Teachers bullied into silence

Finding a cure for educational ailments is in vogue. Since most Americans have attended public schools, everyone has a remedy. Strangely, only in education do we hear from past patrons rather than from current practitioners and their charges. Those most involved in the daily routine of teaching are silenced.

School vouchers, back-to-the-basics programs, standards-based education and school-business models are panaceas brandished by non-educators as ways to mend a withering institution. But where are teachers’ voices? Why are they not jumping on these reform bandwagons?

We don’t have the schools we need, because teachers and students have been gagged and bound, forced to do the bidding of every naysayer. School critics like E.D. Hirsch Jr. complain that schools are failing because students, victims of a system that purportedly holds contempt for facts, can’t place the American Revolution in the right century or spell commonly used words correctly.

Testing, the solution to this dearth of knowledge, dominates classroom time. Corporations decide what will be taught. This impotency ironically gives education’s critics exactly what they want—a monitoring service that ensures its subjects will be just as pliable. Maintaining passivity is necessary for a consumer culture to thrive, and what better place to sedate the masses than schools?

Anyone who visits (or must attend) schools knows that rote learning is rampant. The average student can tell you that he learned about the American Revolution in the fourth, sixth, eighth and 11th grades, but he can’t remember the details. He can also boast about acing weekly spelling tests, but he doesn’t know what to do with these words in real situations.

The perceived dumbing-down of successive generations of students results not from poor teaching (or from alleged student inability to perform on tests) but from disparity between our curriculum and our values, our supposed morals and our lifestyles. Teaching is not something that happens in isolation, yet educators are being forced to teach material that often contradicts or has little relevance in the world outside the classroom.

The 1998 government report, “A Nation Still at Risk,” claims that schools should “counter the worst aspects of popular culture,” yet schools are handmaidens of a possession-worshipping society. Johnny can tell you everything about the latest fads and products on the market, but he can’t think for himself. If he were taught how to use his brain, he would know that free enterprise isn’t synonymous with freedom. Unfortunately, like Homer Simpson, those in control prefer us to have crayons lodged in our brains.

Teachers do know how to improve schools, but interlopers keep teachers overworked and therefore unable to participate. Through legislative maneuvering, teachers are immobilized, so that when they speak, they are perceived as bleating incompetents. When schools are freed from mass-market strangleholds and teachers are given the power to determine what goes on in classrooms, real educational reform will occur.