The War on Teachers: Mr. Gradgrind's Rhee-education for teachers

As we suspected, the Thomas Gradgrinds of the world are busy proliferating in school administrations across the nation because of school “Rhee-form” measures that push teachers to focus on facts only, and only those facts immediately relevant to the subject matter they’re teaching.  A friend of a friend who teaches High School American and World History in a wealthy school district writes about a recent evaluation by her principal:

Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”  This quote was put on my white board for the daily “Do Now” which is a warm up  activity for students while I take roll.  I read it to the kids and provide a bit of background for context.  Besides quotes, I sometimes put up SAT vocab words. 

We have a new principal who came in for an informal eval the day I had this quote on the board. When we met to discuss my eval,  he told me it was inappropriate as I am not teaching philosophy….”everything I do in class must be connected to the US History content standards for testing purposes.”    When I, rather perplexed, explained that I use quotes to inspire my students–from philosophers, world leaders, authors, scientists, proverbs–and that for example, when we our studying WWII, Churchill–that historical actors provide us with a wealth of wisdom which is one of the benefits of knowing history–he told me that I am not teaching philosophy, and that “good teachers” find a way to inspire while teaching their subject content.  

[ed. note:  Does anyone else detect a mockery or slighting of philosophy in that comment?  Where outside of tony prep schools do high school students have the opportunity to take a philosophy class these days?  I look back with admiration on the woman who taught a philosophy elective course I enrolled in as a Senior in high school, late in the last century.  But because prepackaged, electronically-graded tests don’t cover philosophy, I guess teachers who might want to do something creative and thoughtful for their curriculum are out of luck.] 

I was dumbfounded at such an ahistorical anti-intellectualism.  He continued to pontificate that we are here to raise our test scores and that is to be my only focus.  When I then told him that we are focusing on raising our test scores, two other teachers and myself volunteered during our lunch to tutor our far below basic students.  He dismissed our efforts as a waste of time because we were not reaching enough numbers. 

While this episode is extreme, the fixation on test scores is pervasive throughout our district.  This principal was hired to raise test scores as I have heard, that is what he did at his other high school.  I am no longer angry.  I just want out. 

This teacher now has an official reprimand in her employment file because she wrote a quotation by a German writer on the board in an American history class.  What a classic CYA move–how very manly, Mr. Gradgrind!

We are turning over our children to the Thomas Gradgrinds of the world, and Gradgrinds have no use for dreams, boldness, magic, or the power of words and ideas to inspire us.  “Now, what I want is facts,” he says.  Welcome to Coketown, friends.  If you college instructors are wondering why your students seem so afraid of ideas and fearful of writing anything longer than a formulaic 5-paragrah essay, don’t look any futher than the Gradgrinds of the nation who are hired not to oversee the education of students, but rather to raise standardized test scores.

0 thoughts on “The War on Teachers: Mr. Gradgrind's Rhee-education for teachers

  1. *head desk*
    FWIW, (and I’m considered a good teacher) I am always making connections outside the subject when I teach — partly to show that there really ARE connections.

    It’s just so wrong. I wish I could say something smart about it, but I can’t!


  2. I know, Susan. My guess is that the higher ed folks who read this blog will be flabbergasted by the crudeness of the management’s anti-intellectualism. For gosh sakes–the woman ALSO teaches WORLD history, of which Germany is a part.

    The principal here reminds me of a surly toddler who refuses to eat his dinner because one serving of one dish might touch another because PEAS MUST NOT TOUCH THE MACARONI!!! American history students must not think that any non-American people have anything inspiring, useful, or interesting to say.


  3. What a jerk-bunny! This is what contributes to the fact (as it were) that when they get to college you have to stand on your head to convey to students the proposition that separate “disciplines” exist only in the cultural space of the life of the mind, and that reality happens, as it has always happened, tangled up in the goo of life. Actually, I think this guy is not modeled on Tom Gradgrind (who I always had somewhat of a perverse, contrarian regard for) as much as on Principal Poop of More Science High School in the sketch “High School Madness” on the Firesign Theatre’s iconic album _Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers_. As in “Pep pills, Pep pills, Pep pills… (et. seq).”

    By the way, exhortational signs and slogans like the one that so provoked the Pooper are a big part of what is making charter schools run their public counterparts off the block in a lot of communities. Maybe the guy didn’t get that particular memo?


