Spitting Venom….

One of my greatest frustrations as a classroom teacher are critics who regularly hurl stones at the public school system without offering any productive solutions to the "educational crises" that they seem to find around every turn. Conservative radio show hosts and policy organizations seem committed only to tearing down a system of education that continues to serve our nation well and is respected by many of our international competitors.

Consider these thoughts, written and recently published in a Rhode Island newspaper by retired teacher Tom Shuford—a school choice advocate who has argued that diversity actually hurts communities:

At no charge, I can tell Rhode Island a lot more about how to “adequately educate” its youngsters than any $135,000 150-page report prepared by Florida consultants. Inadequate education has origins in four deep structural factors:

1) Anti-academic bias in colleges of education: Teachers College at Columbia University, the nation’s premier pedagogical institution, traces its origins to the Kitchen Garden Association, which was incorporated in 1880 to train girls for domestic service. In 1887 the institution began to train teachers. It was renamed Teachers College in 1889. Today’s college-of-education apple has not fallen far from that training-service-for-cooks-and-house-maids tree.

2) Limited academic talent of too many educators: Picture a bell-shaped curve of scores on the Graduate Record Examination, which is a kind of SAT for prospective graduate students. Mean GRE scores of all the education majors —- with the exception of secondary education (in the middle) — are bunched on the far left side of the bell curve.

3) Political power of the education establishment: An Illinois study found that in any given year a tenured teacher’s chances of being fired for poor job performance were about 1 in 47,000.

4) Powerlessness of parents/families: Politicians secure the political support of teacher-training institutions, educators of limited ability and their unions by making sure that parents/families — unless they have means or are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices — have no options.

This is the perfect structure for “inadequately educating” children, enfeebling families and weakening neighborhoods and communities.

While Shuford begins by claiming to be able to "tell Rhode Island how to adequately educate its youngsters," his piece includes absolutely no positive suggestions for improvement of public schools.  Instead, his writing quickly devolves into an unproductive rant mirroring the half-truths pushed by critics for decades. 

My favorite Shuford-ism:  #4:  Parents are powerless because politicians are making shady deals with teacher unions. Quick question, Mr. Shuford: Who elected the politicians? And who has the power to vote them out of office if they are as dissatisfied as you are? Could it be that you are the one feeling powerless because the majority of America understands the importance of public education, believes in their local school, and is willing to support the continuing improvement of a system that has put our country into an enviable position amongst our peers?

People like Shuford do great harm to our communities.  Rather than serving as critical friends seeking to drive positive change, they introduce almost insurmountable negativity to conversations about teaching and learning in America.  As a result, educators everywhere are forced into proverbial upper rooms, hiding from screaming mobs spitting venom, almost ashamed of the work they do each day and yet consistently working towards improvement.

When will we take a stand against this kind of reprehensible bias in conversations about education?

5 thoughts on “Spitting Venom….

  1. Mike

    Dear Jake:
    As I’m sure you realize, I wasn’t responding with voluminous facts, figures and statistics to a variety of specific points, but making generalizations, based on decades of experience, about the state of American education in response to similar generalizations. I don’t see that as erecting straw men, which requires misdirection in response to more specific arguments.
    Understand that I used the term “reactionary conservative” in the sense of one who over generalizes and/or thinks the worst of the schools without adequate justification, not to sling names or avoid dealing with issues. And wouldn’t you agree that most of those who criticize the schools and/ro demand vouchers fall on the conservative side of the aisle?
    You are correct in that not every school can be outstanding. But that’s not an automatic argument for vouchers. It is a substantial argument for parental involvement and political organizing. A school board willing to put real education above more political or pedestrian concerns can accomplish great things quickly. Likewise, parents must realize that they are responsible for providing their children with the best educational opportunities possible and demanding that those children take maximum daily advantage of them. If their school is less than optimum, parents can do a very great deal to provide what the schools don’t.
    Conservatism demands self reliance and responsibility, not government handouts and caretaking.

