After 15 years in public education as a teacher and administrator, I have taken a sabbatical to do some research into the current state of public education. How did things get so bad? Why are people so divided about the solutions? Who can we trust? What should we do?
I earned both my undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. The Master in School Administration program is founded on the premise that both equity and excellence must be pursued with commitment – either without the other is irrelevant and ultimately unattainable.
I now disagree. It is only by focusing on equity that excellence has any chance of emerging. The current state of public education has pushed aside equity while using smoke and mirrors to define excellence. I will attempt to share my view here. Please join the conversation, but more importantly, commit to action.
In the Beginning
In 1999, twelve full years after I graduated from UNC with a teaching license, I decided to finally do it. I accepted a job in rural Alamance County and began my career in public education. I was taken aback by what I found. Incredibly intelligent, child-centered teachers willing to bend over backwards to make kids succeed. Administrators who truly knew curriculum and were willing to make program decisions based on teacher input. Classroom teachers who were specialists in reading and special education. My learning curve was steep. I loved every minute of it. The first lesson I learned was that the achievement gap is real. At the end of my first year, I sat in a retention meeting with my teammate, a 30 year veteran, and listened to why my student, a seventh-grade, African-American boy, should be retained. He had not been a trouble-maker. He had simply sat quietly through the entire year doing not much of anything. I was that teacher who let him. I was heart-broken and ashamed. I vowed to never let it happen again.
The next year, I made every African-American kid in my class sit in the front row. I only taught African-American literature. I referred to myself as a white woman and talked about what stereo-types I did and didn’t fit. I listened to my mentor and colleagues. I bonded with my students of all colors, but especially one boy named Howard. He became my special project because he was the statistic, an African-American boy who had never passed an end-of-grade test. At the end of that year, Howard and I both celebrated. He grew 16 points and passed the reading test. I had helped make that happen.
Signs of Disrespect
In 2003, I mentored my first lateral entry teacher. He was smart and capable, but he knew nothing about teaching. In my gut, I felt like I was being taken advantage of. I was expected to give him one-on-one instruction about how to do this incredibly complex job – instruction that I had studied in college full-time and spent months practicing as a supervised student-teacher. He had been thrown to the wolves, so to speak, and I was supposed to help him navigate it. Moreover, I knew ultimately him being there meant that the NC legislators had decide that my training was irrelevant, that anyone who had graduated college could do what I do. I was and still am demeaned by the very thought of it. Some districts in NC certainly don’t allow lateral entry. No other profession allows anyone with a “provisional” license to actually do the job they are not yet licensed to do. Yet, NC allowed this to happen in a profession entrusted with children.
In the first six years of my career, I worked for four principals. Three of the four were warriors for public education. They shielded teachers from unnecessary work and meetings, they praised and celebrated success, they championed best-practices, and made me proud to be a teacher. I remember when Clinton introduced Charter Schools, and when No Child Left Behind rolled out. My leaders were traumatized. I am only now seeing the full picture about why.
Equity vs. Excellence
In 2006, I started my MSA program at UNC-Chapel Hill. The program claimed to be founded on excellence and equity. We learned all about value-added teachers, front-loading curriculum, and test item analysis for cultural bias. I was taken by how intimidated our instructors were to actually talk about race and discrimination in public education, as if the existence of institutional racism was still up for debate. Maybe after NC report cards, fifteen years-plus of the Minority Gap Conference, and Michael Brown, they are more willing, but in my day, the issue of race was skirted. I learned most of what I know from attending in 2005 the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching’s week long seminar “Understanding African-American Under-Achievement.” It was the most empowering staff (or personal) development series I have ever experienced. A few years later, when I recommended this workshop to teachers at the middle school where I was the assistant principal, I was told I was out of line. I was told to have no opinions, that having them would be “career-limiting” especially if I were overly concerned with equity. Equity quickly gets tied up with school safety issues, suspension, and graduation rates. Equity means that students of color might need more resources in order to access the same curriculum, and many people think that is the opposite of equity. During my three year tenure in Chapel Hill- Carrboro City Schools, I attended multiple trainings about equity. As a white woman, I was expected to feel shock and awe at the color-line. The principals I worked for implied that I could not be effective with students of color because I was white. I disagreed. I was silenced.