  4. This principal is doing what the society at large wants and does. We bring in CEO who ignore the good of the company for the immediate gratification of share holders. (That’s numbers over future.) We assume that everything under the sun has a quantitative measure that can be easily and immediately computed. Teacher evaluation, lowering the deficit (while not calculating the unemployment misery), popularity of politician (most people cannot stand), etc.

    It is way easier to count beans than to grow them; unhappy with education? Make it into a pinto bean business and try to sell as many as you can.


  5. That’s hilarious. It won’t be long before No child left behind clears out the remaining good teachers in English and History.

    This gradgrind approach to ‘the facts’ is not unheard of in high ed. Right now the dean of the college of liberal arts here at Woebegone State University is an economist. He is wondering why our history classes aren’t bigger, and pretty much assumes that the only way you can deliver history content is through lecture. How else would you cover the material? (I saw dean dad write the same thing on his blog. An ex English lit guy, you’d think he’d know better. I stopped bothering to read his blog.)

    We’ll its history… don’t you just lecture… you know… teach those young’uns about the facts?

    And a big booyah to Indyanna for the Firesign Theater reference! – You know where I learned about Firesign Theater? …from my high school English teacher, who thought we should learn about satire and parody. Thanks Mr. Isaacs, you made my life 100% better by sharing that with me.


  6. Matt, I simply can’t take seriously your arguments here because you’ve spent exactly zero years in community college administration, and your views perfectly encapsulate the myopia of the tenured faculty that infect higher education. Everyone who’s anyone knows that you can’t possibly have anything useful or interesting to say about higher education if you haven’t yourself served as an anonymous CC dean because if you had, you’d understand that this perspective is the only really valuable one. You’d also know instinctively that tenure is the root of all evil, and that administrators are the only people who earn their money in higher ed.

    Wordly and wise readers, please tell Matt exactly why he as a tenured History professor has no right to express an opinion unless and until he’s worked at South Central State Technical College as a dean.


  7. @Matt L.: the big fights where I am are about who gets are very scarce resources. My colleagues in Econ and Psych want all FTE allocations based on enrollments. I’ve been told that history shouldn’t get any more lines until all our upper division classes are at 80. (Why 80? I don’t know.) If you don’t use scantron exams, you are not getting enough students. Of course, you may not actually be teaching them, either…

    Grrr. In my place, it’s n ot dean vs. faculty, it’s faculty vs. faculty — the dean is always saying “I have to see the whole picture”.


  8. reasonably and thoughtfully stated “Dean Historiann.” I will go perform my foucauldian/maoist self criticism at the next faculty senate meeting.

    RE: Tenure – I can’t wait until dead dad gets his wish. Then he’ll have to pay more to get the same quality teachers. I think people (state legislators, administrators, etc) forget that tenure is ultimately a bargain. People with tenure are trading a greater measure of job security for a smaller salary. My bet is that a decade after a cc system or (god forbid) state university system goes to fixed contracts, five year renewable, or whatever, they will see substantial increases in labor costs.

    Think about it, if you can develop a good teaching repertoire that plays narrowly to your research expertise, you should be able to churn out some respectable publications over the course of five years and use those to either bargain for a higher wage or jump ship to another school for a higher salary. The system would reward teaching and publication at the expense of service and student mentoring. But there would be great productivity in teaching and scholarship.

    (I think somebody studied this in relation to administrators in the new Jersey public schools. As soon as they got rid of tenure for principles, vice-principles superintendents, etc, their salaries went through the roof and nobody stayed in the same place for more than three years.)

    The best part is that DD won’t be able to get rid of the goldbricks and deadwood that he so often complains about. The less ambitious will just hold on and renew their contracts every five years. The administration will be loath to let them go, because it pays to have a few faculty members around who know how budgeting, scheduling and the rest of the bureaucracy works.

    Whohoo… brave new world…


  9. Of course, this kind of shitte goes on solely in the public schools, and thus only fuckes uppe the education of the non-wealthy. The children of the wealthy will continue to receive excellent educations in private schools. And thus the socioeconomic chasm between the wealthy and everyone else in the United States continues to grow.

    You’d have to be paranoid to thinke that the goal is for public education to *not* enable creativity or critical thinking, right?


