Monday, March 15, 2010

Arne Duncan's Classroom Nightmares

Sitting in the waiting area as my car gets its oil changed, I had occasion just now to hear a CNN news clip in which Secretary of Arne Duncan vigorously supports the firing of the faculty of the "failing" high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, and responds to the questioning of the interviewer about teaching students who have little or no support at home by saying, "If you can't teach poor kids, get out of the profession."

The whole Rhode Island episode represents such a cosmic failure of adult leadership I'm not sure I even know how to feel. It has sounded all along to me like a perfect storm-level convergence of family poverty and disengagement, school board neglect, school administration ineptitude, teacher surrender, and federal and media attention--too little (the feds) and too late (the media, who always make up for their own neglect with histrionics). It also sounded as though the secretary was making a pointed jab intended to let the world know that the Obama administration is not in the pocket of the "teachers unions"-those media symbols for resistance to education reform, however one might construe that idea--or the mollycoddling progressives.

It's all so disheartening I don't even know whom to feel sorry for, except that I don't hear a lot of meaningful sympathy for--or a real set of plans to help--the kids in Central Falls. But I have to say I find the delight that the current administration seems to be taking in the whole situation distasteful and opportunistic, the moreso perhaps because Arne Duncan is no more capable than anyone else of dropping into Central Falls to quickly set things aright.

Which brings me to an idea for a television program, rather like Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares or any of the other "experts come and correct a bad situation in a few short hours" television shows. The genre seems to be British in origin, but it has spread, perhaps because we all like to indulge in the magical thinking involved in imagining that an SUV full of gay men can make us handsome and suave or two judgmental middle-aged women can turn us from Oscar Madisons into neatniks.

I want to see Arne Duncan, or anyone else, walk into the classrooms of schools adjudged "failing" and fix things up in a jiffy. C'mon, we've seen this in a zillion teacher movies, so it must be easy. Recent news from Teach for America says it's easy--just take some ambitious Ivy Leaguers who fit a certain profile and add students.

I don't think it's easy. Teaching is never easy, no matter where one is or what kinds of families students come from or what kind of colleges that teachers graduate from. But there are a few principles that tend to bear fruit (just as there are principals who can't do the job), and I bet we all know educators who could walk into Central Falls High School and turn the place around--given some time. The optimist in me likes to think that most of those fired teachers could yet be redeemed, and I hope they get the help they need to have that happen before even more teenagers come adrift from the education system.

Maybe the "Classroom Nightmares" show could represent teaching for what it truly is: a skill, a science, and an art that depends on a whole culture of supports, systems, and above all beliefs that make it possible for young people to learn. Please note that I am not advocating any "one best system" here, just reminding the reader that this can be done.

How about CNN, of Fox, or BBC, or PBS, producing "Teacher X's Classroom Nightmares" as a way of demonstrating to the world at large what teaching is really like and what the challenges are, whether in a poor urban district or even (gasp) an affluent independent school? Of course, it would have to be a continuing series, not a one-hour special. And we know we can't vote any students off the island.

Done well, a program like this could help frame the debate on education and education policy as something more than Arne Duncan posturing or Fox pundits spewing whatever it is they spew.

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