News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 28, 2010

Stephanie Salter: Bashing teachers in the name of education reform

Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — As I read the Tribune-Star’s recent Page 1 news packages about the governor’s push for education reform, I kept seeing faces.

Faces of all the women and men I know who make their living as public school teachers. Faces of so many of the kids these teachers work with, nurture, rescue, educate, empower and, more than you’d imagine, come to love.

A quote by Tony Bennett, Indiana State Superintendent of Public Education, has stuck with me with particular power: “I’m tired of hearing all the reasons why something may not work. What we’re doing now isn’t working. It’s time to try something different.”

I looked at the list of 29 Vigo County public schools. I imagined the nearly 16,000 children and teenagers inside them and the 1,650 or so teachers, administrators and support staff spending seven to 10 hours each day working to make those kids better readers and writers, helping them learn to solve math problems and grasp scientific principles, and enabling them to try to grow up and be productive citizens.

I pictured walking into each of those buildings, opening the door to every classroom, interrupting the teacher’s presentation, the test or student report, looking each and every adult and kid in the eye and saying, “What you are doing isn’t working.”

That science fair for which you are preparing? The math contest? The debate tournament? The creative writing project? The history, social studies, political science, economics or typing quiz you’re taking? Forget them.

The chief of Indiana’s public education system (and, by proxy, the governor) says what you do, day in and day out, for more than nine months a year, is broken. It doesn’t work and needs to be overhauled to the point of near-abandonment.

The chief calls what you teachers have dedicated your lives to, what you students do in response to your teachers’ efforts, “a mess.” He compares your system of operation to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has a PowerPoint show — stocked with everything he finds wrong, but devoid of anything you do right — to prove what a mess you’ve made.

And he and the governor have numbers. Short on context or edifying comparison, long on political spin, the selective statistics damn Hoosier public schools and the people who teach and learn in them.

As sharp a salesman as ever came along, the governor knows the buzzwords and hot-button phrases that cause lots of folks to see red and to believe a fix is fairly easy. In the passionate and impatient Bennett, who seems never to have met a bona fide public school he liked (as opposed to a “public charter school”), Gov. Daniels has found the perfect instrument for advancing his vision of many aspects of government, including public education:

Remake it as closely as possible in the image of a highly-competitive, ultra-efficient business.

That means that in one of the least-monolithic arenas of our culture — compare the needs of students in Hamilton County and Marion County, for example — small, medium and large are supposed to fit all.

Can’t meet the benchmarks du jour? Then you and your student body don’t deserve to stay in the game.

Like stockbrokers or attorneys bent on making partner, wise teachers are supposed to accept that their pay and promotions should be tied to “results.” Those results depend on test scores, which seem to change with each legislature and which capture a one-dimensional, grainy snapshot of a growing, evolving child at a moment in time that may or may not resemble the same moment for all the other children in all the classes in all the schools.

“Healthy” competition is the name of the winning game, just as it is in a successful, for-profit company.  

The problem is, the bottom line of publicly educating children has never looked like a dynamite or dismal third quarter, a boatload of legal clients, a leveraged buyout or a disappointing IPO.

Few people remember now, but the idea of shifting school funding from local entities to the state was portrayed as a great relief for the locals. No more fretting over fluctuating property tax revenue and allocations for schools. But ask most local school superintendents how that’s worked out, as their districts have become the money-sucking enemy in Indianapolis, their budgets have been cut, and more and more of them must beg their local citizens to vote for regular tax increases that will help keep the lights on and the math textbooks current.

Ask the superintendents again when the full effects of Indiana’s constitutionally mandated tax caps are felt in a few years.

To hear the governor and his chief of public education talk, you would think Indiana is in the sub-basement of every national standard that exists. Such a sales approach makes radical restructuring (or demolition) so much easier. After all, who wants to keep a “failing” system in place? What person in his or her right mind wants to support an oil spill?

Never mind the individual faces, histories and value systems of more than 50,000 members of the state’s teachers unions. Better to vilify them as a whole, hinting that those who do not buy the current administration’s version of reform must be lazy, burned out, power-hungry or clinging to old-fashioned, inefficient methods.

Couple the vilification with statements from Bennett, such as, “We do not need any more money in this system. We need courage to change.” Allow him to reduce the complex problems experienced by most public education systems throughout this country to a fake choice in Indiana between “funding school corporations” and funding “the education of students.”

Repeat all of it, over and over again, and you can sell a lot of unproved reform to legislators and their constituents. You can demonize a lot of dedicated people, too, and belittle their life’s work.

I doubt it will do much good because Americans prefer one-line “truths” to complicated explanations these days, but next Sunday, I’d like to provide some of the context the governor and superintendent never seem to include in their presentations. I’d like to try to balance their litany of failures with the very real successes of Indiana’s public schools, and maybe offer some mitigating background information that requires more learning time than a pithy sound bite or a slick PowerPoint display.

Not a teacher or administrator I know thinks this state’s public education system doesn’t have problems or that all the remedies require more money. What they do think is that they are not an oil spill and that likening them to one is an insult they don’t deserve.  

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or