  10. before my current incarnation as a grad student, I was a public high school Latin teacher. I left because I couldn’t get the resources I needed (they didn’t want to pay me for more than half-time, so they tried to assign me a Latin 1 course with 100 students in it, they were going to put us in the auditorium) and my classes were constantly interrupted by “more important” (ie, test related) activities. Latin is hard, and you can’t learn it if you’re constantly being pulled out of class to review algebra or how to write a five paragraph essay.

    Despite all the crap, I had some wonderful, committed students who really loved the language, and I felt bad I couldn’t give them the education they wanted.

    I suppose the day is coming when high school will be taught by computers, and teachers will just be roving security guards, making sure the kids stay in their seats and do what the X-1000 tells them.


  11. @CPP I WISH it only went on at the public schools. Private schools are not by any means immune. At least not in this town…

    @Susan– we in the heavily subscribed social sciences would also love small classes…you don’t need to be a humanities class for kids to learn better that way. Sadly that’s not the reality. Excellence without money.

    @Historiann,your response to Matt L. is brilliant. And yes! Tenure keeps salaries low!


  12. The majority of Americans were something else once — including Germans. (I guess the value of their quotes increases once they cross the border.)

    When I worked with a science teacher for a year, helping teach 6th grade science in a poor urban school struggling with low test scores, I felt very lucky to be in a classroom where the teacher wanted the students to LEARN SOMETHING, even if it was outside the science standards. Given how badly written those standards were, and the questionable value of the content (really, who besides meteorologists needs to know about anemometers?), it was often a struggle to turn them into an engaging, exciting lesson plan.

    Realistically, the most valuable science class we could have given those kids would be entirely inquiry-based curriculum, which would also teach them basic skills like “how to use a ruler.” (Seriously, it’s tragically impossible to do an experiment graphing velocity versus distance if the students don’t know how to use a ruler. Or stopwatch.) The average test score was low for SO many reasons other than “teacher did not stick to the standards!”


  13. Oh, man. *head desk* indeed! There was an old joke in the Soviet Union that went “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

    That’s where this whole braindead testing charade is headed. We pretend to teach, and they pretend to learn.

    Just one example. (And I’ll say up front that I don’t currently teach and I live in greater Los Angeles, so even digging around for the real me won’t lead anyone to the school where this happened.) A teacher I know hands out study guides before tests. Standard practice. But these study guides were the same as the test…. His/her students got consistently high scores. (The mindboggling part is that they did *not* all get 100%!)

    What’s the world going to look like when all this test-based ignorance gets out into it and tries to work?


  14. “We pretend to teach, and they pretend to learn.

    Indeed. It’s all at least as cynical as the Soviet Union. And the sad fact is that this is all about people’s property values and the careerism of the administrators who pretend to “save” public education by destroying actual education in the name of better test scores.

    Michelle Rhee and her ilk love to cry and cry that “it’s all about the children,” and they portray teachers as the enemies to children’s success in school. But it sure seems to me that their schemes are even more about serving adult agendas rather than our youngest citizens.


  15. @quixote — a variation happens in South Carolina, too. There’s the annual standardized test (new every year) and a quarterly standardized test (which has been the same for a few years). You can tell which teachers “help” the kids study by showing them the test: their students get high quarterly test scores but average end-of-year scores.

    What my teacher friend and I found most disturbing was that when we found out about this “strategy,” her vice-principal asked why she wasn’t already doing it herself.

    And yet we’re simultaneously surprised when students copy material from the internet and don’t understand why we’re upset.


  16. Psst, your quotation URL is kind of broken, having been washed through an email server. You want this URL instead:

    Beyond this, I am sadly not surprised. This principal strikes me as the kind of person who wants to come into a classroom to see teachers handing out review sheets for tests, reading notes aloud for students to copy that goes over exactly what “facts” make up the text and, if the teacher can be expected to get away with it, giving the students the answers FOR the tests.

    Why bother actually teaching the students how to do history or think analytically? Nobody’s paying him for THAT!


  17. Administrators don’t have to be Gradgrinds to require more from departments with fewer resources. They want excellent, innovative, student-focused teaching, focusing on skills rather than coverage, *and* larger enrollments. At least people who say “Just lecture, and teach more students” recognize a relationship between cause and effect.


