Friday, April 22, 2011

Laws for Thee But Not for Me

I’ve been renting a room here in the DC area while looking for a larger place for the family, who will join me this summer. The woman from whom I’m renting has been unemployed and out of luck for a long time, and cannot pay her own rent without filling up all of the beds in the apartment. So she rents out my little room, and she rents out the master bedroom, and she sleeps on the sofa. It’s not an ideal arrangement for me, God knows, but it allows me to rent month-to-month without living someplace truly horrifying.

Right now, my roommate/landlady is sleeping in the master bedroom, because once again, one of her tenants has walked out on her. I’ve seen it happen twice; apparently, it’s happened six or seven times. They come in—kids, mostly, but not exclusively—needing a place but not being able to put up a month’s rent as security along with a month’s rent to start. So she allows them to pay half a month in security. She lets them move in without signing a lease, because it takes her a while to get her act together. They stay three weeks, four weeks, long enough to accrue some debt. And when she starts asking for them to pay, and she finally gets a lease put together, they disappear. They string things along as far as they can, then they get in a screaming match with her, telling her she’s a bitch for daring to ask them for money. Then they bolt.

So it’s hard to get too upset, or to take it too personally, when I face intense scrutiny in my own home search. Fair credit equals poor credit these days, and my situation over the past eight months has left me with only fair credit. Property managers are looking for any excuse to say No to me when I file an application, and they can always find an excuse, because there are a lot of people out there looking to rent. Whatever I might say about myself, whatever pleas I might make, whatever assurances I offer or recommendations I gather…none of it matters. There is no trust.
It’s Passover this week. I remember staging a play, back in college, which featured a musical re-enactment of the Exodus which culminated with the giving of the 10 Commandments. The chair of the theatre department was watching a rehearsal with me one day, and he guffawed (in a very jowly, middle-aged, Irish Catholic kind of way) about how only a Jew would stage a scene where a bunch of people sing “Freedom! Freedom!” while being handed a set of laws.

Among the political so-called conservatives, it’s been fashionable for at least a generation to talk—or scream—about how government is the enemy. We hate regulation. We hate laws. Government is intrusive. Just leave us alone. They act as though Congress passes laws for their own amusement, or creates regulations out of a love of bureaucracy. They see no connection between their actions—our actions—and the actions of the people placed in positions of authority. In this, they are no different than school children who don’t do their work and then ask their teacher, “Why’d you give me an F?” And they’re no more mature.

Law doesn’t just happen. It happens in reaction to behavior. Regulations are not birthed with a business. They are created in reaction to a business’ lack of ethical behavior.

It’s Passover this week. We celebrate the escape from oppressive slavery and begin a countdown that will take us, eventually, to a celebration of the Giving of the Law. Ten laws: ten commandments. Have you taken a look at them, lately? You should. And you should ponder this question: if we—all of us—could live by those laws—just those laws, but really live by them—how many others would we need? Not many, I think.
But can we live by them? Do we live by them? There are only 10 commandments, but the Torah actually contains over 600 laws, rules, and regulations that help define, explain, and enforce those original 10. So I guess our inability to live by the 10 became evident pretty quickly.

We need laws and regulations to protect us from each other, and that’s the plan and ugly truth of it. And we need protection from each other because we will not behave. The industries that beg to have regulations rolled back? They do terrible things, almost instantly.

Why will we not behave? Because we no longer—most of us—live in abject fear, cowering in the shadows. We are not afraid of retribution from the gods. We are not afraid of the secret police knocking down our door. We are not afraid of what will happen when the local priest hears about our behavior. We are free.

Free from what? All of the above. Free to do what? Whatever we please.

The density of our laws does not depend on the political party we vote into office. It depends entirely on how we, as a society, define “free to do what?” The more constraints we place upon our own freedom, as individuals within a culture, the fewer constraints must be placed on us from without. We can constrain ourselves out of fear of heavenly punishment, or we can constrain ourselves because of a social contract and an ethic of working together and helping each other. We can make up all kinds of systems and structures to teach our children to hold back, to limit themselves, to constrain themselves, for a greater good. That’s what civilization is all about.

So the cop is in the head or the cop is on the beat. The cop is not absent; that’s anarchy, and as attractive as anarchy may sound to college students, it never lasts. Never. People can’t stomach it for long. The cop will return. He always does. If you haven’t internalized him, expect him at your door. Control yourself or you will be controlled, eventually. Because while we love our own freedom, yours scares the hell out of us.

