Education Nation, Oprah and ‘The Bigger Picture’

Cranky Blogger Warning:  Like Chris Lehmann, the last few weeks of teacher and school bashing by the likes of NBC, Bill Gates and Oprah have left me exhausted and angry.  That means the emotion in this post is stronger than usual. 

Who knows if I’ll feel the same way two weeks from now, but I sure feel better today.



To:  NBC, Education Nation, Oprah, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, and Bill Gates

From: A classroom teacher.

CC: Anyone who will listen—which is likely to be a short list.

Date: September 25, 2010

RE: Your Stranglehold on American Education


The defining moment in my 17-year teaching career—a moment I’ve never chosen to write about because it was so hurtful—took place in the conference room of an ineffective principal who had decided to reprimand me. 

While there were lots of tense moments between us, the tipping point came when she’d hired extra gym teachers to get the numbers in our PE classes down to a more manageable size.  The result:  I was trying to teach 36-38 kids—dozens with special education needs—in my language arts classes. 

I pushed back.  She got pissed.  I was written up

In the course of our meeting, I asked for the logic behind placing 38 kids in my language arts classroom when there were only 18-20 in most of our gym classes.  Her response:

“Bill, you’re just a teacher.  You don’t see the bigger picture.  If you need more desks, let me know.”

I vowed, then and there, to NEVER let her accusation that I couldn’t possibly understand the ‘bigger picture’ because I’m ‘just a classroom teacher’—an accusation that you seem to share, considering your very public choices to leave teachers out of the important conversations you’ve started on education—to be true. 

I promised myself that I’d study damn near everything there was to know about education beyond the classroom.

And I have. 

Here’s a list of just a few of my experiences:

  • I studied the impact that teacher working conditions have on student learning, first with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) and then with the New Teacher Center.
  • In the course of that project, I worked with CTQ to research and develop a series of action steps that teachers, principals, policymakers, and community leaders could take to improve school leadership and professional development.
  • I’ve moderated conversations between our state’s National Board Certified Teachers on the kinds of incentives that would attract teachers to high needs schools.
  • I’ve co-authored a policy document with Barnett Berry—CTQ founder—on the challenges of recruiting teachers to high needs schools. 
  • I’ve spoken on Capitol Hill alongside Linda Darling-Hammond on the challenges of recruiting teachers to high needs schools. 
  • As a part of a team of teachers assembled by CTQ, I’ve studied the issue of redesigning professional compensation for teachers, learning from the likes of Eric Hanushek and Brad Jupp.
  • I coauthored a policy document with that team of teachers offering best strategies built from research and our knowledge of schools for redesigning teacher compensation. 

Convinced that I’m credible yet? 

Remember—I haven’t even mentioned my classroom accomplishments.  I’ve been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, I’ve written two books—one on restructuring schools as professional learning communities and one on teaching for tomorrow—and I’ve presented at the state and national level dozens of times.

Oh yeah, and remember that I AM still ‘just a teacher.’ 

That means I can translate the learning I’m doing about ‘the bigger picture’ back to my school and my classroom, something that NONE of your ‘educational experts’—including that guy from Netflix—can do.

In the course of all of this work, I’ve learned a ton of lessons about your beloved “bigger picture.” 

They include:

Publicly humiliating schools and teachers serving high needs communities is failed policy:  While I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve purposely avoided working in schools of poverty because of the never-ending criticism they receive in the press and the never-ending pressure they’re under as a result of ignorant state and federal policies.

That means you should be ashamed of your efforts to encourage and promote people and/or programs that believe public ridicule is an effective reform strategy because you’re only driving good teachers away from the students who need them the most.


Tying individual teachers to test scores is failed policy:  I’ve spent the better part of my teaching career in the reading and writing classroom—a logical choice considering that I’m a published writer, don’t you think? 

But those years—particularly since y’all decided that tying teachers to test scores made sense—have left me bitter and angry at my colleagues in untested subjects who don’t equally share the burden of your coercive accountability efforts. 

