Educators have espoused the phrase, “We didn’t come into this for the money,” an aphorism that’s allowed for the passage of regressive education funding in many states across the nation. This phrase came to me as I watched pictures of Atlanta educators handcuffed and led to jail cells for racketeering charges in connection with one of the largest education cheating scandals in American history. Just before that, the 2014 National Teacher of the Year chastised the first-ever Global Teacher Prize winner for saying that now wasn’t a good time to come into teaching except if you want to go to an independent school. The tension between two seemingly unrelated stories gave me pause as an educator of color.
If you’re a young person of color coming into teaching, why would you come and what would make you stay?
How do you look at this system and not rage at the idea that there’s more accountability for folks who want to keep their schools open over bankers robbing the American public and getting slapped in the wrist for it? More than some of the biggest accountability evangelists we’ve had in the last decade? How do you see the ways our children get treated all across the nation through so-called no excuses charter schools and feel like you can partake in that, inflated test scores or otherwise? How do you look at the teacher who got the largest prize for teaching ever, watch her say, “Please, not now”, and actually come into teaching after all?
That also includes all the other factors educators of color are prone to: lack of teacher autonomy, risk of school shutdown, lack of equitable resources, and conflicts over discussions of race, class, and gender.
As Sabrina Stevens often reminds us, calling these problems “systemic” often depersonalizes the issues, pulling the responsibility away from many of the bad actors who’ve allowed us to get to this point in education reform. Policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were sold to communities of color as grand equalizers, a pack of silver bullets meant to close achievement gaps for all children. With all the “successes” people feel like claiming on behalf of black and brown children across the country, most of the reforms look like a boatload of shortcuts, none of them meant to bring true equity for all schools. Data, like so many reforms we’ve seen in recent times, only served to make incremental change by bringing achievement down and then bringing it up incrementally.
It’s a twisted game, but one that many educators who work in data-centric districts learn to play. That’s the other element that doesn’t bode well for the future of the profession: many of us who do enter the profession see the value of keeping our schools open and would do just about anything to make sure it stays open. Speaking to many educators who’ve had schools shut down from under them, I often got the sense that they taught as well as they could until the very last day, even when they knew the rugs would be pulled from under them as soon as the last bell rang. If the community relies on these schools to educate the students in their neighborhood, have memories attached to them, and have services and benefits for the entire community, then the adults in these buildings usually feel that their best efforts will somehow keep the school open, policymakers’ intentions with the school notwithstanding.
The 11 educators we saw arrested in Atlanta, mostly women and mostly Black, didn’t come off as criminals racketeering for massive profits, but as scapegoats for policies written on the backs of their children.
A large part of me also thinks most educators in a similar predicament would make similar decisions to the handful out in Georgia. They’d stay in the profession if they could because the tests are a nuisance to deal with and not the impetus for their day-to-day work. The tests say more about what a student didn’t learn than what they did learn in class. Standardized tests and one-directional accountability disintegrate quicker when the children and staff members happen to be of color. The incentives laid forth by merit pay proponents went right back into schools in the form of school supplies, trips, and lunches adults had to pay for in those buildings where cheating scandals arose.
Rampant cheating won’t get solved as long as the money that teachers didn’t come into the profession to get is spent on drilling teachers and students with data as solution.Is our democracy truly that if the idea of “choice” isn’t much of a choice, but a chance, and perhaps not even an equitable one? Can schools, regardless of label, attract and retain people who want to work in the most difficult situations if our society continues to reflect that hardship on them? When we look back at the history of the K-12 pseudo-accountability era of the early aughts, will the 11 faces of color currently parading our computer screens be the lasting image? If so, will we use that as a recruiting tool for future teachers of color? Who will be the one to tell them that this job has the potential to be 90% awesome, but that 10% outweighs the other 90% in teacher effectiveness rating, and will inevitably cause conflict between them as the person in front of the kids on a daily basis and the administrators who aren’t?Who can prepare educators of color for the moment when the student who looks like them didn’t pass the exam? Our system isn’t ready to do time for that, that’s for damn sure.