As long as our culture holds Absolute Appetite to be its greatest good, and teaches its children to Want and to Take without limit or consideration, we will have a net of laws and regulations thrown over us. Because, like I said, we trust ourselves but not our neighbors. We’re not completely insane; we know, deep down, where Absolute Appetite will lead us. And even if we didn’t care about that, we know that there are finite resources, and that all people cannot have all things. So unless we want to live in Hobbes’ jungle, where the strong take and the weak hide, we need laws.
Laws for other people, of course. For them. Not for us. We’re fine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday Morning Rumblings

A colleague at work put his wife and children on a plane this morning; they’re off to see family for a week. People at the office joke with him about enjoying the bachelor life while they’re away. He stands by my desk and tells me this, slumping a little. “You know,” he says, “I got married for a reason.”

Five years ago, when The Wife left me behind in New York to pack boxes and get the house sold, moving herself and the boys to Arizona to get our new life started, I heard the same thing from my friends. “Now you get to do whatever you want!” they said. But what I wanted was to have my wife and boys with me.

Now I’m doing the same thing again. This time, I’m the one who went out ahead, leaving them behind to get the house sold. But once again, it’s me, alone, without my family. And all I want is to have them here with me.

Why is the assumption that women have families because they want to, but men have families because they have to? If that’s true of most men (and I dispute that), it’s certainly not true of all men.

I have been away from them for four months now, with two very brief trips home to see them. For now, until they arrive here, I live in a small, rented room with few distractions or comforts. The nights are long, made longer by lack of sleep. At work, I find I have to change my computer’s screensaver, because I can’t take seeing pictures of my children roll by anymore.

When I was a young(er) father, toting my older son around Brooklyn in his baby backpack, I felt shut out of the mom-community all around me (and it was ALL around me). Perhaps that has changed in the past 10 years, and there are more work-from-home dads out there. But in 2000 and 2001, I was alone, and I was viewed with suspicion. It was a shame, because I enjoyed wandering around with Thing 1 on my back, and we had a lot of fun together. But no one wanted to talk to us. The Yuppie mothers were a pack. The Jamaican nannies were a pack. So I knocked around, alone. If there was a “guys don’t care” mentality or stereotype, it wasn’t coming only from the guys.

I’ve always resented the “dumb guy” stereotype—on TV, in movies, and in life. I do not know a single male, of any age, who is incapable of finding something in the kitchen or making himself something (something) to eat. Even my father, who went into of my mother’s long illness incapable of cleaning the house or cooking anything beyond a steak, learned how to take care of himself. He hadn’t actually been incapable—he had just never been asked to play that role or learn those skills.

At work, we are reading manuscripts and planning videos on the crisis of boys in our schools. Sometimes it’s African American boys, sometimes it’s Latino boys, sometimes it’s just boys in general. The underlying assumption, as always: boys are insane. Boys are pure physical beings. Boys cannot be expected to “do” school, which is somehow feminine in structure. There is only one way to be in the world, as a boy, and it’s pure Tom Sawyer.

I’m so tired of the arguments, programs, and proselytizing in our culture that comes from these reductive views of people. There is one way to be Black; there is one way to be a boy; there is one way to be a Democrat or a Republican. Every thing means one thing. Is it just that the world has become too complex for us to manage, so we have to reduce everything in it to simple equations? Did we allow more complexity when the world around us seemed simpler? Maybe that’s why our education system is in so much trouble; the culture around us keeps telling us that there’s nothing we have to learn; everything is clearly just want we think it is.

But it’s a lie. Every thing deserves some measure of awe. Every person is a mystery. Assume nothing.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bad Faith

Jay Matthews has a good article on the dangers of national mandates in education and how short-sighted and overly prescriptive they can be. But I think it misses an underlying point--a prime cause, if you will. How can we stop penduluming back and forth between "teachers are idiots--tell them what to do" and "teachers are saints--leave them alone"? Both arguments are foolish and uninformed, and nothing is ever brought to bear to examine the arguments. So the partisans for each side repeat their mantras and we continue to swing back and forth.

State and federal mandates didn't erupt like Athena, fully clothed, from the mind of some bureaucrat or politician. We once had a culture of leaving teachers alone to do their thing. Now we don't. Why? I think we can trace the dissatisfaction back to the 1970s. I think it began there--softly, quietly, and only in some places--and began to grow. And there are two things that were happening in that decade that, I think, contributed to this change.

The first is desegregation. God knows, middle class whites did all they could to avoid it, from picketting in the South to fleeing to suburban enclaves in the North. But by and large, over time, the population of public schools became more and more heterogeneous. That, along with the move to mainstream students with disabilities, made our classrooms more diverse in every possible way. And, therefore, more difficult to manage effectively. This is something we talk about on occasion, but often without clear connections to NCLB or the standards movement.

At the same time, the women's liberation movement was giving women more professional options that being a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary. With the glass ceiling lifted, if not shattered, Ivy League and other high-performing women could pursue careers in medicine, law, and business, who otherwise might have had to opt for teaching. As they fled the teaching profession, we did nothing to change that profession in order to attact talent. We did not rasie teacher pay, change the working environment, or offer any new incentives. We continued to act as though we had a captive population coming into the profession, when we no longer did. And so we started to attact lower-perfoming young people, who didn't have those higher professional options available to them. This is something we rarely talk about.