  2. Jake Savage

    Re: “But that’s a large part of the problem, isn’t it? Some don’t think teachers are professionals at all. Some think that anyone can teach and that teachers are destructive parasites. Public education would be improved if only they could suck the money out of it and inject it into private schools, most of which would be plainly sectarian.”
    Wow, that’s a nice string of strawman arguments. Combined with the characterization of your opponents as having a “reactionary conservative viewpoint,” I think you are pretty much “spitting venom” in exactly the way Bill thinks is harming the education debate.
    Regarding some of your other points, I would say that public schools are not “accountable, on every level, to the public” if one defines the public as a collection of individual students receiving an education and their parents. If my child is receiving a low-quality education in a poor school district, there is nothing I can do but file a complaint. Under school choice, I could move to a better school. There is a big difference in the options available under the two situations, and thus a big difference in the accountability for schools.
    On the other hand, I agree with you that public schools, on average, “do a remarkable job of providing an excellent opportunity for America’s kids.” The problem is that not every school is the average school or better, and many schools are awful. While looking at the big picture may be fine for “America’s kids” as a whole, it doesn’t really help those stuck in bad public schools now.

  3. Mike

    On the contrary, I fail to see any imbalance, let alone a dramatic imbalance in the power between families and school systems. I suspect that a great many teachers would affirm that in any struggle between parents and themselves, they are more likely to find themselves the losers than not.
    If one has a reactionary conservative viewpoint such that one tends to see public schools as dens of inequity whose primary purpose is the corruption of virtuous youth, then it’s fairly easy to see why one might feel that the schools aren’t on their side.
    But the fact remains that the public school systems are set up to be accountable, on every level, to the public. This does not mean that every parent gets their way in terms of any change they might want to make on a given day in curriculum or policy. We live in a representative democracy. Some seem to want rather more coercive power. No school could function if even 10 sets of parents would be allowed to appoint themselves a curriculum committee or book censorship committee. The public hires professionals to provide a free professional education to all American children.
    But that’s a large part of the problem, isn’t it? Some don’t think teachers are professionals at all. Some think that anyone can teach and that teachers are destructive parasites. Public education would be improved if only they could suck the money out of it and inject it into private schools, most of which would be plainly sectarian.
    Make no mistake, touchy-feely, diversity-laden PC idiocy is a problem, but the public schools, on a daily basis, do a remarkable job of providing an excellent educational opportunity for America’s kids. Denigrating and lying about public education and trying to remove its funding isn’t helping solve the problems that do exist.

  4. Tom Shuford

    Bill identifies me as “retired teacher and Christian evangelist Tom Shuford—a school choice advocate who has argued that diversity actually hurts communities.”
    I am indeed a school choice advocate. I am not a Christian evangelist. That’s an innocent mistake. There is a “Tom Shuford” who is a Christian evangelist.
    As to the diversity-actually-hurts-communities charge, that’s misleading. I have argued that too much diversity, too quickly is a risk.
    I elaborate on the four key points of my Providence Journal letter in a piece that can be found by typing two words in the Google window: “academic” and “weakness.” The piece, “U. S. Academic Weakness: Root Causes” will come up 1st or 2nd or so.
    I think we would all agree there is currently a dramatic imbalance in power between families and school systems. As a teacher in the huge Wake County system, Bill Ferriter surely knows how little power individual families there have to change what is decreed from above.
    This is most unhealthy. Let’s change it.

  5. Jake Savage

    While I understand your frustration with those who offer nothing but criticism, I don’t think that it applies very well in this case, since (according to your post) Shuford has tried to propose what he believes to be a better alternative: school choice.
    While he may not mention it in his letter to the editor (assuming it wasn’t cut for space by the paper), I presume that he would see school choice as addressing at least point four on his list of problems, and probably addressing points one, two, and three in the long term as well. Whether or not you agree with his assessment, the fact that he supports an alternate policy seems to contradict the premise of your post.
    Regarding criticism in general, I’m sure you will agree that understanding the faults of a system is important to improving it. I would hope that you would welcome such criticism and respond to it with reasoned analysis of why it is wrong or how legitimate problems can be addressed.
    In a way, your post could be seen as an example of the very practice you are criticizing. You denigrate what Shuford has to say, but you offer no advice for him to improve his advocacy aside from implying that he should change his mind to believe what you do.

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