About Me

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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Save a School: Dump the Bureaucrats

Sandra Tsing Loh, one of America's funniest and most astute writers, points out in today's NY Times that the American upper middle classes, like the Obamas, who send their kids to private schools, have no idea what is going on in public education. Agreed, but given that many parents who are not quite as engaged as Tsing Loh don't get it either, I would argue that what is most essential is that teachers reclaim (and be allowed to reclaim) their professional status. Part of that must involve drastically limiting the bureaucrats' influence.
(As an aside, years ago, as an undergrad, I spent a summer sitting in a superintendent's office in California working on my research project on the history of high school fraternities. Over those few months, I was witness to more inane conversations than I had ever heard in my life among the district administrators: Their main qualification seemed to be being overconfident men: They certainly didn't seem to have much going on up top. One of them, disturbingly, went on to a career in high places.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My E-Mail To President-Elect Obama

..or, more accurately, to his campaign staff, sent via Change.gov. I'm expecting my appointment as Secretary of Education any day now.

Merit pay is an extraordinarily bad idea, and the idea stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the teaching profession. I resigned this year from a tenured job in Georgia as a university historian of early America, after 12 years of misery arising from the toxic atmosphere cultivated in large part by merit pay. It rewards cronyism and cynical tactics (such as teaching to tests, no matter how inane), while demoralizing the very creative people we must attract to teaching.
I have talked to many, many K-12 teachers (including as a presenter at the Georgia Council for Social Studies last month), and I have come away convinced that policymakers won't make a difference until they understand some hard truths:
1. Policies like merit pay often seem to be designed around a mythical figure akin to Reagan's welfare queen: Someone who might resemble the Ben Stein character in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, who bored his students with the monotone recitation of arcane facts.
But most teachers are women, and they don't go into the profession for the money. They consistently spend their own cash on their job, and otherwise go above and beyond, many of them doing the thankless but crucial work of teaching elementary school, where a love of learning must be cultivated if we are to change anything They are experienced, which matters, and they are rightly pissed off at being blamed for the failures of society, families, idiot administrators and senseless curriculum.
2. Policymakers either don't examine or fail to understand curriculum. Have any of you actually looked at the state curricula in subjects like social studies? Everywhere, it favors the pursuit of trivia that only the die-hard old boys favor--it certainly bears no resemblance to the interests and emphases of professional historians, and it doesn't work in elementary school. Teachers are leaving because--heads up--teaching this nonsense to bored kids for the sole purpose of passing a meaningless test is soul-destroying.
3. Policymakers consult idiot administrators, college of education people, and even union heads. They rarely talk with teachers in the trenches, or with the college faculty who have to somehow try to teach the demoralized and apathetic graduates of our public schools.