Frank Bruni, See Me After Class

Hey, New York Times, I’d like to offer a deal.  Please stop letting Frank Bruni write about school. In fact, get a clever programmer who can arrange so that any time he writes the words “school” “teacher” or “student” his keyboard gives him an electroshock.  In return, I will never again complain that you charge my family $20 a month for an electronic subscription that doesn’t include the cell phone app and which still has advertising.  I’ll even promise to refrain from leaving comments on any David Brooks column where he opines about the nature of character.

Do we have a deal?

I have good reason to want Mr. Bruni off the education beat.  In 2013, he briefly suggested that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was “impolitic” to place opposition to the Common Core State Standards upon “white, suburban moms” who don’t want to find out that their children are not brilliant — just before he jumped in and declared that Secretary Duncan was right to be concerned that “a laudable set of guidelines” would be rejected for making kids work too hard, characterized most opposition to the standards as “welling hysteria” from the right and left wing, and chided parents concerned about the increasing lack of joy in school with declarations that portions of school ought to be “relatively mirthless” while blaming stories of students breaking down from stress upon their parents. A year ago, he jumped into the teacher tenure debate with a breathtakingly one sided column that could have read as a press release from Campbell Brown’s anti-tenure lawsuit — shocking, given his personal friendship with Ms. Brown — and relied upon precisely ONE former Teach For America alum and current State Senator from Colorado as a source.  Mr. Bruni went even further in late October last year with an entirely uncritical review of former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein’s book on education, despite the fact that Mr. Klein is a serial misleader about his personal biography and that his record as Chancellor does not actually stand up to scrutiny.  Mr. Bruni tossed 27 words about respecting teachers into the mix while calling on them to “partner” with people like Mr. Klein who want to diminish their workplace protections and offer pay for increasing standardized test scores while completely ignoring issues like persistent and rising poverty.

So when it comes to education, and to teachers in particular, Mr. Bruni is something like William Kristol opining on foreign affairs — always wrong and frequently advocating for disasters.

Mr. Bruni was struck over the weekend by Times education reporter Motoko Rich’s story on the nationwide scramble to find credentialed teachers and the precipitous drop in college students seeking teaching degrees:

And he followed it up yesterday in his on Opinion page column, “Can We Interest You In Teaching“?  His opening laments the state of affairs in the teacher preparation pipeline and supposed competing draws for potential teachers:

When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn their attention elsewhere, to professions that promise more money, more independence, more respect.

That was one takeaway from a widely discussed story in The Times on Sunday by Motoko Rich, who charted teacher shortages so severe in certain areas of the country that teachers are being rushed into classrooms with dubious qualifications and before they’ve earned their teaching credentials.

It’s a sad, alarming state of affairs, and it proves that for all our lip service about improving the education of America’s children, we’ve failed to make teaching the draw that it should be, the honor that it must be. Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, as Rich reported.

Keep in mind, this lamentation of the lack of “honor” given to teaching as a profession comes from someone who has repeatedly taken the standard reformer line that all of the ills in our education system can be traced back almost entirely to teachers themselves and who has advocated for policy makers who diminish teachers’ workplace protections and their autonomy and who want to tie opportunities for greater compensation to standardized test scores.  It should be no real surprise, therefore, that Mr. Bruni’s exploration of the growing teacher shortage is focused not upon what people have done to teaching over the past 15 years in the name of “reform” but upon the profession itself.

To give credit where credit is due, Mr. Bruni has expanded his usual Rolodex for this column and has consulted with people actually connected to the world of teachers and teaching.  His spoke with Randi Weingarten who is the President of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union with over 1.5 million members.  He also spoke with a representative of “Educators Rising,” a project of Phi Delta Kappa International seeking to help guide young people to teaching as a profession. PDK is a professional association in education which runs various programs for teachers, collaborates annually with Gallup on a poll of the nation’s education perspectives, and publishes Kappan Magazine, a forum on practice, policy, and research.  Among the members of the PDK boards advising Educators Rising is Dr. Sharon Robinson, President of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.  So Mr. Bruni actually sought input from sources that know a few things about teachers and schools (even if Educators Rising has a logo unfortunately reminiscent of Enron’s).

Sadly, he “balanced” that by seeking input from “Educators 4 Excellence,” one of those imitation grassroots outfits that all have suspiciously similar web page design and sprang up right about when Bill Gates was spreading around tons of money to promote the Common Core State Standards and assessing teachers by value added modeling.  And, sure enough, E4E’s “declaration” includes language endorsing teacher assessments using value added modeling of standardized test scores, a method which is only slightly more reliable than throwing darts randomly at a wall.  Mr. Bruni also spoke to Kate Walsh, the head of the self-appointed national “watchdog” on teachers and teacher preparation, National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization whose caliber of research into the state of American teacher preparation is so rigorous that they mostly read course catalogs and syllabi available online without bothering to visit a single campus. This “method” of “research” is so weak that it produced errors throughout their entire original rating report at such a laughable rate that the organization should be shunned by anyone who bothers to check their record.  So while Mr. Bruni actually spoke to some people who know about teachers and schools, he balanced them with the usual suspects of agenda driven and fact deprived actors.  This is a bit like writing on climate change by speaking with scientists at NOAA and then seeking “balance” from the public relations office of Exxon.

