Public School Matters

Turkey Triage

As we approach the moment when our President-elect will be choosing a Secretary of Education, we should consider how very very wrong this choice has gone in the past. Since it’s November, think about turkey triage. Every November and December, the Butterball turkey talkline employs more than 50 professional home economists and nutritionists to respond to more than 100,000 questions. For me, the classic was the cook wannabe who called the hotline and revealed she’d put the turkey in the oven while still in the plastic wrap —and wondered why the cooked meat was this funny purple color.

I confess I can offer a few of my own purple turkey teaching experiences. Once, after school I rushed to the grocery store to get needed supplies for dinner. With my cart half-full I was hit with the terrible realization that I’d left Bobby, the hyperactive kid who sometimes gave himself a timeout, in the cloakroom. I raced back to school and found Bobby asleep — and took him home.

Here are a few more Butterball hotline calls. Consider how they may apply to teaching.

  • A man found a 30-year-old bird in his parents’ freezer and wanted tips on how to cook it.
  • Someone cut his turkey in half with a chain saw and wanted to know if the oil from the chain would adversely affect the turkey.
  • Since it was below 40 degrees, a caller from Colorado stored her turkey outside. Ten inches of snow fell during a storm and she called the hotline to say she couldn’t find her turkey.
  • A plaintive caller said, “Your directions say ‘roast the turkey’ but my oven only has ‘bake’ and ‘broil’ settings.”
  • A man called to report that his turkey was on fire. He asked, “What should I do?” Answer: Sir, call your local fire department.”  By the way, according to the National Fire Protection Association, most home fires in the U.S. occur on Thanksgiving.

We can laugh at these hapless cooks, but we must think about the parallels in classrooms across America. The one big problem here:

       If there’s somethin’ strange in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?

       If it’s somethin’ weird an’ it don’t look good
Who ya gonna call?

Sticking to the food theme for a moment, consider the reality presented by Lauren Braun Costello and Russell Reich in Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft. Twenty-four cooks assigned to the same mayonnaise recipe — the same bowls, same spoons, same eggs, same mustard, same oil, same whisks, same peppermills, same measuring cups, same room, same time of day, same marching orders — will create twenty-four different mayonnaises.

Think about this the next time you read any statement about teaching and learning that includes a directive about all students or all teachers: twenty-four different mayonnaises.

During the disastrous reign of Arne Duncan our unions and professional organizations were more eager to find a seat at the corporate/politico table than about the survival of the people who pay their dues.

But affixing blame is easy. Looking in the mirror for solutions is difficult. In English Journal, Nov. 2004 Edgar Schuster ended his article with the declaration that a teacher’s choice is subversion or victimhood. By now it is revolution or death. Certainly death of the profession.  In my own “On Assessment, Accountability, and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night,” Language Arts, May 2009, I insisted that we teachers have to ask ourselves the very difficult question: “Who bears more responsibility: the people who produce the high stakes tests and scripted curricula, the people who demand they be inflicted on children, or the people who use them day in and day out?” When you’re reading a script, you are not a professional. When you engage in test prep, you are not a professional.

Think about “Dancing with our jailers” from Reading Lolita in Tehran. Azar Nafisi warns, “The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, that is an act of utmost brutality.”

Speaking at the NCTE Annual Convention in Nashville in 2006, Richard Allington offered a brilliant strategy of resistance. Dick recommended that every teacher examine the state code of ethics for teachers. Then, when ordered to read a script or to stop reading aloud or to commit some other abusive practice, teachers should say, “Please put it in writing that you want me to violate the state code of professional ethics.” Put it in writing. Four words that could change the profession…and the world.

Right now, Arne Duncan’s version of the Military Maintenace Law operates in full force: If it moves, oil it. If it doesn’t move, paint it. Duncan Reform Law: If it moves, test it. If it doesn’t move, test it some more. Duncan, after all, was just echoing Bill Gates, then the world’s richest man: If standardized test scores aren’t the answer, you’ve asked the wrong question.

For a history of the Business Roundtable handshake on education policy with Republican and Democrat politicos dating back to the late 1980ies, I’d  recommend that you read my book Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? but since my latest royalty check for seven books about the policies and practices of public education netted me $2.18, I realize that teachers don’t read this sort of thing.

So here’s a summary for free: A major thrust of Race to the Top, like No Child Left Behind is to deprofessionalize teaching as an occupation.  “Almost all of Duncan’s polices come from a market-driven business culture, made legitimate by measurement, efficiency and utility. They value hedge fund managers over teachers, privatization over the public good, management over leadership and training over education. These neoliberal corporate value give us high-stakes testing, charter schools, school-business alliances, merit pay, linking teacher pay to higher test scores, CEO-type school management, abolishing tenure, standardizing the curriculum defining the purpose of schooling as largely job training, the weakening of teacher unions and blaming teachers exclusively for the failure of public schooling…” — Henry Giroux, Truthout May 25, 2010)

Amazing as it seems, for a short time Richard Rothstein actually wrote the education column for The New York Times. Read his observation on  NPR, Jan. 8, 2006 and you’ll understand why he didn’t last there. “The health doesn’t matter. The housing doesn’t matter. The dysfunctional communities don’t matter. None of these things matter. The only thing that matters is whether teachers have high expectations of children. I don’t think we can make social policy on the basis of a myth.”

This is what we must demand of President-elect Joseph Biden: No more education policy based on myth. Consider the children and demand that schools no longer act as a delivery system for corporate America,

Let us demand that our President-elect acknowledge that teaching is a profoundly intellectual — the kindergarten teacher as much as to  the person teaching Advanced Placement Physics. And let us insist that our  President-elect acknowledge that teaching is much more like a Chinese lyric painting than a bus schedule.