Tired of Being the Nation’s Punching Bag

So I’m completely hacked off tonight.

You see, I’ve spent a few hours wrapped in the criticisms of public schools found in the first pages of The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner’s bit on how schools need to change if our kids are ever going to survive in tomorrow’s world.

Wagner—like many of the educational, political and business leaders who chime in on the “crisis” in public education—fills his preface with the kind of “sky-is-falling” rhetoric that dominates most of today’s #educonversations.

Now, maybe I wear my emotions on my sleeve, but I took Wagner’s criticisms personally and I felt attacked.

You can understand that, can’t you?  I mean attacking teachers HAS become a part time job for many politicians and pundits after all.

Worse yet, I felt like a few of Wagner’s teacher-centered criticisms were just plain misdirected.

Here’s a few specific examples—followed by my reflections as a full-time practitioner.

Wagner writes: “Computers and the Internet were becoming essential tools in every workplace—but from what I saw in schools, students rarely used technology as a part of their learning in classrooms” (Kindle location 207).

My response: I love it when people who don’t work in schools take shots at teachers for not integrating technology into the classroom.

What they often don’t realize is that many of us haven’t even GOT technology in our classrooms.

Take my affluent suburban school as an example: Despite having a highly connected student population, I’ve got two working computers in my classroom.

Sure, we’ve got a mobile lab of laptops that I can sign out, but they are six years old and almost all of them are running outdated versions of everything.

Sure, we’ve got three full computer labs (about 90 total computers) that I can sign up to take my students to, but they’re being used by the other 60 classroom teachers—and 1,000 students—in our building, too.

That means if we were to divide lab access up equally between every teacher, I'd have access to a lab for about 7 days each school year.

How EXACTLY am I supposed to integrate more technology into my instruction under those circumstances? 

My solution: Either districts need to jump feet first into Bring Your Own Device programs—tapping into the digital resources that kids already own—or communities need to fork over more cash for digital hardware.

Until then, harping on the lack of technology in instruction is just plain disingenuous.


Wagner writes: “Finally, I have observed that the longer our children are in school, the less curious they become” (Kindle location 323).

My response: Tony’s right, y’all: Kids really DO lose their natural curiosity after spending years in our school system.

How sickening is that?

And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know a ton of teachers who do a great job encouraging natural curiosity in their daily lessons.

There’s no point, really.

You see, curiosity isn’t measured by the standardized tests that our nation have embraced as tools for holding students accountable.

Those tests—which, by the way, carry increasingly high stakes for teachers—measure nothing more than simple mastery of basic facts. There’s nothing “higher order” about them.

Do you see the dichotomy?

We complain that teachers aren't helping kids to develop their natural curiosity while simultaneously uber-emphasizing tests that have NOTHING to do with curiosity.

We threaten to publicly shame and/or fire teachers who fail to produce results on tests that don’t even measure the kinds of skills that we CLAIM to care about.

My solution: If all y’all really care about sophisticated skills like curiosity, adaptability and leadership, you’d better start demanding that the cheap assessments that our country has embraced are pushed aside in favor of more sophisticated alternatives that measure the RIGHT skills.

To criticize teachers for spending time preparing kids to ace the very tests that YOU are promoting as a part of YOUR “accountability movement” is ludicrous.


Wagner also writes:One of my biggest concerns is that most high school educators do not feel a real sense of urgency for change—perhaps because their work isolates them from the larger world of rapid change and they’ve lived through too many failed educational fads” (Kindle Location 179).

My Response: Or perhaps, Tony, because many educators have no real control over their work anyway.

Here’s an example: In our district, teachers in core subjects are given a pacing guide to follow. This guide maps out the day-to-day instruction that we’re supposed to be delivering to kids.

Not only does it spell out the objectives that we’re supposed to be addressing on a given day, it also includes lessons to use with our kids.

The district is also developing a series of benchmark assessments that we will be expected to give and are laying out an assessment calendar that tells us when those assessments are to be given.

Now, I’m lucky enough to work for a principal who trusts my professional judgment.

So if I think a sequence of lessons needs to be adjusted or if I see that my kids haven’t mastered a concept in the time that the district pacing guide specifies, he supports my professional choices.

But officially, we’re supposed to submit a formal request if we plan to give an assessment outside of the required window or if we want to teach content out of sequence.

