. The rural South includes mostly workers, we live and live among visible poverty, and we are nothing if not the embodiment of “community.” Yet, Southerns are prone to bashing people in poverty—railing against welfare and the lazy poor—and reject unions with a self-loathing glee that is hard to understand.

These self-defeating qualities among my South remind me of the self-defeating qualities within my profession, teaching. [And for the record, I love few things more and more deeply than the field of teaching and my South—and about few things do I get more angry than teaching and my South. As with family, we often walk a thin line between passion and anger in matters of the heart.]

And I believe we are now at a point when K-12 teachers in the U.S. must examine who they are and how solidarity is essential if universal public education is ever to achieve its purpose as an essential pillar of democracy among free people.

So it is there that I begin this open letter to K-12 teachers as a call for solidarity.

My career as a teacher is grounded in 18 years teaching public school English in the rural South as that has been informed by my dissertation work, writing a biography of English educator Lou LaBrant. Three aspects of her career serve me well in this open letter:

  1. Much of LaBrant’s early scholarly work focused on the importance of free reading and libraries (work she conducted and published throughout the first half of the twentieth century); as well, she published much of this work with a librarian, Frieda Heller, modeling, I think, a powerful message about teacher scholarship, teacher agency, and who constitutes “teachers” within the field.
  2. In 1932, LaBrant was offered and accepted a position at the University School newly opening at the Ohio State University. One of her first acts once hired was to lobby with the school that English was not a separate course (the position for which she was hired), but that literacy (reading and writing) were elements essential among all disciplines. Even at an experimental school, LaBrant was an outlier voice of critical re-imagining how we do school.
  3. LaBrant was notoriously hard on other teachers; many who knew LaBrant believed that the phrase that best captured her was “She didn’t suffer fools.” Once when she was giving a talk, a teacher in the audience stood to ask just how teachers were supposed to know and do all that LaBrant demanded (and, yes, LaBrant demanded). Without missing a beat, LaBrant told the teacher if she didn’t know how, then she should quit, learn how, and then come back to teaching.

It is at this last example that I find myself torn when I advocate in public writing for both public education and public school teachers. And that is why I write this open letter.

Public advocacy for schools and teachers is a lightning rod for angry responses; what is interesting is that the venom I often receive comes from a wide spectrum of stakeholders in public education, including K-12 teachers.

Just as one current example, my stances on Common Core and high-stakes testing (I reject both entirely) are routinely challenged by K-12 teachers—not just reformers and school-bashers.

K-12 teachers and advocates for those teachers and public schools face, then, a tremendous number of tensions, and I believe our solution to those tensions rests on forming a level of solidarity teachers have yet to achieve.

In order to create that solidarity, we must confront the tensions before us:

  • The greatest tension facing a K-12 teacher is the call: “first, do no harm.” We must always be advocates for each child in our care, each child in our schools, each child in our community, each child in our state, and each child on this planet. This is a massive weight, one that makes our work monumental.
  • Another tension is the need to admit that K-12 teaching, historically and currently, is not a profession. K-12 teachers are bureaucratic employees. As hard as this fact is to face, the greater tension lies in making the case that K-12 teaching should be a profession. K-12 teacher have little autonomy and muted voices; further, K-12 teachers work under the thumb of external accountability for implementing the mandates not of their design and for outcomes beyond their control. That is not the context of a profession.
  • As is the case within all fields of work, that there exists a wide range of competencies among teachers is a burdensome tension. This tension confronts K-12 teachers with the need to become good stewards of their own field, even when that field is corrupted by non-expert bureaucracy.
  • Another incredibly complicated tension is what K-12 teacher need to admit about public education: Historically and currently public education has failed and is failing, but not in the ways often expressed by political leaders, the media, and the public. This tension, however, is ripe with possibility since the fact that schools have not yet succeeded and currently do not succeed must be placed at the feet of that bureaucracy and then K-12 teachers must claim their own table for demanding and enacting the reform we have yet to address.
  • Finally, K-12 teaching is criticized and portrayed as if the field is far more unified that it is, a rarely identified tension. Teaching in a unionized state is far different than teaching in the mostly right-to-work South. Teaching in a rural school is distinct from teaching in an urban school. Ironically, however, one thing most K-12 teachers share is that our work is incredibly isolated as we spend most of our working day the sole teacher behind our closed doors among our students. K-12 teaching is a frantic exercise that pushes us deeper and deeper into that isolation, in fact.

