Teachers: It’s time to speak to local voters

Two weeks.

We have two weeks until Election Day 2014.

We usually view mid-term or “off year” elections with some apathy, but Indiana teachers know that this year’s election is crucial to our livelihoods, our profession, our school children, and our schools.

We must send a bold, clear message to our governor, legislature, and State Board of Education: Stop!

We are in the midst of one destructive idea after another in regards to Indiana education policy. Our public schools and the profession we love have radically changed in the last five years. We know it. We feel it. And we know that we cannot continue down the same path.

One trusted colleague of mine with almost 40 years of experience as a teacher recently made this observation — she has never seen teachers as upset, as burdened, or as fed up as we are right now.

Another Indiana educator, a fifth-grade teacher who has chosen early retirement and whose story is shared in the documentary Rise Above the Mark, says this:

“I still love what I do, and I loved it up until the end, but I feel like the legislators have beaten us down, and I hope that some way we find a way to fight our way back up to the top.”

Later in the documentary, she adds, “They’ve taken education, the profession that I love, and turned me into a number.”

This is the truth of what is happening in Indiana schools all over the state thanks in part to our current legislature. I won’t rehash the litany of bad ideas here — feel free to explore past posts on this site for more details — but I will say this:

Our mailboxes been inundated with a glossy litany of half-truths and lies from legislators all around the state claiming to have preserved local control of our schools in the last few years.

Teachers know the truth. Teachers know that is simply not true.

Indiana public schools suffer from less local control and more excessive intrusion from our state legislature than ever before.

When it comes to education policy, this current legislature is full of fake conservatives who shackle innovation, stifle creativity, and intrude endlessly into our local schools.

Our daily lives as teachers are burdened with the evidence of less local control — from excessive standardized testing, to the ludicrous flip-flop of standards (Yes, we’ll adopt Common Core. No, wait, no we won’t!), to the fact that the state has changed our evaluation system, to restrictions on how we bargain our contracts, to the reduction in the worth of our advanced and master’s degrees — the list of excessive intrusion into our schools and classrooms from our current state legislature is long and tedious.

So, please know this, voters — any current legislator who claims to have worked tirelessly for the cause of local control of Hoosier schools while supporting and voting for corporate education “reform” scams is either deceitful or delusional.

Or both.

And that is why I am calling on all teachers to talk with voters here. Now. Because we teachers must speak up now.

We must tell voters the truth about how our profession and our schools have changed.

We must tell voters that while we love our profession, our schools, and our students, we will no longer silently tolerate the constant assault of bad legislation that has radically altered our public schools.

We must ask voters to stand with us to restore local control, common sense, and research-based decision making to our schools.

And locally, we must make the case with voters to vote for three outstanding educators and experts — Kevin Sue Bailey, Heidi Sellers, and Chuck Freiberger.

I challenge every teacher to find a way to work with or on behalf of at least one of these pro-education candidates.

Teachers, do not be silent. Do not be passive. There simply is not time.

This is not about political parties or ideology. This is about telling voters the truth about how our current legislature has hurt our schools.

Tell the truth about our schools.

We have two weeks.

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It’s simple — Hoosier lawmakers do not trust teachers or understand education

by Jim Lang

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ~Aristotle

When I return to my classroom next week for my twenty-first year of teaching, Aristotle’s quotation will be hanging in my classroom. It is a simple yet eloquent reminder for my students and for me that the true value of education is examining and evaluating everything, even ideas that may disturb or offend us.

Perhaps Aristotle’s quotation should also hang in the office of Purdue University president Mitch Daniels.

Recent revelations that as Indiana governor, Daniels sought to ban a book written by historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn from classrooms prove that Daniels needs a reminder about the value of a quality education.

Daniels’s intentions, revealed in a set of 2010 emails obtained and released by the Associated Press, focused on Zinn’s controversial A People’s History of the United States, which was being used as a resource in Indiana teacher preparation courses.

Daniels’s critics charge his desire to ban Zinn’s book amounted to an assault on academic freedom. Even some of Purdue’s own professors released an open letter expressing concerns.

Supporters claim Daniels was right, referencing Zinn’s anti-war stance and liberal viewpoints, some even calling Zinn and his book “anti-American.”

Daniels himself later stated he was simply trying to keep Zinn’s book away from K-12 students. Perhaps this is why he called Zinn’s work “propaganda” and “execrable and anti-factual” in his emails.

Meanwhile, the debate over academic freedom continues, and Indiana teachers sadly nod our heads in unison.

Because, honestly, we told you so.

Daniels’s actions come as no surprise to so many Indiana educators, who have labored for years trying to provide a quality education to Hoosier students in spite of Daniels’s education “reform” policies that make our jobs more difficult with each passing year.

Because Daniels’s education “reform” agenda as governor, broad and sweeping in scope, sends the same basic message about education and teachers as his emails about Howard Zinn and his recent defense of his actions as governor — we teachers cannot be trusted.

