The US Way of Miseducation

Photograph Source: Caitlin Regan – CC BY 2.0

“He [sic] who can does, he who cannot teaches” (George Bernard Shaw). Bob Dylan wrote, “The mongrel dogs who teach” in “My Back Pages.” The difficulty of determining whether, in Shaw’s case, the former was his belief, or that of one of his characters, is impossible to discern.

Teaching at every level of education from first grade to the college level, I can impart a snapshot of teaching as a profession. My observations stand against those who want to do away with public schools in the US because of their hatred of everything public and of unions.

My teaching experience of 40 years in classrooms took place primarily in Rhode Island schools. Rhode Island is the place I am familiar with vis-a-vis education. Other states are similar in their educational outcomes among students. Educational outcomes often are a direct reflection of socio-economic status. The Commerce Department secretary, Gina Raimondo, then general treasurer of Rhode Island in 2011, engineered a debacle by eliminating the cost-of-living guarantee for retirees and current public employees resulting in devastating consequences during this epoch of high inflation. Raimondo, a product of Wall Street, stiffed Main Street with the help of all of the branches of Rhode Island state government. Some teacher and public employee unions got behind this theft of money to which retirees had a legal right, often claiming that in Rhode Island we could not get “blood from a stone,” in the words of one teacher union official referencing the finances of the state. In court, the president of one of Rhode Island’s public teacher unions told me the union had run out of money with which to fight this landmark pension case, which other states would soon emulate. He was correct since one of the nation’s two public teachers’ unions has been busy since 2014 promoting the cause of Ukraine, first defending the loss of democratic rule there in 2014, then promoting war in 2022. Recall it was Albert Shanker, the head of the New York City teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, who fought to wrest local control from schools in the city in 1968. Tragically, the whiff of racism hovered over the clash of local control during Shanker’s tenure as union president.

Years later, when the American Federation of Teachers supported the US war against the government of Nicaragua, the Contra War, I left the AFT for one year. I  joined the rival National Education Association, a move that brought vicious criticism from the district president of the AFT where I taught.

I have had excellent teachers, but most teachers and professors I encountered in the classroom were not outstanding teachers. From an American history professor during my sophomore year in college, to two different Spanish language professors during both my freshman and sophomore years, who were not competent to teach their subjects, or were absent from class so often that competency was not an issue, my experiences with teachers were mixed. The public schools I attended in Rhode Island were substandard, but many of my fellow students achieved success in ways the US defines as success.

Unfortunately, from a societal viewpoint in an authoritarian nation, I paid attention in civics class about the lessons of democracy. Without education, authoritarianism finds fertile ground. The ability to analyze and question material critically is the most important learning strategy.

A drama professor during my senior year in college was excellent. Much of his teaching ability was enhanced because he was an actor who often acted out parts of plays in class. My freshman English composition and literature teacher impressed me by his stature in the classroom. I studied sociology with a professor who knew the subject. He had recently completed his doctorate at Brown University.

Following graduation, I went to work in public schools and during 30 years of working many jobs in that environment, I met many excellent teachers and many teachers who had no place in a classroom. There were teachers who reflected Shaw’s observation. There were those who could not conduct a simple lesson preparing kids to read a selection, either fiction or nonfiction, and lead a discussion about the material. Extending the lesson using the material to go beyond the printed or online page was not possible for them. They were not suited, either by temperament or ability, to be in a classroom.

Rhode Island has a significant teacher education problem. The majority of teachers graduate from one of two public colleges, a former normal school, and the education there was not good. My undergraduate years were not as complete as I would have liked them to be, but I knew how to fill in the missing information. Filling in the missing information is what life, in some ways, is all about. Curiosity needs to be at play and it is often absent.  The public college where I earned a graduate degree, the major teacher education school in the state, was substandard.

There were no Regents Examinations in Rhode Island as there are in New York and teachers need to be tested on what they know before entering college and then a classroom for the first time. The simple requirement to speak competently that can be learned from a public speaking course never existed. Leaving a college or university and entering a classroom without a public speaking course is a potential disaster. New York State required a public speaking course as a degree requirement at the bachelor’s level. A liberal arts education, or a science education with liberal arts requirements is at the core of good teacher preparation.

In one community in which I spent 11 years, the educational system was in shambles, the result of decades of nepotism and a general disdain for children among some teachers, a fact that is difficult to believe without having witnessed that debacle. The high school in that district lost its accreditation, a haunting testament to the incompetence of many, but not all, of those who taught there.

A major setback for schooling in the US was the long overdue recognition of women’s right to study other areas, such as law and medicine. The 1960s opened up career opportunities for many women, which had only existed for small numbers of people in the past. Competent teachers and prospective teachers were lured away from teaching by new opportunities. The low pay and demands of the classroom made many others leave teaching. Men always had wide career opportunities unless either Black or Brown. Schools in poor metropolitan and rural areas always reflected the relationship between poverty and educational achievement.

Brown v. Board of Education met such fierce and often violent resistance and white flight that its promise of educational opportunity was a chimera. The school to prison pipeline became a reality as the 1960s ended.
I witnessed the draconian system of discipline in some New York City public schools that seemed attuned to the school to prison pipeline. The educator and writer Jonathan Kozol documented that failed educational philosophy across this nation in Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (1991).

Despite warnings from a former Reagan administration official, Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2016), about the growth of publicly funded, but private charter schools, those schools proliferated despite no evidence of superior academic results and immense theft of public funds going to private interests.

Many in poor metropolitan schools turned to charter schools as public schools failed.

Daniel Liston’s Capitalist Schools: Explanations and Ethics in Radical Studies of Schooling (1991), held that schools teach students to be good consumers.  Schools  are also closely aligned with the socio-economic status of the communities they serve. Americanism and American Exceptionalism are universally taught in schools and are no surprise to those emerging consumers who know how to consume and remain silent.

When a public school principal mentioned that she had wanted me to lead the school in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance during Flag Day ceremonies, I said I did not recite the Pledge. My comment led to a spate of harassing behaviors toward me, a labor grievance, and my eventual departure from the school district. I have not recited the Pledge since the mass murder that was US policy during the Vietnam War and the larger war in Southeast Asia. During the labor grievance, every teacher and some support staff signed a greeting card supporting the principal. Earlier in my tenure at the school, that principal had asked that I observe a teacher who she disliked and alleged was incompetent. I observed a lesson in that teacher’s room and wrote a positive report about her classroom performance. During the grievance hearing on the Pledge issue, the local union president accused me of having the teacher, who I had observed, transferred out of the school. As a person who had written a positive report about the teacher, I would have had no power to have a teacher transferred, an action labeled the “turkey trot” among school staff, a way to get rid of teachers administrators didn’t like.

The ghost of McCarthyism can be seen in public schools. When I asked a lawyer if I could risk arrest at a protest at a nuclear production facility during the Nuclear Freeze Movement in the early 1980s, he said that my track record of speaking out would be used to possibly get rid of me in the school district.

Public schools have come under attack since the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983), the product of the Reagan administration. Since then, schools have continuously been the target of authoritarian and regressive policies at the federal and state level. Neoliberalism is as much to blame as is right-wing reaction to public schooling. That teachers and teacher unions have largely not been primed or able to counter these attacks against public schooling is obvious.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).