Yes, much is being done to K-12 teachers—baseless teacher evaluation and merit pay schemes as well as increased and misguided accountability mandates simultaneous with the dismantling of teachers unions and job security.

And that, I suppose, is the great tension: How do K-12 teachers achieve the autonomy and professionalism they deserve in positions so bereft of power?

K-12 teachers are not being served well by political leadership, the media, professional organizations, or unions. While all of these entities should be within the power of teachers to change, we are faced with growing evidence that will not happen.

This means K-12 teachers need solidarity. Solidarity to become the profession we have been denied so far. Solidarity among teachers and all workers to create the conditions of working that all people deserve in a free society.

Solidarity is a unified voice, but not a singular mind.

Solidarity is taking ownership of being good stewards of the field we imagine even before it comes to fruition—possibly because we must imagine before it can come to fruition.

Solidarity is teacher-led modeling of what it means to be a professional teacher and a scholar-teacher, and not merely a bureaucratic employee.

Solidarity is teacher-led praise and criticism of teaching and schooling, that is unlike what politicians, the media, and the public have offered.

K-12 teachers, among whom I align myself, can we begin the process of solidarity around the pursuit of teaching as a profession and of public education as a democratic essential?

Can we begin the process of teacher solidarity as a beacon for the solidarity of all workers within the larger pursuit of human dignity, human agency, and human autonomy?

As we turn the page to 2014, I will remain a voice calling for the actions needed for this solidarity, and I’d be honored to have you all there with me.

“They ask only opportunity”: Helen Keller and Those Who Will Not See

The evolution of my fully understanding formal education began when I was very young and learning moment by moment at the feet of my mother, who taught my sister and me to play canasta (a complicated two-deck card game related to rummy) and love Dr. Seuss well before we started first grade.

Of course, I thought I knew something about school after 16.5 years that culminated in my undergraduate degree, and then I began to teach. That led to another delusion about my understanding formal schooling—until I became a father.

By third grade, my daughter was teaching me lessons about school I had only come to understand at the edges. One of those lessons involved her class reading The Miracle Worker in their textbook. I watched my daughter being taught the passive radical myth (which I have connected with Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jesus; and also explored in the ways Pat Tillman’s life and death have been manipulated)—Keller reduced to a caricature of simplistic moral lessons aimed at feeding children in the U.S. the myths that deform (see Paulo Freire).

Helen Keller, however, was someone quite different—a true radical in thought and action. Below is an updated reposting of a blog from June 29, 2012, exploring the power in Keller’s voice, one marginalized, ignored, silenced.

Helen Keller could not attend the 1906 meeting of Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind. In a letter, Keller implored Mark Twain to speak on her behalf: “But, superfluous as all other appeals must seem after you and Mr. Choate have spoken, nevertheless, as I am a woman, I cannot be silent, and I ask you to read this letter, knowing that it will be lifted to eloquence by your kindly voice.”

In these words echo Keller’s ironic awareness of the invisibility of women who are silenced.

About the need for advocacy for the blind, Keller wrote in part:

To know what the blind man needs, you who can see must imagine what it would be not to see, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what blindness means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction….The seeing man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident blinds him. The day is blotted out. Night envelops all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a man with ambitions and capabilities.

It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled that we are working to improve the condition of the adult blind. You cannot bring back the light of the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the sightless along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their eyes you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in the darkness [emphasis added]. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.

This message of empathy and advocacy speaks beyond the turn of the twentieth century and beyond the challenges confronting the blind. In the twenty-first century, Americans are not fully human unless they are workers first. Without work, Americans struggle to have adequate and affordable health care, to feel basic dignity or security.