Think about the subtle messages that this pacing process—which is increasingly common in school systems across America—sends to teachers.

“You’re not in charge,” we are saying. “You can’t be trusted to make pacing or content choices. You are a replaceable cog in our content delivery machine.”

In those circumstances, can we REALLY be surprised that teachers “do not feel a real sense of urgency for change?” 

My solution: Ditch the rigid commitment to pacing the work of ALL of our teachers and students. Instead, spend some time asking teachers to explain the professional choices that they are making.

Here's an example: I’m about two weeks behind in my pacing guide right now.

Want to know why?

My kids struggled to master what I would consider to be an essential skill: Identifying the impact that independent variables can have on a science experiment.

Because I thought that skill was essential, we did an extra experiment in our scientific method unit.

That took extra time, though—which means I’m not where I’m supposed to be.

My guess is that Wagner—and the dozens of business leaders that he interviews in his book—would find that to be a responsible decision because it prioritizes a skill that really DOES matter.

But I’m honestly worried because I’m not as far along in the curriculum as I should be.

How crazy is that?


Have you spotted the common thread running through each of the challenges that Wagner spotlights and each of the solutions that I’ve suggested?


Teachers have NO control over the choices that are being made and NO organizational juice to make the tangible changes necessary for driving real change.

I have no influence over technology budgets or over the policies that govern whether students can bring their own devices to school, yet I’m the one criticized when there’s not enough technology integrated into my classroom.

I have no influence over the kinds of skills tested on the standardized assessments given to my kids, yet I’m the one criticized when those assessments fail to produce students who have a mastery of the RIGHT skills.

I work in a field that has embraced pacing and scripting, yet I’m the one criticized as not recognizing the urgent need for change.

Wagner’s central argument is legit, y'all: Schools DO need to change.

But as a classroom teacher, I’m just plain sick of being the nation’s punching bag.

The truth is that the real levers for change rest somewhere just out of my reach.


Related Radical Reads:

Declaring War on Teachers

The Monster You’ve Created

Education Nation, Oprah and ‘The Bigger Picture’

12 thoughts on “Tired of Being the Nation’s Punching Bag

  1. excel development

    At first I tried to get to know them one by one. I would give 15-20 minutes of free talking just to be at ease with the class. Try not to be self-conscious in front of your students. When you start discussing your lesson, focus on the things you need to be done and try to deliver your lessons by looking from one student to another, as if you are only teaching and talking each of them.

  2. Mary

    I too am tired of being a punching bag. I am sick of seeing little kids being stressed out trying to learn skills that aren’t even developmentally appropriate. Anyone remember Piaget? Also, I wish that people would remember that we are all humans and that we need all kinds of people in our society. If suddenly everyone goes and gets a college degree, who will do the blue collar jobs that we have to have? Who will be our plumbers, garbage men, and waitresses just to name a few.

  3. Robert Huxley

    I’m Canadian, in a system that offers teachers almost complete curriculum control, has written in grade-level PLC’s, legislates consultation with teachers at the school and board levels before decisions, and allows for a reasonable amount of technology. We have for example 62 computers in two labs, a computer in every classroom, 3 projectors that circulate, a smartboard with 3 more on the way, and a half-dozen 6 year old laptops for our 150 secondary students. All the schools in the Board are similarily equipped.
    Most of our 10 the teachers still stand,deliver and fill the cup. They have not adopted any new constructivist techniques encouraged by school reform. Two seldom if ever go to the labs. Some won’t even use the school portal. Many of the teachers in the board are like this and not just old guys like me. Teachers object to the freedom the have to control their classrooms. Why? Because then they will be responsible.
    I feel the criticism, teachers do not feel the need for change, justified by what I see in this system where they do have curriculum control.

