Early this year I published a piece by award-winning veteran teacher Kenneth Bernstein, entitled “A warning to college profs from a high school teacher.” It went viral when it was first posted and has done so again, and has had hundreds of thousands of readers. When Bernstein wrote the piece, he was retiring after a long career. Here is a new piece by Bernstein, who explains why he is returning to the classroom.
Bernstein is known nationally as a blogger writing under the name “teacherken.” He blogs about education, politics, human rights, music, the environment, and other topics. He is most visible at Daily Kos, where he is the most recommended author in the site’s history.
By Kenneth Bernstein
In 2012 when I retired from teaching, I was asked to write a magazine piece letting professors know what to expect from the generation of students arriving on their campuses having completed their education under No Child Left Behind and other moder school reforms, including Race to the Top. The piece, commissioned by my friend and magazine editor Aaron Barlow, appeared in February on the website of Academe, a publication of the American Association of University Professors, and Valerie republished it on this blog under the headline, “A warning to college profs from a high school teacher.” That piece went viral. It got over 100,000 likes on Facebook alone and a comment stream that exceeded my ability to respond. I received several hundred direct communications, did about a dozen radio interviews, was interviewed for college papers and documentaries, and was invited to serve as the principal speaker for the faculty teaching the mandatory freshman seminar at an elite college.
Recently the piece came alive again, and I am again receiving direct communications. An online search finds tens of thousands of references to the Post version of what I had written. I thought perhaps I should offer some observations from the experience.
First, here’s how my earlier post started:
You are a college professor.
I have just retired as a high school teacher.
I have some bad news for you. In case you do not already see what is happening, I want to warn you of what to expect from the students who will be arriving in your classroom, even if you teach in a highly selective institution.
No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002–03 academic year, which means that America’s public schools have been operating under the pressures and constrictions imposed by that law for a decade. Since the testing requirements were imposed beginning in third grade, the students arriving in your institution have been subject to the full extent of the law’s requirements. While it is true that the U.S. Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind—we have already seen that in public schools, most notably in high schools.
My primary course as a teacher was government, and for the last seven years that included three or four (out of six) sections of Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics. My students, mostly tenth graders, were quite bright, but already I was seeing the impact of federal education policy on their learning and skills.
In many cases, students would arrive in our high school without having had meaningful social studies instruction, because even in states that tested social studies or science, the tests did not count for “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. With test scores serving as the primary if not the sole measure of student performance and, increasingly, teacher evaluation, anything not being tested was given short shrift.
The vast majority of communications I received affirmed what I wrote. These came from parents, from students, from high school teachers, and from academics in colleges and universities. Some said that my warnings about similar reform regimes were already being imposed on higher education.
Since that appeared in February, there have been many changes in the educational landscape, as well as in my personal plans. Let me briefly discuss both.
One reason I believe my piece got so much attention is that it helped many people grasp clearly the implications of our national educational policy. It provided a starting point for further discussions.
Much of what I wrote remains true, at least for now. But there are changes, the biggest of which is the movement towards the Common Core State Standards and the tests to be associated with them. What is worth noting is the rise of strong opposition to both. We have seen states withdraw from the testing consortium. We have seen the problems with the first round of tests in New York State. We are seeing increasing efforts by parents to opt their children out of such tests.
And yet the damage to public education continues. Our approach to testing is clearly one part of it. The increasing number of Americans whose economic circumstances have deteriorated is a major factor. Schools are being starved of the funds necessary to operate, some state legislatures are taking actions that undercut teaching as a profession (increasing the ability of untrained people to teach, removing “tenure” and refusing to pay for experience or advanced education). In some cases public school buildings are becoming public charter schools but only nominally, as they are run by for-profit educational management organizations with all non-academic functions also being done by for-profit entities. Those running such charters often pay themselves ridiculous amounts of money; it is not clear to me why those operating several charters with only a few thousand students are allowed to pay themselves more than twice what superintendents of districts containing tens of thousands of students are paid.
We continue to de-professionalize teaching to the detriment of real learning. There are a growing number of non-educators running school systems and teaching children, people who do not understand the real task of teaching. This includes Teach for America corps members who get five weeks of summer training before being sent into high-poverty classrooms, and others who get district leadership roles after completing a training program set up by the Broad Foundation.
The school from which I retired in 2012 lost 13 senior teachers in two years. Many of us could have retired earlier. The pattern of loss is occurring in schools across the country.
Yet I have now decided to go in a different direction. Later this month, I am returning to a high school classroom in a different jurisdiction but in the same state in which I previously taught. I will not be paid for all my experience; by contract the district caps what retired/rehired teachers can make. Half of my classes will again be Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics, despite the concerns I previously expressed about the nature of the exam. So why am I returning to the classroom?
Last winter, I filled in for several months in a middle school serving a high-needs population — more than 90% of the students were on free or reduced lunch, and we had two seventh-grade girls give birth by the end of January. It was a different world, but I found myself falling in love with my students, with wanting to do whatever I could to help make a difference in their lives. That was a major reason why I first turned to teaching, and it fuels my passion to return now.
My first priority will be as it always has been — the well-being of the students I teach. I will continue to write on educational issues and as before, I will be writing from the context of being in the classroom, but also of understanding the sausage-making of educational policy and the nature of the political environment in which that occurs.
In the post that went viral, I apologized “because even those of us who understood the problems that were being created were unable to do more to stop the damage to the education of our young people.” I concluded by writing “I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.”
So why am I going back?
* because even with the restrictions that exist I believe I can make a difference for my students
* because am I going into a school and into a system where people know I am going to push the envelope to connect with my students and they still hired me
* because I do not need the job in order to pay my bills, so that I can insist upon teaching with integrity
* because public schools are too important for me to abandon the field of conflict on their behalf
At one point in an email exchange with a notable figure in education I wondered aloud whether the war to save public education was already lost, and this person said that whether or not it was s/he was going to go down fighting to save it. I have pondered that over the past year plus since I retired. That fierceness of purpose speaks to me.
But there is more.
I am a teacher. I care about the future of my students. As I said above, I fall in love with them.
For me to walk away while I am still capable of making a difference is a betrayal of all I hold dear. I remember words from Henry Adams:
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
I believe that influence can help make the world a better place. Had I any doubts, the communications I have received from former students would convince me.
As you ponder what we should do about our public education (assuming you believe in public education) perhaps one thing to keep in mind is this: Is the program or path we are proposing going to contribute to thoughtful, caring adults whose focus is on each of the unique individuals we call students? Is not that what you would want for yourself, were you a student? Is it not what you would want for your child?
Or as John Dewey put it so many years ago:
What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.