In the twenty-first century, people and children increasingly trapped in poverty are the targets of derision and marginalization as this country has maintained a war on the poor and not on poverty.

Those Who Will Not See: The Privileged

Let’s imagine, now, Keller’s words rewritten to address the advocacy needed for adults and children trapped in poverty:

To know what the poor person needs, you who are privileged must imagine what it would be not to privileged, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what poverty means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction….The privileged man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident impoverishes him. The day is blotted out. Night envelops all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a man with ambitions and capabilities.

It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled that we are working to improve the condition of people trapped in poverty. You cannot bring back the light of the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the poor along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their opportunity you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in the darkness. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.

The U.S. is not a land of opportunity, but a land of privilege begetting privilege at the expense of the impoverished and the swelling working class and working poor. The privileged berate public institutions, such as universal public education, and the people who dedicate their lives to public service, such as the teachers in those schools.

The privileged rail against universal health care and day care because they were raised with both and maintain both regardless of their behavior.

The corporate consumer culture has tied all basic elements of human dignity—an income, retirement, health care, security—to employment rendering a hard day’s labor essentially a kind of twentieth-century wage-slavery.

American workers are shackled to their status as workers, a condition that benefits mostly the owners, the bosses, the privileged.

If American workers were provided the basic dignities of being human independent of their work, those workers would have autonomy—something historically afforded by unions and tenure (the anathemas of corporate consumerism)—they would have voice, they would have the authentic freedom and choice flippantly championed by the privileged.

Keller’s impassioned plea about the need for empathy at the foundation of advocacy speaks to the same empathy needed against the arrogance of privilege that has corrupted the American character and the American Dream.

“Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected,” mused Oscar Wilde.

America remains a shining possibility, but it is destined to remain only a possibility as long as those with power continue to lead but refuse to see that the true character of a country’s people is revealed each day among that country’s workers and the conditions of their labor.

A Reminder: “The Children Do Notice”

Most of us who teach are now in a moment of pause, between semesters, between classes. Although we are mid-academic year, we are facing a new calendar year, traditionally a time to reflect, recommit, and redirect.

I offer below a repost of a piece from 2011, something I think that is enduring and important—a lesson from a student of a former student of mine, now a teacher.

“The Children Do Notice”*

I spent the first eighteen years of my career as an educator, teaching high school English at the high school I attended in my home town. There, I was fortunate to teach hundreds and hundreds of wonderful young people who made my life richer and fueled my desire to be the best teacher I could be.

The last thirteen years have been devoted to teacher education. I now have about three dozen young English teachers who have come through my courses and field experiences, creating for me a different kind of pride in them and my work.

All of these students I love. I miss them dearly, and recall them fondly. Facebook has been a wonderful opportunity to reconnect, although virtually, with a few hundred students. Yes, I “friend” students and former students—because I have told all of my teachers-to-be that they should ignore the misguided advice often given to young teachers: “Don’t be friends with your students.”

I have yet to understand what characteristics of friendship we should deny the children in our care. . .

Because of my life and profession as an educator, and because of the wonderful students and teachers who have been in my classes, I admit that I am quick to bristle at the current criticism and misinformation about teachers and the entire profession of teaching.

Two-plus years ago, I received a notice in my gmail account that a former student, Stephanie Johnson, who now teachers in DC had tagged me in a comment on Facebook, and this is what she wrote:

Today, I got a beautiful reminder from a student about why I’ve chosen this profession. The student (an 8th grade male student with special needs) planned and hosted a reception to honor five staff members who have had a positive impact on his life.  He decided he wanted to do it, he got help from the necessary people to make it happen, and he hosted a beautiful program to honor them.  I’ve been to events planned by adults that weren’t of this caliber.  It was amazing. And it led me to say this to my teacher friends…In this time when teachers are disrespected by those that make the decisions about our profession AND those completely outside of it, it’s important to remember that we do this for CHILDREN. To be a positive part of CHILDREN’S lives. To empower and nurture CHILDREN. Though our efforts go unnoticed and are under-appreciated by the powers that be, the CHILDREN do notice. They notice when you go out of your way to support and care for them. They notice when you recognize the gifts they have that others can’t (or won’t) see. They notice that you are there every day, longer than you should be. They notice. And they appreciate you.  So, in this stressful end of the year time with testing, IEPs, etc., I hope you’ll continue to stay positive and hopeful.  I hope you’ll continue doing everything that you’ve always done that has made you the wonderful teacher (social worker, administrator) that you are.  Enjoy your last few weeks with your students.

Every time a self-appointed education reformer claims she is putting children first, think about these words above.

Every time a self-appointed education reformer argues that education has too many bad teachers, think about these words above.

Every time a self-appointed education reformer accuses teachers of being satisfied with the status quo, think about these words above.

Every time a self-appointed education reformer says we give too many tests and then calls for more tests, think about these words above.

“The CHILDREN do notice”. . .

They notice adult hypocrisy, they notice our wars, they notice that many, too many, people have too little in the richest country in the world. . .

But most of all, they notice the kindness and genuine love of that adult whose classroom they enter for the first time purely by chance. They notice that we have chosen to be teachers because we expect to love them, we expect them to be all that they imagine they can be.

I can only paraphrase Stephanie, “Enjoy your time with your students.”

And despite all the things that make us question being teachers, be thankful that come the next school year, there will be more students to empower and nurture.

To love.

* Reposted from Daily Kos (May 9, 2011).

AlterNet 2013

While I am often critical of mainstream media’s contributions to the education reform debate, I want to pause at the end of 2013 and point you to my pieces posted at AlterNet, in part to ask that you visit AlterNet often and acknowledge the wonderful work done their in terms of education.

I hope as well you have found or will find my work there has contributed positively to the cause:

Why Charter Schools Are Foolish Investments for States Facing Economic Challenges

Posted on: Dec 18, 2013, Source: The State

South Carolina’s children deserve data-based and lean school reform policy, and not advocacy-based experiments.

Learning and Teaching in Scarcity: How High-Stakes ‘Accountability’ Cultivates Failure

Posted on: Nov 8, 2013, Source: AlterNet

In-school-only reforms will never be the solution for children in high-poverty schools.

The Central Issue at the Heart of America’s Growing Education Gap

Posted on: Oct 3, 2013, Source: AlterNet

It’s time for some new thinking about how to address the persistent inequalities that plague our education system.

BOOK REVIEW: “Reign of Error”: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

Posted on: Sep 17, 2013, Source: AlterNet

Forget low test scores, says one of the nation’s foremost education experts in her new book. The privatizers are the real threat to America’s schools.

Whatever Happened to Scientifically Based Research in Education Policy?

Posted on: Sep 12, 2013, Source: AlterNet

No Child Left Behind calls for scientifically based research. But what if that research calls for repealing No Child Left Behind?

The Similarities Between the Charter School Movement and the War on Drugs

Posted on: May 20, 2013, Source:

How both are creating an underclass, significantly among African American males.

The Rise of the Dogmatic Scholar

Posted on: Apr 4, 2013, Source: AlterNet

Free market think-tanks pay off scholars who are now increasingly found in universities.

Corporations Are Behind The Common Core State Standards — And That’s Why They’ll Never Work

Posted on: Mar 18, 2013, Source: AlterNet

Why do we keep enforcing more and more standards and testing that educators don’t trust?

Why Sending Your Child to a Charter School Hurts Other Children

Posted on: Mar 6, 2013, Source: AlterNet

Parents should fight for quality education for all, not just their own kids.

Schools Can’t Do It Alone: Why ‘Doubly Disadvantaged’ Kids Continue to Struggle Academically

Posted on: Jan 30, 2013, Source: AlterNet

A report on childhood poverty proves once again that no single measure can cure poverty’s ills.

