Some wars are more conspicuous than others. Sunday, September 17th, two noteworthy series premiered. One, The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick was aired on PBS, preceded by months of expensive promotion and anticipation. The other is a series of eight short films produced by the Network for Public Education (NPE).
Co-writer Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic
The trajectory of my life was forever changed by Eileen Daniel Riddle and James Gilchrist, two high school theater arts teachers who worked at my pre-busing, segregated suburban high school in the early 1970s. I was a struggling student, but they introduced me, and so many others, to what would become a lifelong passion. I made this film for all the teachers who pour their hearts into children, yet live in a world where there is scant appreciation or even understanding that teaching is no mere job, but a manifestation of love, a calling.
No one chooses to be a teacher for the money. The pay, for incredibly difficult and exhausting work, isn’t enough to make it worth it. Many parents struggle with one or two kids, but multiply that by 25 or more, for 6 to 8 hours a day, and it’s a long day. The oft-repeated (and inaccurate) tropes of “big pensions” and “summers off” indicate a failure to comprehend the demanding circumstances teachers face in order to do their jobs–and the actual figures stamped on their pay stubs. Over the years, education policy has done little to rectify this ignorance and, some would argue, has actually stoked its fires.
Gone are reasonable budgets and an emphasis on enrichment. The arts, music, science, social studies, geography, shop, drama, sports, school orchestras–vanished or, if still extant, much more limited and restricted. Still, schools and local PTAs try to fill in where they can afford to, and teachers try to make it work in the classrooms. But the enormity and pain of these losses is palpable, and recent enough that the cuts continue to sting. Just the other day, a friend lamented about the diminished role the arts play in her children’s school–the very school she had attended as a child. When she was a student, the arts infused the school day, every day. The recorder, the violin, singing, the school play–these were the norm, not an exception. Her children, on the other hand, have curated arts experiences, little tastes of this art or that, “extras” parachuted in at predetermined points of the school year. This makes the job of teachers all the more difficult. While there has always been, and will continue to be, a subset of children who thrive in the classroom with little more than the “3 Rs,” a pencil, and a bit of lined paper, the regular presence of the arts and other enrichments provided teachers the means of reaching a wide array of children for whom traditional seat work had proved a woefully insufficient inducement.
Let me be clear that I’m not waxing poetic about years past. There’s never been a time where we achieved equity and equal funding for all schools. Still, in recent years, we have been systematically stripping away everything that inspires children, and for those with the least, we’re replacing it with an austere, remedial world of basics, and no more.
Somewhere along the way, those who make education policy lost their way. They may have started from a place of good intentions, of wanting to ensure that all children got their due, but the obsession with metrics that now dominates our schools is predicated on the false assumption that children can be standardized, that they all need exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, and that there are ways to accurately measure that they have all hit whatever pre-determined benchmarks they are expected to hit at precisely the same moments. Compared to the hard work of real education, which requires nuance, skill, and the creativity to meet individual children with unique strengths and challenges, this standardization approach–also known as the “business” or “accountability” model–is literally and figuratively cheap. It also makes it easy for politicians to blame teachers and schools when the standards aren’t met. In essence, we are using data to try to quantify the educational progress of children, while losing sight of what inspires them to learn, and what inspires teachers to educate. This is how we value our children and the teachers who spend so much time with them.
That brings me back to my own experience of school. Today, it’s doubtful I would have tested out of high school, much less continued on to college. If we continue with the test-centric business model of education, we build failure into the system and we dishonor and underappreciate those who try so hard to bring our children to their fullest potential. This dishonor, sadly, is the true state of “teacher appreciation,”–which is observed in the U.S. this week (aka “Teacher Appreciation Week”)–with McDonalds discounts and other dubious rewards.
The film represents my gratitude, and my hope. I hope we can stop for a moment and realize we’re destroying the immense value teachers bring to our children, and with it, our messy, imperfect–yet amazing–public education system.
On a weekend in December, I took a borrowed camera and lights and headed out to Montclair, New Jersey. All weekend long, one after another, public school parents and students tromped down the basement stairs in the home of an MCAS member. She and her fellow parent activists had assembled a diverse collection of urban and suburbanites, so that I could record their testimony. They wanted to talk about the changes that they were witnessing in their schools and in their children, changes which they believed emanated directly from corporate education reforms, and in particular, the upcoming PARCC Standardized Tests. (PARCC, an acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is a multi-state consortium that has engaged the testing and publishing behemoth Pearson to create the Common Core-aligned computer-based standardized tests.)
Parents and students talked about the dramatic changes in curriculum and a flood of test prep in classes and homework. Some spoke about the massive expenditures for technology and testing materials, as hands-on instructional time declined. Parents of children with special education needs and individualized education plans (IEPs), found the implications of these changes particularly troubling. Many were concerned that the test-obsessed curriculum would undermine their community’s focus on equity and desegregation. Most devastating, parent after parent described an insidious slide in the engagement of their children with school. They were all deeply frustrated and fed up with being ignored by policy makers and the media.
Getting their story out of the basement and into the larger world is what we did with my borrowed equipment on that cold December weekend.