The Stories Reformers Tell

When I was in college, I heard a riveting story.

Actually, you probably heard it too.

It went like this:  American public schools are failing. Teachers have abysmally low expectations of their students.  They are getting paid to spend their time in rubber rooms! This is the civil rights issue of our time.

I was indignant. And I needed a job.

And so, like so many college students of my generation, I went straight from college into a classroom in the Bronx as a New York City Teaching Fellow.

At first, I was elated.  I had always wanted to teach elementary school, but it wasn’t really what you did if you went to a fancy and expensive college like I did.  But now I had a way.

I was, of course, rudely awakened.  You probably know this story too: young new teacher discovers she is utterly unprepared to manage a group of unruly students. She cries a lot.

I had taken a position teaching children with the “emotional disturbance” label in New York City’s district for students with severe special needs, and could do little more than hang on by my fingernails for the first year.  They fought, they swore, and they saw me for what I was: a white girl from Maine who had no clue what she was doing. My experienced colleagues – the ones who were supposed be lazy and incompetent – offered to help, but I was a terrible listener.  I was too busy searching for the story I had been told and trying the play the role I had been assigned – even though nothing fit.

By the end of my third year, I had grown humbler, but was no less gullible. This time, I fell for the second part of the story above – the part that tells how charter schools are the answer to all these failing public schools.  You know, the Waiting for Superman story.

And so I left my position for one at a relatively new charter school in Brooklyn that modeled itself after the KIPP and Success Academy “No Excuses” regime.

You can read the details here, but the short version is that I was horrified.  We snapped at the kids like dogs and obsessed over standardized test scores like they were cancer diagnoses.  My previous school had been challenging, but it was full of warmth.  There was no warmth at this school.  No kindness.  Panic filled our classrooms and hearts.

I have been fooled twice. Shame on me. But it won’t happen again. I hear, now, the stories reformers tell for what they are.  Disrespect, hubris, empty jargon. PR.

And, of course, the stories are ever changing.

The latest tale is that teachers have been teaching too much. Forget all that lazy and incompetent stuff we’ve been talking about, we are told. The real problem is that we are self-centered.  We love to hear ourselves talk, and we only teach what we’re interested in.

Step aside side, ladies (because yes, teachers are mostly women) – and take your desks with you!

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Stop filling those kids’ heads with facts. (What facts? For years, you’ve only tested our students on isolated math and reading skills!)

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The era of digital learning has arrived, and we’ve got the 21st Century products that will turn out that 21st Century human capital we need. Teachers, welcome to your new role as a “node” in this “personalized” system. Students are now “at the center.”

The center of what? It’s unclear, until you see a diagram like the one below.

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Take a moment to watch the video below from the Nellie Mae Foundation. What story do you hear?  Whose story is it?

Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

9 thoughts on “The Stories Reformers Tell”

  1. I was nodding my head in agreement with you throughout this post. While I’ve never taught in a charter school, the rest all sounds, oh too familiar. I teach in Texas. And yes, no matter what anyone says or wants to believe, we do teach to the test. The Test and its scores are weighted so heavily for our school and district accountability that it seems that taking this approach is the only choice. As a veteran teacher (15 years), this trajectory, this drill and kill, the scores are the end all be all, all the mumbo jumbo is honestly just making hand over fist money for the test makers and destroying both teachers’ and students’ passion for learning. I wonder more than not, as you mention, would things be different if this profession was comprised more with men than women. Would a male dominated workforce be treated differently, would legislation be different? It is something to think about for sure. Here in Texas, we begin high stakes testing in 3rd grade. These are like 9 year olds!?! I’m worried for my profession but mostly worried about our kids. They are the ones truly being cheated in many ways. Thank you for your post and for allowing me to go on. And on. 😀

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  2. In my 20+ years of teaching, I’ve witnessed some pretty incredible work being done by energetic, creative, caring and effective fellow teachers on behalf of students in our schools. None of the false assumptions about the classical classroom approach, the fluff research on child development they purport to have done or the value of a personalized, screen-based learning environment over a Vygotskian teaching model, will ever convince me that their ‘Transformation’ is anything but pure bullshit. My fear is that a generation of students will suffer as a result.

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  3. From a long-term, veteran teacher who was one of the many, many, many teachers pushed out of her job due to a sudden flood of young (idealistic if inexperienced) teachers, I applaud your words. Thank you.

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  4. Hi Emily-
    I had some traumatic flashbacks to the summer of 2007 and that first year teaching! The “big Hairy audacious goals”
    Our instructor having to touch the poster 3 times a class!
    I had panic attacks at my first school. I’m so very proud you are using your voice and look forward to reading your blog. It’s amazing you make the time, but I know you know it’s important.
    All the best,
    Robin Q

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  5. I also spent a good deal of my first year(s) crying. Now that I’ve been at this for 20+ years, I don’t cry as much, but the direction the reform movement is taking us does make me very sad. Thanks for sharing!

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