Sunday, January 01, 2006

Lesson for the New Year . . .

Never piss off public school teachers by shoving ridiculous standards down their throats, and threatening to take away their pensions

Mom and I went to a buffet lunch two days ago at a local vineyard and found a seat with a nice couple who are both near retirement teachers in Modesto. The place was packed so we had to resort to our German heritage and just invite ourselves to sit wherever we found an available seat. Thank goodness we chose them.

They mentioned early on that they were teachers on break between semesters. My mom, who is much braver about broaching hot button political issues with strangers than I am now, asks them what they thought of the recent successes of the teacher's union in CA against the Governator. The woman across from her then became absolutely animated and fired up. Her husband, cautious like me, says: "you have to be so careful talking about these topics now." I agreed, but knowing that we were with like-minded and spirited folks, we continued to have a really fascinating conversation.

It turns out that my mom, and both of these teachers, had attended the same rally at the Capitol in the summer. The teachers had both walked precinct to precinct to turn out voters to defeat Schwarzenegger's iniative. And, before you think that all three of these people are life-long CA liberal loonies, let me set the record straight. All three of them had voted for Ahnold. Yes, that's right.

Before my mom left her job for the state and moved to a full-time union activist (which started last year), she was a life-long republican. She hated the wasteful spending and nonsense of big state government, highly regulated by the Feds rather than the people closer to and more aware of the local needs. My mom, btw, still thinks this is a problem. So do the teachers. This is why all of them voted for the Governator. He promised to reform the public sector, and all three of these public sector workers thought this was for the good of the state.

It never dawned on any of them that he would then launch an aggressive attack against all these workers. Rather than take Big Business out of Government, and implement responsible government, Schwarzenegger went after all the workers and tax payers in CA: the nurses, the teachers, the cops and the firemen. Not good. Threatening to take middle class peoples hard earned pensions away from them and to enforce stupid regulations on them that don't work: dumb.

I was really eager to hear what this couple thought about the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy since they teach in a really impoverished, gang-ridden county in the Central Valley. The minute I asked them about NCLB they both rolled their eyes, moved in a little closer to say: "we are both counting the days until retirement." NCLB had absolutely taken anything good out of their teaching they were doing before.

The example that best illustrated this to me was from the husband, who taught high school history. First he explained that there at least 5 gangs operating in his school district. The most vicious gang was made up of Vietnamese kids. These were second generation Hmong, who had been placed in Modesto after the war to thank them for helping Americans. Once they were placed in their housing and put into the schools, the government basically washed their hands of them. The Hmong didn't even know how to flush toilets or use ovens. Now, you put them into a community, ask the community to pay for them, and offer no intelligently designed (no pun intended) resources to help them find jobs, keep jobs, and function in a new society.

You also have a lot of Latinos and other Asians who commute from Modesto every day, before dawn, into SF to work two or three jobs. When they finally get home from this miserable commute, the last thing they have left, sadly, is energy for their children. All of these families are working alot, and struggling alot. The kids are basically left alone to fend for themselves when they are not in school. School is one of the few places where they get any food, attention, or structure. Teachers in that environment need to strike a balance between being tough and being sensitive to the lives of these kids at home. Many, many of these kids are undiagnosed schizophrenics, autistics, bi-polar and ADD. Both of these teachers have memorized the DSM.

So, what has NCLB done to fix this incredibly messed up situation? The regulations have taken away any sort of decision-making that teachers can do, and replaced it with check-lists and grade quotas. If a teacher has a class full of students getting Ds and Fs, the principal calls in the teacher. And guess what, the students absolutely know this. They have learned pretty quickly how to game the system. They know that it is in the teacher's interest to see they get passing grades and so they try to manipulate teachers to let them get away with absolutely no work.

What this man had been doing really well before NCLB was teaching these students accountability by giving them exactly what they deserved, telling them exactly what he thought of their total failure to participate in their own education, and pushing them to excel. NCLB leaves no time for that. Instead, he is called to the carpet if he deviates from any other role than preparing these students--who have very little support at home, who are navigating dangerous streets, whose mothers or father might be drug addicts or whose family is so poor and working so many hours that no one is there to take care of them--to pass an arbitrary standardized test that some bureaucrats decided was a good standard of education.

Then along comes the Governator spending tons of cash on TV ads claiming that these teachers are a special interest who are feeding off the teat of big government. Nevermind the behind-the-scenes-deal-making with huge corporations fattening the pocket books of industries like Big Pharma. The real problem in CA, according to Schwarzenegger, is the working people who are paying up to $1000.00 a month to supplement their crappy health care coverage, whose wages have not gone up with inflation, whose schools are deteriorating, and now, whose pensions are threatening to be cut.

Talking to these folks reminded me of probably the most important thing to pay attention to in politics: follow the money. Don't trust any politician who says he is going to make government better and then does nothing but make it easier for the big corporations to generate lots of profits for their shareholders.