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Without Teachers, Real Change Won't Happen


Schenectady, New York. -- Call me teacher. I wish I had a dime for every media pundit who continues to label "A Nation at Risk" a "landmark document." The punditocracy can call it a landmark document till the cows come home; I call it a rumble-bumble smokescreen, a sham and an insult.

"A Nation at Risk" was nothing more than a political-industrial-university coterie blowing hot air on the uneasy Zeitgeist. It reflects, not a premise for educational change, but a mood of self-justification.

If the Japanese were knocking our socks off in automotives, if the North Koreans were building bigger and better steel mills, if divorce rates, illegitimacy and juvenile crime were on the rise, why, then, the answer was to gather together a few auto manufacturers, bankers, governors, professors, politicians, one Noel laureate and a couple of PR hacks to write a glossy report blaming teachers for the mess.

Those good gray managers gave us the Pinto, hormone-laden beef wrapped in Styrofoam, People magazine, acid rain, the Kansas City Hyatt, $495 hammers, savings-and-loan deregulation and a crumbling infrastructure. For them to exhort me and my fellow teachers to pull up our socks and put the country back on track is both mean-spirited and pitiful.

Neither the august panel nor the media which popularized the slick document of bluster and blunder had a clue that without teachers, real change will never happen in the schools. Of course, that is beside the point. "A Nation at Risk" was never about changing anything; it was about maintaining the status quo.

Although its call for more of the same --more English, more math, more chemistry, more hours in school -- reflects that quintessential American faith that equates "more" with "better," continue to be puzzled how so many people who proclaim the schools are execrable also insist children should spend more time there. The document's failure to acknowledge the real crisis in our school curriculum is, perhaps, its most damaging feature.

Of many national commission reports appearing in the early '80s, "A Nation at Risk" got the most media attention, not because it was the most thoughtful, but because it had those phrases that stick like Crazy Glue: "History is not kind to idlers," "a rising tide of mediocrity" and such. I was then, as I continue to be, offended by the born-again Baroque language that bespeaks an underlying disdain for both the teachers and the taught, a language that contradicts the very nature of learning.

I was teaching third grade when "A Nation At Risk" blared and bamboozled its way into the headlines. My students were already labeled losers. Rated at the bottom of the pack of our school's 8-year-olds on standardized tests, these were children who were convinced they hated books.

Because I was determined to turn them on to the wonders of words, I devoted half our school day -- three hours -- to reading and writing. I gave over another hour to mathematics and then in the remaining hour and a half crammed in the rest of the required curriculum. On a given day this might be a study of ancient Rome, the solar system, cursive penmanship, physical education, fire prevention, bicycle safety, music or the proper brushing of teeth. We learned some sign language to welcome a deaf child into our classroom, and we also worked hard at mainstreaming Charles from his special education class for the emotionally disturbed. We got a 27-minute break for lunch, and by the end of the day we were ex-hausted. Funny thing, none of us felt like "idlers."

Recently, I spent a year looking at classrooms that were part of an Exxon Education Foundation effort to improve kindergarten-to-third-grade mathematics education. I criss-crossed the country from Orlando to Albuquerque to Tucson to Milwaukee, and I didn't spot an idler in the bunch. I listened to 20-year veteran teachers talk about the transformation of their professional lives. I watched kindergarteners creating graphs, second-graders studying probability, third-graders making tessellations and explaining Fibonacci patterns.

How did this happen? Not because of the pronouncements of any blue-ribbon commission, for sure. Ostensibly it happened because the teachers received some foundation money. But on the way home from the bank something else happened. On the way home from the bank the donor changed almost as much as the recipients.

The Exxon Education Foundation got the project off the ground in a typical bureaucratic fashion: It sent out announcements to chief mathematics officers in every state. Figuring that classroom teachers could never be trusted to teach something as important and difficult as mathematics, Exxon put out a call for math specialists. This is the corporate notion of how to run things, the top-down model of school reform.

Two things happened to change their premise. First, some teachers and school middle managers got hold of Exxon's announcement, and they began to plan for a quiet revolution in the way teachers used their foundation money to take courses in higher mathematics, to observe other classrooms, to teach fledgling teachers at the university.

Second, as testimonial letters poured in to the foundation from excited teachers, parents and children, people at the foundation were both baffled and intrigued; they'd never encountered anything like the enthusiasm and energy -- and persuasive powers -- of people in classrooms.

Foundation functionaries started visiting the schools. Suddenly, corporate types were bearing witness to what a determined and inventive teacher can do with a small amount of money in settings that ranged from rural Kentucky to suburban Chicago, to Baton Rouge, to Belgrade, Montana. Foundation officials began to recognize that the hope of mathematics reform lies with the teachers. They recognized that if significant change is to occur in schools, teachers will be the change agents.

One of the single most potent things a foundation grant does for these teacher change agents is to send them to national meetings of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Anyone who doubts the importance of such professional activity should talk to a 15-year veteran teacher after her first convention. She feels renewed, challenged and, probably for the first time, part of a larger professional vision.

For 10 years we've been listening to blue-ribbon commission reports like "A Nation at Risk" call us idlers and worse. But when an education foundation keeps insisting that teachers are valued professionals, teachers start believing it. It's a good feeling. And in the long run, surely it will do far more good than calling us mediocrities and idlers.

Susan Ohanian is a 23-year classroom teacher. Her latest book is Garbage Pizza, Patchwork Quilts and Math Magic: Stories about Teachers Who Love to Teach and Children Who Love to Learn" (Freeman 1992).

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