Anatomy of Charter School Advocacy

When I wrote Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform in 2011, the acceleration of charter school advocacy hadn’t quite gathered the momentum that we are experiencing at the end of 2013. If charter school advocacy has proven anything, however, it is that my basic premise has come to fruition:

Once again, the caution of evidence – advocacy is the enemy of transparency and truth.

Like medicine, then, education and education reform will continue to fail if placed inside the corrosive dynamics of market forces. Instead, the reform of education must include the expertise of educators who are not bound to advocating for customers, but encouraged, rewarded and praised for offering the public the transparent truth about what faces us and what outcomes are the result of any and every endeavor to provide children the opportunity to learn as a member of a free and empowered people.

Education “miracles” do not exist and market forces are neither perfect nor universal silver bullets for any problem – these are conclusions made when we are free of the limitations of advocacy and dedicated to the truth, even when it challenges our beliefs.

Data-driven analysis confronting charter school advocacy, then, tends to spur fairly predictable responses from those advocates. For example, when a charter advocacy group in South Carolina called for greater funding and support for charter schools, I offered an analysis from two years of data on charter and public schools, showing that charter schools tended to perform about the same and worse than public schools.

My resulting commentary refuting further investment in charter schools in SC has prompted a response that represents everything that is wrong with charter school advocacy.

Wayne Brazell, Superintendent, S.C. Public Charter School District, offers a predictable response, starting with an unrelated swipe at me:

It’s interesting that an education professor working at a private college where the tuition exceeds $40,000 per year has such insight into what is best for public-school parents, as Paul Thomas claims in his Dec. 12 guest column, “Charter schools not a smart investment for S.C.” Charter schools provide a valuable public-school option and operate with fewer resources, maximizing taxpayer investment and increasing innovative practices.

It seems more interesting to highlight that where I teach and what the tuition is at my university have nothing to do with the evidence I offered, but that this response is written by the Superintendent of S.C. Public Charter School District should raise at least some red flags about advocacy trumping a credible look at the evidence.

Next, Brazell offers a cursory nod to the main bulk of evidence in my analysis and then completely misses the point that when similar charter and public schools are compared, charter schools tend to be no different and worse:

While state report cards are an important measure to consider, schools also are rated on federal accountability measures. Eight charter schools received a perfect score of 100 in 2013, while 19 received A’s. With this measure, charters do get similar results to traditional public schools, but use fewer resources in the process.

Notably, Brazell does not refute my analysis, and offers only data from a different type of report card used in SC—not a comparison of like-schools and not a recognition that many public schools also excel under that report card system.

In fact, the SC Public Charter School District for which Brazell is superintendent received a C on that same report card. Wonder why he doesn’t mention that?

But let’s take the logic of this argument and apply it to traditional public schools (TPS): If some TPS achieved perfect scores and A’s on this report card, doesn’t that mean we should draw the same implied conclusion Brazell makes about charter schools? Well, they do, but Brazell makes no mention of that.

In fact, Brazell’s advocacy of charter schools depends on smoke and mirrors, lots of implications. As I have noted, implications and faith in market forces simply aren’t enough.

Instead of advocacy, we need evidence. So please consider what we know about some of the realities connected with charter schools that advocates refuse to acknowledge:

  • Is “charterness” (something unique about charter schools) the key to providing better schools for all? No, see Di Carlo.
  • Do charter schools do the same or more with less when compared to TPS? No, see Baker here and here.
  • Are charter schools part of the rise of re-segregation by class and race in public education? Yes, see here, here, and here. And market forces appear behind that rise.

The evidence is clear: Charter school advocacy is failing the education reform debate in much the same way charter schools are failing students, public education, and the U.S.

Education Reform: Our Field, Our Voices Simply Do Not Matter

“I am an invisible man,” announces the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, adding:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, of figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me….That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact….you often doubt if you really exist….It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

After the reader follows the narrator along his journey from naivete and idealism to the battered realism of coming face-to-face with his invisibility, we discover that his invisibility leads to hibernation:

I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in….So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation.

Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core (CC), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists.

Education: The Invisible Profession

Two powerful and persistent responses from the new reform advocates when anyone (especially an educator) challenges their reform agendas include (a) teachers are against reform and want the status quo, and (b) while teachers are quick to criticize X reform policy, they never offer any solutions of their own.

These responses are not accurate (most educators are reformers at heart, and educators, thus, have many things to offer in terms of better reform agendas), but most of all they exist in a narrative that renders the entire field of education invisible.

Modern education as a field of study is over a century old. A great deal of consensus and enduring debates characterize teacher education, pedagogy, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and assessment—all rich and vibrant elements of the larger field of education, informed by decades of practitioners and educational researchers and well as theorists and philosophers.

My doctoral work included writing a biography of Lou LaBrant, who lived to be 102 and taught from 1906-1971. Recurring messages of LaBrant’s work as a teacher and scholar reveal an ignored fact of the teaching profession: Education in the U.S. has been primarily driven by political and bureaucratic mandates that have reduced teachers to implementing education policy, not creating it.

In LaBrant’s unpublished memoir (written during the Reagan administration), she also catalogued living and teaching through three back-to-basic movements, highlighting the bulk of a century of digging the same standards-based reform hole that has never once been shown to work.

The most recent thirty years have intensified that legacy that reaches back to at least the first decade of the twentieth century, but was identified by LaBrant (1947) directly: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

In effect, then, for a century, teachers have been invisible in their own field, except as both compliant workers implementing political and bureaucratic mandates and as often-silent scapegoats as that bureaucracy fails.

However, even that teachers have primarily been those who implement education policy instead of those creating it is more complicated than it seems.

For example, Regie Routman  and Stephen Krashen documented the typical dysfunction that characterizes education policy. By the 1990s, California’s state literacy curriculum was being labeled a failure by politicians, the media, and the public; the culprit was whole language.

Yet, Routman confronted the charges as misleading because of two factors: (1) Much of the measurable decline in California test scores was strongly correlated with decreased education funding and an influx of English language learners, and (2) while teachers received extensive in-service for implementing whole language, the vast majority of the teachers returned to their classes, shut their doors (hibernated), and taught as they had been taught, as they had always taught—thus, never implementing the whole language pedagogy and curriculum that constituted the official bureaucracy of the state.

Krashen presented a a detailed, evidence-based unmasking of the Plummet Legend:

The Great Plummet of 1987-1992 never happened. California’s reading scores were low well before the Language Arts Framework Committee met in 1987. There is compelling evidence that the low scores are related California’s impoverished print environment. There is also strong and consistent evidence that the availability of reading material is related to how much children read, and how much children read is related to how well they read. The skills and testing hysteria that has gripped California and other states was unnecessary.

Perpetuating a similar pattern to the whole language Plummet Legend, the current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles.

As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.

Just as teenagers seek out self-defeating ways to appear adult (cigarettes, alcohol, recreational drugs, sex) as expressions of their autonomy and agency, invisible workers of all kinds respond in dysfunctional ways when their autonomy is denied and their voices muted—just as Routman detailed about California during the rise and fall of whole language.

CC, charter schools, TFA, VAM, and merit pay plans are driven by advocates who refuse to see not only teachers but also the entire history and field of education, or as Arundhati Roy explains, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

If teacher quality is a genuine problem in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and compensation.

If curriculum and pedagogy are genuine problems in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for curriculum and pedagogy.

Let’s allow for the first time in history educators the recognition they deserve to examine, evaluate, and reform their own field. Current reform that is top-down and driven by the same historical and bureaucratic methods that have brought us to where we now stand is destined to repeat the same patterns we have already experienced for over 100 years.

But educators must step outside the social norm of apolitical, silent, hibernating teachers. Educators must confront our invisibility, but most of all, our culpability in our own de-professionalization, our hibernation, as Ellison’s narrator recognizes:

Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

Alternative Education Reform: Among the Invisible and “Preferably Unheard”

Educators as workers in a profession rendered invisible and “preferably unheard” are increasingly being demonized, marginalized, and challenged as defenders of the status quo and anti-reformers.