Smoke and Mirrors
So, here I am, reading everything I can get my hands on about public education – trying to catch up from years of being too busy and tired from actually working in public schools to pay attention. Here’s what I think. ‘Choice’ is the new code word for segregation. I am not the first person to say this, but nonetheless, I am surprised to say it. Public charter schools were invented as a way to spur innovation, as a reform measure. The experiment has gone terribly awry. For-profit charters are churning out their own reviews with incredible marketing success, but really, should public schools be turning a profit for anyone except the students who attend? In North Carolina, unlike other states, charter schools are not under the purview of locally elected school boards. This makes the NC charter situation even more destructive than in other states. Here, local school boards helplessly await the numbers for funding – the numbers of students who will be left over after charters are approved and enrolled. It is a nightmare for districts like Durham Public Schools. Now, we have the voucher program, correction, “Opportunity Scholarship Program”, about to be decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court. NC is actually spending money to defend this unconstitutional proposal. Seriously, sending public funds to parochial schools? Do we not have separation of church and state?
Funny You Should Ask
So, since I have been not working everyday, I have read a lot of news articles and blog posts and books. I have also been volunteering my time and energy with a non-profit.This group I joined is a watch dog group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Back in November, this non-profit had a national meeting in Washington, DC, and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. While I was there, I met people, (mostly older retired people who have the time to volunteer) who were heading up chapters of AU in their cities and towns across America. They were teachers, ministers, rabbis, doctors, and lawyers. They were all working hard against the religious right’s calculated and deliberate attempt to declare America a Christian Nation, blur the line between church and state, and rewrite history. On the second night of the conference, I met Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club. She was very interested in my story and asked me lots of questions about what was happening in NC. It turns out, she was the keynote speaker the next day. AU was giving her a recognition award for her work to expose the Christian Right’s anti-public school agenda. Her work is thorough. Her research is complete. Her arguments are cogent. The line between the religious right’s agenda to dismantle public schools and what is actually happening right now in NC is direct and unmistakable. If you want to attend the program our local chapter is organizing, please join us.
In fact, where I have landed is quite unexpected. I really thought I would find a smoking gun at Pearson or PARCC. I thought the corporate interests were orchestrating everything. Don’t get me wrong. The profiteers are out there and they are raking in the money from the current situation. They are also using their considerable wealth and influence in politics. But how did the politics get this crazy that the Republican Party has been overrun with champions of hatred and ignorance? Yes, I am referring to the Tea Party – the group that vilifies the working poor, promotes an anti-tax mentality, decrees anti-regulation (except for women’s uteruses – they will happily regulate women), cries freedom (except when it comes to marriage between consenting adults who are of the same sex or when someone wants to die with dignity), and wants to rewrite history to include some fanatical version of evangelical Christianity that didn’t exist during the Revolutionary War. The Tea Party has struck a chord with Americans much the same way the Klan did back in the early 1960s. I believe they have succeeded because, like the Klan, they have rallied the Christians in fundamentalist churches to participate in the political process. Back in the 1970s and 80s, Jerry Falwell rallied the same group with the Moral Majority. When Falwell stated that public education was teaching secular humanism and was therefore the “greatest threat to Christianity in modern times,” he set a plan into motion. That plan included building Bob Jones and later Liberty University to churn out scholars and lawyers who could be “soldiers for Christ.” These soldiers were charged with changing the interpretation of the Constitution to include Christian Nationalism. The Moral Majority waned in the late 80s but was replaced with other similar PACs. Americans for Prosperity (the Koch Brothers), Faith, Family, and Freedom, and other right-wing PACs and think tanks cut from the same cloth as the Moral Majority perpetuate the ideology of America as a Christian nation. They promote the idea that family values are synonymous with Christian values and if you are not Christian you are immoral. These groups are promoting the voucher programs and organizing the pep rallies around Choice. Choice in schools – not women’s rights. They are still against that. And Choice in Schools is what has everyone running in different directions, scrambling to fight for limited resources, reinventing schools as businesses instead of community service organizations, and reeling from School Report Cards. Choice is the new segregation. Choice is orchestrated by the same ilk of folks who opposed the original efforts to integrate schools. The narrative that public schools are failing comes straight from the religious right’s play book to create discord and unhappiness. And unfortunately, fundamentalist Christians, including many, many African American families are unwilling to confront the source of this discord and own the devastating results of this doctrine – a community that is not unified around providing the best possible opportunities for all its children. Instead school choice creates communities that are reverting to segregated schools and parents who are desperately seeking “the best solution” for just their kid.
So, what’s next for me? What am I going to do about this? I am going to keep putting it out there and hope that good people will listen and join in the fight to stop the systemic dismantling of our schools – the very bedrock of our democracy entrusted to produce an educated electorate. I am going to ask you to think about whether you really want a Christian Nation – and if so, which variety of Christian would you prefer? Baptist? Methodist? Catholic? Christian Scientist? My point here is that religious freedom means just that – free to worship in any way you see fit, or not at all. And to acknowledge that while religion can provide a guide to morality, it certainly doesn’t provide a guarantee of it. Morality is a human choice – I personally believe in a universal morality that promotes the love and care of one another. I am going to stop agonizing and continue organizing. Join me.