They’ve also forced me to question and to walk away from practices that I know are responsible in an effort to make sure that my students’ test scores ‘make the grade.’

Heck, I’ve even left the tested subjects this year, choosing to teach science for the simple reason is that it isn’t tested.

That means you should be ashamed of your efforts to put test scores first in your work to reform America’s schools.  Doing so has not only dumbed down the instruction that our students are receiving, it’s chasing good teachers from the classrooms that you seem to value the most. 


Using compensation as a cudgel is failed policy:  Like most of the people drawn to our nation’s classrooms, I’ve never been too motivated by money.  Instead, I’m drawn to the classroom out of a commitment to serve. 

And while I think I should be paid a professional wage for the professional work that I do, the cockamamie merit pay programs that you continually promote turn my stomach. 

You see, the best work that I’ve ever done has been when I reflect with a team of colleagues who are equally passionate about improving their practice.  That collaboration enriches me and exposes me to ideas that I may have never considered on my own.  

That means you should be ashamed of your efforts to pit teachers against one another in some sort of sick competition to be compensated fairly. 

Not only are such plans cop outs—giving you the chance to ignore the larger issue that our nation doesn’t compensate ANY teachers fairly—they serve as a disincentive to the kind of collective investigation necessary for spreading effective practices across buildings and communities. 

Do you REALLY think I’m going to share what I know with those I’m competing against for your pot of performance cash?

Mostly what I’ve learned, though, is that ‘bigger pictures’ are really nothing more than tools used by those in power to exclude those perceived as weak from important conversations. 

You don’t want me involved in your television programming or the most important panels of your national summits because you know that I’d strip the thin varnish off of the truth that you’ve been hiding for almost a decade: 

Educational reforms never work in America because they’re not designed by practicing educators.

Instead, you’re content to patronize the American schoolteacher.  You’ll celebrate the mythology well enough—praising the matronly, apple-wielding women who you learned from—and then ignore the reality that your unwillingness to believe that we might just know something about how to save our schools has destroyed any chance that our schools will be saved.

Where does that leave us?

You’ll keep blowing smoke up each other’s skirts—over power lunches in important places like DC, Chicago and New York, mind you—about how brilliant you are while overlooking the fact that NOTHING YOU’VE DONE HAS WORKED.

I’ll keep hating you for it.

And our kids will keep falling farther behind.

18 thoughts on “Education Nation, Oprah and ‘The Bigger Picture’

  1. Gail

    From a well educated, intelligent and published person, I commend you, Bill. You are brave and compassionate, too. Your principal will never see a ‘bigger picture’ because she is probably never in your classroom to see the challenges that you are faced with as a great teacher. To be great, there is a protocal of classroom etiquitte that goes hand and hand with teachers and students.

  2. Jennifer Thompson

    Ahh, I feel so much better after reading your commentary. Thank you. It helps to know that so many others are equally frustrated that we sacrifice everything we have–our families, our finances, and often our dignity–so that we can teach children.

  3. Laurie Wasserman

    I am applauding you from Boston. I think your principal and my former one went to the same administrator school. I teach kids who “learn differently,” and advocate for them while teaching them how to read and understand their IEPs.
    My former principal also didn’t see the important picture like yours; he wanted to “lower the numbers to 11% because you make it too easy for kids to qualify for special ed. and they LIKE being in your class.” (shame on me) “You’re also too passionate (shame on me again). Thank goodness he’s in another district, although I do worry about those other folks who now deal with him. People that bash us shouldn’t be around kids, or teachers for that matter.
    Thank-you for your articulate and well researched post. Here’s hoping the folks who need to read it, stand up, pay attention and listen. Let us know if they respond.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for all the kind words on this post, y’all. I’m glad that you found it interesting, that’s for sure. I hope it somehow represented your voice too.
    And Leonie, whether we like Hanushek or not is really besides the point. His ideas carry resonance with people making policy—so learning what he has to say is important.
    It’s the “know your enemy” game.
    Until teachers recognize the positions of and learn to respond to those whose ideas we don’t agree with, we’re left in a position where people have conversations without us.