The Sisyphean hell of being a teacher includes having almost no autonomy or power in educational policy but receiving the brunt of the blame when the outcomes of those policies do not meet the goals promised.

Yet, throughout the academic and scholarly press as well as the public media and “new” media, such as blogs, educators, researchers and scholars present daily alternatives to the repackaged reform movement committed to the same failed policies that have plagued education for a century—standards, testing, and assorted business models of efficiency forced onto education.

Education is a massive and complex endeavor, and the common sense perception of how to address teaching and learning, how to reform schools that appear to be broken, envisions equally massive and complex solutions (think VAM and merit pay).

And here is where educators may be trapped in our quest to discredit misguided reform and to take ownership of credible reform: Our alternatives appear too simple on the surface but are incredibly complicated, unpredictable, and unwieldy in their implementation. In short, most credible calls for education reform are outside the box thinking when compared to traditional education, business models, and social norms.

For example, Larry Ferlazzo in one sentence dismantles much of the current reform movement and offers alternatives:

Even though it’s not necessarily an either/or situation, I would suggest that both educators and students would be better served by emphasizing creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation over teaching techniques designed to communicate standards-based content.

Again, maybe this is too simple, but education reform does not need new standards, new tests, or new accountability and evaluation/merit pay policies.Education reform is needed, but should be re-imagined as a few different paradigms:

• Instead of a standards-based education system that places the authority for curriculum in a centralized bureaucracy, teacher autonomy and expertise should be the focus of reform—paralleling the culture of higher education in which professors are hired for field expertise as well as the teaching of their fields. [This change in the midset of reform and the culture of K-12 schools, thus, creates the conditions in which a revised paradigm in accountability can be implemented, see below.]

• Instead of a test-based education system that measures, quantifies, ranks, and evaluates, high-quality and rich feedback for both teachers and students should be the focus of reform; feedback is formative and thus contributes positively to learning and growth.

• Instead of high-stakes accountability focusing on outcomes and that demands compliance as well as blurs causation and correlation (teachers, for example, being held accountable for student outcomes), teacher accountability focusing on the learning conditions provided by the teacher should be embraced. This reform measure should emphasize the equity of opportunity provided all students [1], regardless of the teacher, the school the community, or the home environment.

• Instead of devaluing teacher preparation through alternative programs or ideologies that suggest content knowledge is more valuable than (or even exclusive of) pedagogy and through teacher evaluation policies that label, rank, and seek to fire teachers, teacher preparation and teacher evaluation should honor the complex nature of content knowledge and the pedagogy needed to teach that knowledge (see the first bullet above) while emphasizing mentoring and teaching as constant learning over stack ranking and dismissing a predetermined percentage of teachers.

Educators know what and how to teach. Education is a rich field with a tremendous amount of consensus and enduring debates along the spectrum of subcategories that constitute education—pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and more.

The great irony of the need to shift away from the historical dependence on bureaucratic efficiency models of education reform and toward a professional and scholarly culture of being a teacher and conducting schooling is that the latter is far more challenging for teachers and students, and as Felazzo explains:

Let’s look at what some research shows to be necessary to create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish, and how that research can be applied specifically to teaching and learning about reading and writing….Pink argues that there are three key elements required for the development of intrinsic motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose…..Helping students to motivate themselves is a far more effective and energizing teaching/learning strategy than the faux magical one of extrinsic motivation.

Both teachers and students can and will benefit from education reform that focuses on the conditions of learning that honor “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in ways that allow for failure, revision, and unpredictable outcomes—none of which are fostered in the efficiency model that historically and currently corrupts education reform.

[1] See Wright’s examination of access to equitable early childhood education


Krashen, S. (2002, June). Whole language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92: An urban legend from California. Phi Delta Kappan, 748-753.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in languageElementary English, 24(1), 86-94.