Look at the what this combination of factors has wrought: without changing the structure of how we do schooling, we've thrown a wide and wild diversity of students into the mix--different needs, different backgrounds, different cultures, but the same 45-minute class period. And we've done nothing to attract the best and the brightest to come teach them. We get them, sometimes, out of a sense of mission, but we don't do a great job of holding on to them. If fact, the latest attempt to recruit high-performing college gradutates, Teach for American, doesn't even pretend that these kids will stay in the profession for more than two years.

If we've moved into a world of micromanagement, is it because the managers are insane and oppressive, or is it because there is an absolute lack of faith and trust that the people being managed know what they're doing? I'd say it's the latter. Our educrats aren't evil; they just have zero faith in the people they manage.

The sad thing here is that you can't move from bad faith to good faith through oppressive mandates. You can't move people from low competence to high competence by telling what to do, every minute of the day. So what should we be doing?

How about if we started treating teaching like a profession, instead of hired labor? I know we talk about it, but what if we actually did it? By which I mean: create state or national teaching standards and align the university programs with them. Instead of mandating what every student should so, create industry-wide standards, expectations, and protocols for professional behavior, with real training, support, professional onboarding, and long-term mentoring, so that you have the best chance of placing a qualified teacher in front of a classroom...and the best chance of having agreement across the profession as to what "qualified" means. Prepare a teacher the way you prepare a doctor, and I think we'd safely be able to do away with the micromanagement.

But we don't have agreement as to what qualified means. And we don't have agreeement as to what good teaching means. We don't have agreement within our own profession about much of anything...except that we should be left alone.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What's a Bad Teacher?

First off, a question: does anyone really think that old, intractable problems can be solved by the stakeholders re-stating the same positions they've been stating for at least a generation? What if they state them more angrilly? I don't think so either. So how about, when we hear old, stale, useless positions being stated for the umpteenth time, we just dismiss them immediately and say "Next!"

"We need to fire the bad teachers."

"We need to leave teachers alone and let them do their jobs"

The problem is, really, both statements are true, but neither is sufficient unto itself.

We should leave teachers alone to do their jobs...but only if we have reasonable assurance that they know what their job is--the same kind of assurance we demand from doctors, lawyers, and airline pilots. You meet some quality criteria agreed upon by your entire profression, and we'll leave you alone. Problem: There are no quality criteria agreed upon by your entire profession.

We should fire bad teachers, just like we should fire bad anyone--after, of course, we have taken appropriate steps to help, guide, support, and remediate. When everything else fails, you should be able to fire incompetent employees. Problem: if we can't agree on what competence means, how can we have a fair evalution, remediation, and dismissal process?

If we can't agree on what a good teacher is, how can we decide what a bad teacher is? We don't want the decisions to be arbitrary or personal or vindictive, so...what do we have?

Should we allow teachers to evaluate each other as peers? Well, to do that, they'd have to be able to observe each other's work, and we are radically against allowing teachers to do anything during their day except stand in front of students.

Should we judge teachers by the grades they give their students? That's asking for trouble.

Should we judge teachers by the standardized test scores of their students? That's reductive and limiting.

Should we judge teachers by the growth that their students show during the time they spend wiht those teachers? Growth of what? Growth by what measure? And are all growths equivalent? If Teacher X inherits children who are 4 years behind in their skills and knowledge, how much "growth" during the school year denotes competence on her part? If Teacher Z is teaching gifted and talented students who are already 4 years ahead in their skills and knowledge, how much "growth" should one expect during the school year?

So don't tell me that a superintendent is courageous just because she "went after bad teachers." And don't tell me she's a monster, either. In fact, don't talk about her at all. The teaching profession has to clean house before it can point fingers. If it wants its members to be "left alone," then the profession has to publish the criteria against which its members should be measured--and maybe even design the preferred evaluation tool. Lawyers created the bar exam. Doctors created the medical boards. Why do teachers continue to allow others to define them...and then cry out about being victimized when others do just that?

I know we have a pathological fear of centralization in this country--which is pretty damned funny, considering how conformist and homogonized our culture has become. But saying, in essence, "what I do is not judge-able by anyone except me" is an absurd position to take. It invites abuse. And it's getting plenty of it.

There are districts trying hard to figure out teacher evaluation. They should be commended for the effort, even when we disagree with the outcome. But if we want teaching to be a profession, then evaluation has to be done in a professional model, not a corporate model. The person signing the paycheck creates the evaluation tool in business. The practitioners themselves create the evaluation tool in professions.

And teaching is....which?