When the educational historians write the story of the first months of 2010, they will record that it was the time when President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan did great harm to America’s neediest students, the young people concentrated in schools that serve poor and working class communities. If we are to finally fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education for a quality education for all, surely we must support and encourage accomplished educators who take on the exceptional challenges of teaching in such schools. Yet in these last few weeks, President Obama and the Secretary Duncan have sent an unmistakable message that one works in such a school only at serious risk to one’s professional life and career. What other conclusion can a teacher draw from President Obama’s open support of the mass firings in Central Falls and his administration’s advocacy of mass school closings in its plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law? Our careers as educators can be brought to an abrupt end, without regard for our actual classroom performance, simply because we work in a school facing the great educational challenges that come with the deprivation of poverty.
How bitter now is the memory of Obama’s promise, not yet two years old, that instead of blaming and stigmatizing teachers, government would be our partner, providing the supports and the resources necessary to take on the historic tasks of educating all American students. In place of that promise is the full embrace of the corporate agenda for education, following the well-known formula of GE’s ‘Neutron’ Jack Welch: establish a punitive regime of fear by firing 10% of your workforce every year. No wonder that the Business Roundtable cannot contain their glee.
As the German philosopher Hegel once mused, Minerva’s owl flies only at dusk: we do not know the full extent of the damage done by an administration that was once the source of so much hope. But no matter what happens next, an all too real price will be paid by America’s neediest students in years to come. If the price of working with America’s neediest students is a game of Russian roulette with one’s professional career, many teachers will reasonably decide that the price is too high. And the losers will be the schools and the students who need accomplished teachers the most.