  5. Lisa Reiss

    Wish somehow that your voice of reason and sanity could be transmitted to the national media and published instead of the usual know nothing about education eduspeak the media covers. I am an elementary school teacher teaching all subjects to 32-37 students in a combination 4/5 class. Nowhere in the media is it ever mentioned what it takes to understand a vast array of subjects and then figure out how to get children excited about learning. I’d love to see anyone of these so called experts walk in my shoes for one 6 hour day.

  6. JulieCombs

    Vanderbilt university just completed a study on the effects of merit pay for teachers. In a nutshell, no change whatsoever between the scores of students who had teachers with the incentives and students who did not. And, each set of teachers said they really didn’t change how they taught.
    I find this study, coupled with what Daniel Pink says about motivation at the TED conference compelling.

  7. Joanne Lockwood White

    Me frustrated? Nah. I get to school an hour before the kids. Check on all the invertebrates and plants, make 2 trips out to the car 3 floors down, gather microscopes or balance beams that I have fixed for 2 hours the night before, make copies of whatever because we dont have enough text books and readjust the lesson if we didnt get as far as I thought the previous day. Then if an “evaluator” walks in and asks for the lesson plan, its not exactly what it says and you get questioned in front of the kids. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm for science is completely evident in every student. At the end of the day, I mark papers if my prep has been taken away to cover for an absent teacher, record EVERY GRADE TWICE… once in a grade book and once on the computer, do attendance for every class twice also, water 2 gardens and fix equipment for the next day. ADDITIONALLY my lesson plans must include math standards and Language arts standards in writing. (Doing it is easy, writing it is laborous). When I finally go home at 5:30 or so I dream up great and exciting things to do with my students and gather those materials, write the following week’s lesson plans,onerous field trip paperwork, ETC until I go to bed. My husband cooks. Nobody cleans the house until summer. I am criticized for the failures in language arts and math. I am indeed a little frustrated.

  8. Victoria riehle

    2shay- I’m in the fine arts,those frivalous classes that are not tested, and agree; who better to reform education then the people who eat, breathe, and sleep it. We, the people who are actually in the classrooms, all have ideas about how to turn our education system around. I’d love to see more project learning where several subject areas are being used, discusses and experienced at once. But I can’t get in classroom doors because all are worried about the numbers and scores. Frustration exists on all levels and it’s time to speak out!

  9. Alice Yucht

    FYI: “The Huffington Post will be launching an education section on October 4 and we’re looking for bloggers to share their opinions and thoughts about relevant topics in education reform. The goal of this new section is to increase the volume of voices from those concerned about our country’s education system and create a national discussion.
    If you are passionate about Education, highlighting different viewpoints surrounding reform to highlighting what makes a great teacher, we invite you to blog about it for the education section. We will be welcoming blogger submissions in the upcoming months as the education section continues to take shape.
    If you would like to be a contributing blogger for Huffington Post Education, please contact us at”
    GO FOR IT!

  10. Jennmelb

    This is brilliant. As an outsider from Australia, but in higher Ed, this debate is fascinating and horrible at the same time. The view I often get of the US is channeled totally through big media ( or comedy central). With voices as articulate, passionate, experienced and proud as yours, there is hope. I’ll be watching with interest and seeking the inside view which social media makes available.
    Maybe you can get Jon Stewart to rally for sanity in the education reform debate too.

  11. Gail Ray

    What a great post with such valid points. I feel it is the responsibilty of the principal to empower his/her teachers to understand the bigger picture by running a transparent school. As a retired principal I would have loved to have “just a classroom teacher” like you working with our students.

  12. Stefanie Paul

    Thank you for this. Also angry (or more honestly: enraged) and exhausted after these last few weeks, you have made me feel a bit better. I am so tired of these ‘experts’ who don’t have a clue. Shame on them for skipping their homework!

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