  4. Jpassan

    The problems are largely with the system, the standards, and the tests. However, the solutions must be with us, the teachers, and we must take on this challenge now.
    We may have to stay on pacing and assure that certain objectives are targeted, but we have to take some chances to involve students in their learning (it is theirs after all) and stimulate curiosity and critical thinking.
    The issues here are urgent, so it’s up to teachers to lead and take reasonable risks to create change. We are educating our next generation of leaders, and if we don’t do something now, we’ll end up with even smaller thinking from future leaders.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Hey George,
    Thanks for stopping by the Radical—I actually picked up Wagners book based on something that I read on your blog! If youre reading it, it cant be a bad read.
    And I think my initial reactions to Wagners text arent necessarily reactions to Wagner or to his ideas. As I read more, I can see more and more of the same criticisms that Im offering about the way that schools are run.
    But to be perfectly honest, he smuggles enough teacher-jabs into his work that it still bugs me. I think the third example in my list—-teachers dont feel the urgency for change—is the best example. Thats the kind of cheap shot that people have been throwing at teachers for a long while now—and as a teacher, I can tell you that there is VERY little that I can actually change.
    Now people tell me all the time that I can change everything simply because Im in charge of everything that happens in my classroom once I close the door, but thats pretty disingenuous simply because Im still responsible for following the directives of those who supervise me (that entire phrase makes me cringe, by the way) and those people put a TON of pressure on teachers to follow the game plan.
    Im looking forward to hearing more about how your division works to empower teachers, George. Please write about it early and often. Conversations about teacher leadership have been swirling around the #eduverse for over a decade and yet I havent seen much change in my own work. Until there are some more tangible examples of districts that are making teacher leadership work, Im convinced that little about our schools will change.
    Rock on,

  6. Gcouros

    Hey Bill,
    I loved your post but it is interesting that I read the book (and loved it) and have a different view on what is being said. All of the things that you are talking about are spot on, but I do not feel that it is any way an attack on teachers, as it is the system that we work in. What I got from it was that teachers were actually the ANSWER to the solutions here but you are right, they do not have the power in many situations to make a change. In our system that we are trying to create within our own division, we are trying to be transparent and create leaders in all facets. Trusting people within our system and giving them the opportunity to make change is what is going to really help push education forward.
    To enable this, the system has to change, and give the same opportunities to teachers that teachers are trying to give to students. I wrote about it here:
    I think that you are absolutely right on some of the things that you are pointing out, but I did not see it as an attack on teachers but more of the system that is constricting them.
    Just my two cents.

  7. Bill Ferriter

    ason wrote:
    So my answer to your complaint is that until teachers no longer expect to take “their” students to their physical or psychological classroom, teachers will, unfairly maybe, still have to take some criticism.
    Thanks for stopping by, Jason—but your comment bothers me. Here’s why: You’re assuming that teachers are the ones who want to “take their students to physical or psychological classrooms.”
    That’s not a construct that I created. More importantly, that’s not a construct that I’m completely committed to.
    Instead, that’s a construct that policymakers and parents have created and are committed to. Whether we like it or not, the percentage of parents who are ready to give up on the traditional model of schooling that they know is pretty darn small.
    Most couldn’t imagine any other model for schooling—or imagine what exactly a child would be doing if they DIDN’T go to a school building for 6 hours a day.
    More importantly, that’s a construct that I have absolutely no ability to change.
    I don’t set the seat time requirements for schools. I don’t have the power to encourage/require more social or web-based learning experiences in place of what we currently have.
    The choices that would be needed to create the kinds of learning environments that you seem to be arguing for have to be made by elected officials—school boards, state legislatures, federal agencies—-not by classroom teachers.
    I bristle every time someone suggests that the reason schools aren’t changing is because of the resistance of classroom teachers simply because as a classroom teacher, there’s almost nothing of significance that I can change.
    Any of this make sense?

  8. Jason

    I agree with what I believe is your basic premis, that teachers are being unfairly blamed for problems they do not have control over. But, in my opinion, the blame comes from the perception that the teaching profession as a whole neglects the questions of how to deal with bad teachers. On a state and national level the “teacher” response always seems to be blame the administrators. So you get an administrative response. Standards and pacing guides are an administrative attempt to control for bad teachers. 
    The real solution is a radical redesign of the structure of school. Our entire educational system from classrooms to technology is entirely too teacher focused. You may be the greatest teacher in the world, but it is still a bad idea to put 30 or more students in a room with you for a school year. And making it 20 or less kids won’t change the fundamental problem, your human. Human learning is a collaborative exploration of the world around us building on our previous and shared experience. No one person can provide all the engagement a child or adult needs to learn. Expecting that of a teacher is setting him up to fail. 
    So my answer to your complaint is that until teachers no longer expect to take “their” students to their physical or psychological classroom, teachers will, unfairly maybe, still have to take some criticism.

  9. Don Goble

    If I were a religious man, I would say AMEN! But I will say that I believe your words permeate the souls of classroom teachers all over America. Thank you for your honesty!

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