If your reforms will destroy kids, schools, and teachers, please help the bear.

If your reforms will destroy kids, schools, and teachers, please help the bear.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about educational reform. Schools are broken, the narrative goes, so we have to do something to fix them. The “something” currently in vogue is a combination of market-based reforms such as merit pay and value-added scores, mixed with a fawning adoration of charters and alternative routes to certification.  Suddenly, it’s cool — even heroic — to be an educational reformer.

I am glad that so many people are waking up to the fact that education is a civil right.  I am thrilled that more parents are asking how can I get involved?  The number of people who are stepping up and providing support for schools either through cash or influence and political support energizes me. I am excited that education has finally garnered the national attention and concern it deserves.

But I am also a little worried. Some of the reforms proposed aren’t designed to fix schools; they’re designed to blow them up. I am worried about the blame game (it’s the teachers’ fault!  No, it’s the parents’ fault! No it’s the unions’ and the politicians’ and the meddlesome billionaires’ fault!). I am worried that the conversation about education has been co-opted by people who know very little about how to educate children. I am worried that many of the people who claim to suddenly care about our children have less than noble motives that have more to do with the amount of money and political capital pouring into education right now than they do with a real concern for our future generations. I worry that the debate is becoming more and more one-sided as those of us who express genuine concern about some of the so-called “reforms” being offered are cast as obstructionists who care more about adults and preserving the status quo than we do about children.  I worry that when they’re through “blowing up the system” as some reformers put it, we will be left to clean up the carnage.

My uncle used to tell me a story about two men who went camping. One day, one of the men went hiking alone in the early morning while the other one slept in. It wasn’t very long before the sleeping camper was awakened by the screams of his friend. He rushed out of the tent to see what was the matter and saw his friend being chased by a huge and hungry bear. Quickly he grabbed his camping gear and ran to help. First, he threw his canteen at the bear and hit the bear firmly on the back of the head. This only served to enrage the bear who growled loudly and quickened his chase. Then he threw his compass at the bear only to miss the bear entirely and hit his friend in the head. Next, he threw his backpack at the bear but he missed and it hit his friend in the leg sending him stumbling forward.

“What are you doing?!?” his friend called angrily as yet another canteen whizzed by his head.

“I am helping you,” the first camper replied, while reaching for a rock to throw at the angry bear.

“Helping me?” the friend asked incredulously as he ducked the rock. “I’ll tell you what.  Help the bear!”

There are times when I want to say to the people who are rushing in to “fix” education, “help the bear.”  It’s not that I think that everything is fine. No. There are schools that are broken, some irreparably so. There are students every day who are cheated of the chance to learn by teachers who do not know how to teach and who don’t care enough to get better. I feel the desperation of parents who don’t have any other choice but to send their children to a school that will not prepare them for life after school or give them access to greater options.  I too am impatient for solutions and believe that we need to do something RIGHT NOW; I just worry that we are willing to try anything, regardless of whether it is the right thing or whether it is the best thing for children.

I am all for reform, but to those people who want to substitute passion for pedagogy, and rhetoric for real reform, help the bear. To those people who have cast teachers as villains instead of working to make them all heros, help the bear. To those people who want to turn schools into businesses and children into products, help the bear.  To those who want to use circumstances as an excuse for lethargy or who spend all of their time defending the status quo rather than critically examining it, help the bear.  To those who use the current debate as an excuse or a distraction from real change, help the bear. To all those whose idea of helping does more to tear the schools apart then it does to build them up?
Help the bear. To all those self-styled supermen and women whose idea of helping does more to tear the schools apart then it does to build them up?

Help the bear. Please.

  • Thank you for this helpful handling of such a volatile subject. So many people are angry and spitting
    about this, that it’s hard to find careful thought. I haven’t read a better critique of the current reform
    attitudes and the “substituting” of “passion for pedagogy” as you put it. I hope more people read this
    and think more carefully about what they are complaining about.

  • coachgam says:

    I think that you must been in my head because you have echoed the sentiments that I have been saying all along. Yes, hold teachers accountable but first have a conversation with them about some of the challenges they face and some suggestions that would work.  There are too many people making decisions about what should go on in a classroom who have no clue about teaching or about children and how they learn.  Thank you for hightlighting the need for “leaders” to help the bear and not the teacher. Keep on promoting the interest of children.

  • J.O Beckett says:

    Beautifully stated and thought provoking. Is appears, from an educator’s perspective,  that the structured school systems of this country have for so long thought to reform the students and the process of education that they have forgotten, intentionally or unintentionally, to “help the bear” or at least tame it!  I appreciate your insight and hope that the emphasis is on the problem not the recipients of those [solvable] problems.

  • […] fault? Absolutely not. (Check out my many posts on why we shouldn’t blame the teacher here here here and here). But do I think that there is more that we can be doing in the classroom to help […]

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