Both Walsh and Evan Stone of E4E basically reiterated very old talking points of teacher professionalization.  Stone claimed teachers are concerned they will be “doing the same thing on Day 1 as they’ll be doing 30 years in” and called for a “career ladder” in teaching while Walsh repeated her contention that most students see teacher preparation as an “easy” major and steer away from it.  Making teacher preparation more rigorous is a well trodden path now that we are 32 years past A Nation At Risk, and Walsh flatly ignores or discounts the decades of work to increase teacher preparation standards and increase clinical practice time for prospective teachers in favor of her organization’s shockingly weak research.  Stone’s contention that teachers want a gradated career ladder is not an especially strong one, and while there is validity to a career structure that places experienced teachers into mentoring and leadership roles, most of the pathways that have been proposed over the years would, of course, require significant investments of time and resources that are notably absent from many reformers’ plans.  None other than Michelle Rhee herself decided that National Board certification was something prestigious but not worth the cost while she was Chancellor in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Bruni’s representative from Educators Rising, Dan Brown, suggested that teaching could use its own “Flexner Report,” the document from the early 1900s that set medicine to its current high status in society.  I am at loss to imagine what another round of report writing would do that we have not already had from the Carnegie Corporation, The Holmes Group, John Goodlad, The National Commission on Teaching and America’ Future, or the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.  For three decades, researchers and policy analysts have advocated for and demonstrated value of various ways to improve teacher preparation that reflect the necessary balance of theory, pedagogy, practice, and contact with skilled veterans who inform preparation through their own teaching.  Policy makers, however, have rarely seen fit to fund it.

The biggest disappointment of the article is Mr. Bruni’s conversation with Randi Weingarten of the AFT.  It was not because President Weingarten missed the important message, but that Mr. Bruni gave it so little notice.  President Weingarten stated that teachers wanted “a voice, a real voice,” and she referred Mr. Bruni to the AFT’s collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association on the Quality of Worklife Survey.  Mr. Bruni, however, given a wealth of information on teacher concerns, only mentioned being left out of decision making as source of stress.  What did Mr. Bruni miss?

  • 79% of teachers feel disrespected by public officials.
  • 77% feels disrespected by the media.
  • 73% feel their workplace is often stressful.

While stressed teachers did feel they had less decision making power, Bruni missed that:

  • 55% said negative portrayals of teachers and schools in media caused stress.
  • 71% cited adoption of new requirements without training or support as causing stress.
  • Time pressure was a major source of stress.
  • As were mandated curricula, standardized testing, and lack of administrator support.

He also failed to notice:

  • A full 30% of teachers said they have been bullied in the workplace.
  • Including, 51% of teachers with disabilities, 38% of LGBTQ teachers, 36% of ethnic minorities, and 38% of religious minorities.
  • 26% said that in the past month their mental health was not good for 9 days or more.

Having a voice in decision making is certainly an important part of treating teachers as professionals, and it may even be true that teaching could be made more attractive with certain changes to the professional environment and professional preparation of teachers.  However, it is absurd to speculate that a reported teacher shortage is truly tied to these issues when we have had a similar career structure for teachers for decades without seeing such dramatic declines in number of college students willing to become teachers.  What Frank Bruni misses entirely is that teaching is deeply wrapped up in a sense of vocation as well as professionalism.  People going into teaching have always accepted that they are giving up some economic and social status in favor of enacting a career where they believe they can make a substantial difference in people’s lives.  They are drawn to teaching by positive experiences with teachers and with learning, and they develop a fondness and respect for school and its mission.

But with the clear evidence that reform efforts of the past 15 years to place the entire burden of lifting children out of poverty upon schools and teachers have led to serious degradation of workplace life, it is hardly surprising that young people who would be normally driven by their sense of purpose towards education would look elsewhere. They are seeing fewer and fewer role models who are allowed to practice their profession and their craft to not merely raise test scores, but to inspire and ignite young minds.  The data from the Worklife Survey should scream this message to anyone who looks at it, but instead Mr. Bruni chooses to emphasize warmed over servings of 1980s and 1990s era professionalization literature.

Instead of looking to make teaching look more like medicine, we should consider how to make teaching look like teaching again, and that will begin by listening to what teachers have to say about their working conditions.

2 Comments

Filed under Media, NCTQ, schools, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

2 responses to “Frank Bruni, See Me After Class

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