What other conclusion could a reasonable person draw from Daniels’s defense at a Purdue trustees’ meeting: “The question is, would this lead to this material being taught to innocent school children? I promise that if the parents of Indiana understood what was in the book in question, 99 if not 100 out of 100 would want some other book used”?

The implied message is that Daniels, as governor, needed to protect our children from the threat of teachers who would use Zinn’s ideas and textbook to indoctrinate young people. He seems to suggest that somehow, teachers would present Zinn’s ideas and use his textbook as gospel truth.

This defense reveals a willful ignorance about the true nature of education and questions the integrity of all teachers.

You see, as a teacher, my primary job is to expose your children to all kinds of ideas, to help them critique and analyze those ideas, and to present and nurture the necessary skills for them to evaluate and think critically for themselves.

My job, as your children’s teacher, is to teach them how to value their own learning. And to achieve this, we must learn in a classroom where we examine even those ideas that challenge and disturb us the most. And, for this to work, you and your children must trust me. You must trust that my training, qualifications, passion for teaching, and respect for you and your children shape each and every decision I make in my classroom.

This is not easy, or comfortable, or clean. Real learning never is. It’s messy. It’s bothersome. It’s uncomfortable.

And it’s essential.

Because our children must learn to question, listen, defend, debate, and challenge. They must learn to value and respect the opposing viewpoints of others, even when they disagree. They must consider, too, why they believe what they believe. These critical thinking skills only happen in classrooms where ideas are shared, discussed, and evaluated, and where students trust the teacher and their peers.

And this is why Mitch Daniels is so very wrong — because he does not trust us. Because censoring academic materials — and make no mistake about it, this is censorship — assumes that a quality education should be sanitized and scrubbed free from ideas that disturb or challenge us. It assumes that our children are victims each time they step into a classroom with a teacher armed with a textbook, a syllabus, and a passion to teach.

And, it is the same kind of pessimism that defines virtually every piece of education “reform” that Daniels and Hoosier legislators so proudly take credit for. I have written before about Indiana’s expansive voucher program and the corporate education “reform” agenda that includes more testing, hefty financial perks for testing and educational publishing companies, absurd changes in teacher evaluations and training, and moronic ideas like “merit pay” in public education.

At the heart of all of these changes is a lack of trust for our teachers and a disrespect for the education profession in general. Somehow, we now believe that we must constantly test to ensure our children are learning, that we must evaluate each and every nuance of a teacher’s performance to the point of absurdity, and that it is a teacher’s primary responsibility to fill each child with knowledge like we fill our cars with gasoline.

Virtually every piece of Hoosier education reform in the last eight years is predicated on the notion that teachers cannot be effective unless we are measured, manipulated, or prodded. In short, we cannot be trusted.

And, yes, there are certainly some irresponsible teachers and ineffective schools. However, Daniels and reform-minded legislators enacted policies that judge all educators and schools the same — harshly. Indiana’s entire education “reform” agenda is based on the false assumption that the system is fundamentally broken and that no educator can be trusted to intrinsically do what is right.

Would anyone support a teacher who adopted a similar philosophy toward the children in his or her classroom? Why, then, do we continue to tolerate such shameful policies from our elected officials?

More ironic, however, is that this lack of trust in teachers and academic freedom was revealed in Daniels’s own emails. After all, it was Daniels himself who blamed last year’s election loss of then-superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett to Glenda Ritz on unethical campaign tactics of teachers allegedly using school e-mail accounts. Somehow, it was easier to assume Ritz’s win was more the result of unethical behavior of teachers than of the political will of informed citizens.

But then again, Hoosier teachers were all-too-familiar with this kind of cynicism, which is why we joined so many voters in electing Ritz. After all, we cannot be trusted.

So, Aristotle’s quotation will serve as a call to action for my students and for me when we return to school next week. I want my students to embrace the opportunity to question, debate, evaluate, and learn.

I want them to value their education and trust themselves and their teachers more than Mitch Daniels and Indiana lawmakers do.

Teachers: Let’s start a conversation…

by Jim Lang

Today, I challenge teachers to speak to voters. And, I challenge voters to listen.

I have never seen teachers more frustrated. Virtually every survey reveals teacher frustration at an all-time high. Teacher retirements in Indiana are also rising, even as enrollment in teacher education programs at colleges and universities plummets.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that we are headed for a severe shortage of quality teachers. Fast.

And, if we dig more deeply into survey results and anecdotal evidence, we see a common thread — beliefs that we are headed in the wrong direction in state and national education policy, and that our state and national governments are not listening to us.

I have my own beliefs about this, many of which I have shared on this blog.

But, I’d like to try something different here today.

If you are a teacher, please post your views in the Comments section of this blog (click on Leave a Comment below this post) explaining any frustrations to voters, citizens, and non-educators, outlining specifically what needs to change, and why. What do you think voters and citizens need to know about education policy? Feel free to leave your name, or not.

And voters and/or concerned citizens, feel free to jump into the conversation by posting comments and/or asking questions. More importantly, please read and think about what you are reading from these dedicated educators.

I’ll post my own thoughts and response early next week.

Finally, comments will not show up immediately, as I have to approve them. But, I’ll be checking this site throughout the weekend.

