I am a teacher in the public schools, and I am angry. I am angry because for the past several years I have come increasingly under attack. Though I try not to take the attack personally, I find that such a response is no longer possible.
Only a few years ago, my students sought to compliment me by asking why a person like me would work for a teacher's salary. The question reflected their misunderstanding that the only factor relevant to job satisfaction is pay. The recent attack on education, however, has left the public with such a jaundiced view of my profession that the question now carries a pejorative tone. My students today are much more likely to accept the simplistic notion that satisfaction can only be gained through salary and, by implication, that pay is the only useful measure of ability.
I am now besieged not only by students who have been encouraged to believe that only fools work for less than $50,000 per year, but by other groups equally impossible to ignore. There are crackpots and zealots (textbook burners and other, less-overt haters) who listen to voices telling them that public schools should either become seminaries or disappear. I am also the target of choice for any political hack, from the county board room to the Oval Office, who wishes to win a few votes by blaming me for problems he has neither the depth to understand nor the courage to solve.
Most recently I stand accused of creating a society of mediocre plodders who are incapable of competing with the genius of the industrialized world. To this charge I plead not guilty. There are several reasons why I can make this plea without hesitation.
First, America gained its reputation for innovative genius long before there existed a formal education system. There are many factors in a culture, education among them, that create a climate conducive to innovation. If we as a nation have lost the capacity for creativity, we had best not be monistic in our attempt to reestablish that climate.
Second, we must be reminded that it is not the recent products of the American education system who have led us into this stagnation. It was the best and brightest of the "good old days" who, by debasing the currency to finance their war in Southeast Asia, created an inflation that eventually crippled our economy. It is not mediocre high school graduates, but Harvard MBAs who are so paralyzed by fear for their five- and six-figure incomes that they have become incapable of taking the risks necessary to make a capitalist economy grow and remain competitive.
If the nation is truly at risk, as the president and his commission on educational quality suggest, it is at risk due to a failure of American leadership, in both the public and private sectors. Politicians substitute slogans for action as they watch, spellbound and helpless, while government spending becomes an ever increasing percentage of GNP. Business leaders, already recipients of countless billions in government subsidies, spend millions that could be used for research to acquire an ever larger amount of public dole. They demand more protection from foreign competition. They get protection for their foreign markets, even when such protection requires that this nation often overlook the most blatant violations of human rights. Still they ask for more. Was it really the public schools that killed free enterprise, that demolished the innovative spirit of this nation? I think not.
Unlike the education systems in other nations, the American system has a commitment to provide the opportunity for a quality education to all citizens, not just those few who at an early age show promise. This commitment has been dramatically strengthened during the past two decades. As I look around my classroom today, I see many students who 20 years ago would not have been there: not only traditional minorities, but also recent immigrants, some of whom can barely speak English, as well as students who struggle with learning disabilities or work to overcome physical handicaps, or kids who would have quit school to take jobs.
A study sensitive to this fact would show that while aggregate test scores may have fallen during the past decade, the number of students with strong backgrounds in the academic disciplines has increased. Many of my students are very bright and inquisitive. Some will enter the best universities in the country, there enthusiastically to continue their education. I am with these young people every day. I can assure you that they are not now mediocre, nor will they ever be.
The real American tragedy is that our political and economic leaders have lost the capacity to utilize the tremendous human resource that is developed in our education system. Leaders of other industrialized nations have shown that they don't suffer this incapacity. For the past two decades, it has been they who have taken the risks and built their economies by acquiring and developing the product of America's innovative minds.
I attended a university that took for its motto, "That we may serve." The motto had a profound affect on me; it led me into teaching. I am still proud of my decision. I will not be branded as incompetent because I accepted a job for which the rewards are less tangible than the bottom line on a paycheck. Nor will I stand by silently as I become the scapegoat for a frustrated nation. In my job, I serve this country well. Tell me, those of you who attack me, what do you do?