Questions for Teachers, and Answers from Mexico

Here is the question: Are you willing to go along with the destruction of a profession that, more than any other, helps to preserve our democracy and ensure our economic growth?  An answer to this question comes from Mexico and is described in the link to power points that follow this brief overview.

I believe that public education is under vicious attack and the public school system itself may be lost. And I also believe that the failure of teachers to take a leadership role in society is tantamount to complicity in the destruction of public education.

In terms of your own professional life are you willing to have your wages frozen, your job stability lost, restrictions placed on your teaching kids what they might love to learn about, your class sizes increased, your libraries closed, your worth determined by the test scores of children who may be English Language Learners, or in poverty, or not quite special education, but close? Sorry, but I cannot help thinking that your silence on these issues is agreement.

Did you really mean to be silent when they instituted high-stakes tests because your state needed to know how your students were doing? What did you learn that you did not already know about your students? What did the state learn that couldn't have been predicted from local zip codes and a five minute conversation with you?

Did you really mean to be silent when the school leaders of our districts, in response to unreasonable state and federal policies, forced you to do test prep and cut the arts and history courses because, they said, reading and math are much more important areas to learn?

Did you really mean to be silent when they wanted you to test more frequently and to test very young kids, because all that data is important to have? How much does all that data inform your teaching compared to your own classroom tests and personal knowledge of your students?

Are you going to remain silent now as they get ready to fire you because your test scores, based on a new “rigorous” set of standards, are not as high as someone wants them to be for your poor kids and your English Language Learners? Perhaps Martin Luther King said it best: "A time comes when silence is betrayal."

Maybe you should have spoken out earlier and taken a leadership role before this all happened. Leadership and activism by teachers to preserve our public education system and our democracy was never more needed than now.

Rampant and invalid use of high-stakes tests, tuition tax credits for religious schools, unregulated charters that skim and cream students in order to look good, and other  “reforms” are all in need of protest. We need angry and loud protests by school personnel who share a love of public education and want to preserve it, not just for themselves, but for the democracy they have chosen to serve. In my lifetime there has never been a better time for such leaders and activists to emerge. Either such leaders emerge soon or public education as we know it is gone. For me, public education was the greatest invention of the 19th century, surpassing the telegraph, telephone, and the Gatling gun! In fact, it is quite possible that the reason for the preeminence of the USA in the 20th century was because of our wonderful 19th century invention of public schooling. If we lose that wonderful system we created we may find that our nations’ role in the 21st century will be greatly curtailed.

What trends have impeded teachers’ activism in recent years?  Teachers always lead busy lives and a great many of them worry more about their own students and their own families more than they worry about the politics that surround them. But in these times politics needs their attention. Teachers’ families need them to both earn decent pay and be respected for their work by their community. For that to happen now teachers need to lead and manage the political forces that buffet them. Today’s teachers need to be origins, not pawns. We need more teachers to serve on community boards, in state legislatures, and in congress. Trusting decisions about schooling to be made by [mostly] male real estate developers, bankers, financiers, and business executives, no longer works because most of those people have lost their sense of community and respond primarily to “market” ideas. It is time for many more teachers, and in particular, many more female teachers, to take over leadership in politics. We would probably have a better and more humane social system in this country if that were the case. Those political woman would be more likely than the men who run things now to provide what we need to have better schools, especially for our nations’ poor kids.

What’s the most promising way that teachers can reclaim the professionalism they are due?  Teachers should stand up for professional rights, as did the teachers in Seattle, recently, who simply said “No” to irrelevant high-stakes testing. Those teachers stood together and their courage brought other teachers to stand with them. The threats of firing were withdrawn quickly. No one knows how to replace thousands of teachers who, if they stood together, would force politicians to do what is right, not what is politically current.

Teachers can only preserve their profession and the children they want to help, by fighting to protect their jobs, pensions and dignity. And they can do that if they band together, perhaps even striking together, putting their jobs at risk. Imagine a governor having to fill thousands of classrooms with scab labor while schools are picketed by some of the most decent members of the local community, asking only for the right to practice their profession in a humane way!

The free speech movement’s first great orator, Mario Savio, on the steps of Sproul Hall at U C Berkeley said what now needs repeating: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.” Diane Ravitch, among others, agrees with these sentiments.

Of course there needs to be accountability. Of course there have to be some assessments. Of course schools can be improved. No teachers I know are against those movements. But accountability, assessment, and school improvement can all be done sensibly and humanely, and that is not how these movements are now being implemented.  Furthermore, schools in the U. S. that are not now doing well will only rarely be improved by better teachers, better curriculum, better assessment, better incentives and so forth. The vast majority of these schools will only be improved if the lives of the children and the families served by our teachers and schools are improved.  Its time for educators to stop taking the rap for a society that has allowed a 30-year drift into poverty for so many of the families who depend on our public schools.

Teacher leaders and activists need to get into political positions and right these wrongs. Any one teacher leader or activist, on any one issue, could easily lose their job. But I am sure that teacher’s who stand together, in solidarity, can force responsible changes in education. They need to take leadership away from those now harming education and participate in the political life of their communities as never before. Look to Mexico. Here are some slides that recently came to me through email.

My understanding is that this presentation was made by an American teacher trying to teach her own class of young people in Oakland, California about the struggle of teachers in Mexico. This presentation, and the stories and pictures in the newspapers and magazines I read, prompted this essay. It is not clear that Mexico’s teachers will win this battle. But it is clear that they are willing to stand up to the reformist trends that are sweeping the world and promoting privatization.

David C. Berliner

David C. Berliner is Regents’ Professor of Education Emeritus at Arizona State University. He has also taught at the Universities of Arizona and Massachusetts, at Teachers College and Stanford University, and at universities in Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, and Switzerland.  He is a member of the National Academy of Education, the International Academy of Education, and a...