Here’s hoping for an insightful conversation…

Like most teachers, I am enjoying my summer ‘off’

by Jim Lang

I became a teacher to get my summers off…

said no teacher ever.

There’s a good reason teachers post the above phrase on their Facebook walls and threaten to smack anyone who suggests that we sit idly by while the rest of the world scurries to work in June and July.

Because the lie that teachers are “off” in the summer is just that — a lie.

I have spent the last two days in my classroom in an agonizing attempt to complete the course syllabus for my Advanced Placement Language and Composition course, a chore that looks to consume the rest of the week, as well as my sanity.

This follows a five-day AP training class at the University of Louisville last week, and will soon be followed by two weeks of teaching high school journalists at Indiana University’s High School Journalism Institute in Bloomington in July.

And after that? Oh yes, the new school year begins! Stop groaning kids…and teachers!

And, I am not alone.

I cannot name a single educator I know who hasn’t spent a significant amount of time in the past four weeks working in their classrooms, developing lessons or syllabi, attending professional development or classes, teaching summer school, or in some way thinking about or preparing for the upcoming school year.

We spend these hours willingly and (mostly) enthusiastically because we love to learn ourselves. And, because we know the time and effort we spend now will make a positive difference in our students’ lives this school year.

Summers “off?” Yeah, right.

My twenty ‘truths’ about education and reform

by Jim Lang

Writing and maintaining this blog has become like therapy for me, especially when some clueless legislator or governmental body pretends to know one iota about education.

On days like today, when the Indiana Supreme Court ignores our state constitution and unanimously upholds legislation that provides government-supported handouts…oh, I mean vouchers…to families to send children to private and/or religious schools, I feel like I have to vent.

On days like today, when Kentucky senator Rand Paul calls for federal legislation to expand vouchers (essentially the same irresponsible legislation supported by “Mr. 47 Percent” Mitt Romney), I feel like I have to do something to maintain the illusion that educators’ concerns and frustrations are actually listened to by our political “leaders.”

So, today, I am particularly disillusioned and annoyed. And to those who know me well, this means I must vent, often sarcastically and even maliciously, or explode. And since I do not want to explode during what has been an otherwise relaxing Spring Break, here are my own 20 “truths” about education, one for each year I have been teaching, and in no particular order:

1.  There are far more bad parents than bad teachers.

2. If your school is successful, it is primarily because it is a reflection of a successful community, quality parenting, and dedicated teachers.

3. If your school is failing, it is primarily because it is a reflection of a failing community, poor parenting, and dedicated teachers who strive everyday to make up for deficiencies of a failing community and poor parenting.

4. While critics waste time whining about teachers’ unions, for-profit corporations are shaping curriculum, testing, and schools far more than unions ever did.

5. Choosing to send your children to private schools should not in any way release you from your societal and moral obligation to pay taxes to support public schools for those who cannot afford private schools. Previous generations understood this.

6. Private and religious schools should remain absolutely independent of state and federal government intrusion…except when they accept vouchers.

7. Those who constantly criticize public schools for “indoctrinating” students have either rarely been in a classroom or are guilty of indoctrinating their own children. Or both.

8. If you are shocked that your child is suddenly failing a class, you aren’t paying enough attention to your child.

9. Teachers don’t get summers “off.” Ever.

10. Teachers don’t get weekends “off.” Ever.

11. Standardized testing is a waste of time.

12. Common formative assessment (n): an educational opportunity for children designed to ensure educators can prove to even the most illiterate person that we’re doing what we say we’re doing. Syn: waste of time. Sentence: I spent four hours grading my common formative assessments and entering the data into a spread sheet, and it revealed exactly what I already knew!

13. Voucher (n): a government-supported handout, primarily for private and/or religious schools, disguised as a tax break for people to distract them from the fact that our state government is failing in its constitutional duty to ensure a quality, public school system for all. Syn: handout. Sentence: My voucher helps ensure that I can exercise my already-existing freedom to send my child to any school I’d like without having to fully pay for it.

14. Merit pay (n): 1. a tiny or invisible token of appreciation from legislators to educators in hopes we won’t see what they’re really up to. 2. dumbest educational reform idea ever, and in Indiana, that’s saying a lot. Syn: a tiny or invisible bribe. Sentence: We’ll reward highly effective teachers with $400 of merit pay, which will prompt them to work even harder and make them feel really good about themselves.

15. If education is its own reward, then weighted grades should eliminated.

16. If Indiana citizens should receive tax credits in the form of vouchers for poorly-performing public schools, then teachers should receive tax credits for poorly-performing students and parents.

17. If anyone can now become a teacher or superintendent in Indiana with minimum of educational training, then I should be permitted to perform major surgery with a minimum of medical training.

18. Most online classes are a joke. Really.

19. Those who criticize educators and schools the most have an ulterior motive…and it’s not the well-being of our nation’s children.

20. If any of the above ideas offend you, you’re probably part of the problem.

Feel free to add your own educational “truths” in the Comments section.

I now feel much better. Until next time…