  18. Nice work! You and your friend should write this up and send it to History News Network.I’ll only add that this kind of craziness begins way before high school. My nephew started getting test prep worksheets in kindergarten (I kid you not).


  19. Thus we see again why I teach in an independent school rather than jump ship for the better pay and shorter hours of (some) public school jobs. That and having to take bogus ed. classes to get certified, despite teaching 10 years in high school history (plus college teachig before that).

    One of my students left at the end of the summer looking for a bigger school experience and a different friend network. She came back in January. She told me, “Every test was Scantron. In English class, I hadn’t written a sentence yet, much less an essay, and it’s January!” And this was ritzy suburban district with an excellent rep!

    Stories like the above make me want to cry, but ultimately explain why I have a job and my school’s enrollment is near all time highs, despite dwindling kid demographics. Part of me realizes that the above keeps food on my plate. And part of me wants to grab a picket sign and start bashing educratic skulls.


  20. This practice of parachute-in classroom managerial interventionalism–complete with ticket book and mandamus–will be coming to a university classroom near you in the forseeable future. Only the officer’s name will not be “principal” but something more along the lines of “Associate Dean for Instructional Delivery Services.” The rhetorical and doctrinal foundations for this practice have long been a-laying. The “Executive Summary” of the 2002 manifesto by the new liberal studies pedagogery, “Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College,” was sprinkled with petulant strictures about courses that are currently “individually owned” by departments and faculty.

    That document’s de-mented carving of the educated imagination into the domains of “intentional learners,” “empowered learners” “informed learners” (you can’t make this stuff up) and “responsible learners” became the brainless template for our impending new general ed. curriculum. Brainless in the sense that they flew a bunch of faculty vo-tech-ers from our academic outports down to some think tank to sit in the hot tubs, munch the donuts, doze over the powerpoints, and bring back sixteen yards of this stuff as a frame on which to build the curriculum and ram it through the addled-parliament governance structure for us pliant humanist content deliverers to implement and, well, deliver.

    So, if you’re minded to slap something by Immanuel Kant about “Dare to Think” up on your whiteboard without having to write up an intentionalized outcomes impact statement, time’s a wasting. Get it done.


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  22. @ Jonathan & H’ann, on homeschooling – Yeah. Well, for some homeschooling is the only non-public school option. If you live in a rural enough area, there might literally be no other game in town (even if you’re in a university town). I’m not saying it’s a practical solution, or a good one, just that the increasing numbers of people homeschooling/unschooling is tied to the descent of our educational system (it’s not just for fundies anymore!). And naturally, it’s *women* who are pressured – internally or externally – to stay home and homeschool. We’ve actually been told that it would be better for our children if we did the same. I mean, it was said indirectly, but still said, and the clear implication was that I would be the one giving up the job. So the destruction of the public school system will work for fiscal AND social conservatives – win! win!.


  23. Perpetua–your response is the non-snarky, well-reasoned reply I intended, but for some reason I went with the snark.

    I still think training teachers well, paying them living wages, and letting them do their jobs without undue interference is the best way to go for everyone’s children. But that, of course, doesn’t solve the problems that many parents face now, today, with a growing child who can’t wait for my utopian society to arrange itself.

    I still think homeschooling is a crappy deal for everyone. Which families can afford to sacrifice the labor of one adult? Oh, yeah–the ones who can probably also afford the time and money it might take to find a suitable public or private school option! (And yes–I’ve NEVER in my life met or even heard of a full-time homeschooling father.)


  24. Thanks for this post. One of the many “elephants in the room” (the other is that Rhee and her ilk are corporate-backed) in the War On Teachers is that the panacea of “evaluation” is merely a way of subjecting teachers even more to the bizarre off-center education-irrelevant egomaniacal bullying of administrators.


  25. I keep moving back our post on homeschooling because we can sort of only handle so much controversy in a week, but I think I’ll leave it for April 22nd… we’re exactly talking about this issue of moms sacrificing their careers and occasionally sanity for the sake of their kids. Maybe it won’t be so controversial after all.


  26. Homeschooling is not particularly practical for young children who do actually need supervision and a structured “school day,” but I think it’s more worth taking seriously for high-school students who can learn on their own. It’s a reasonably popular solution for kids who were bullied or otherwise had a hard time in the environment of a huge public high school, for example. (Many large districts now have homeschooling centers where students can check in a few times a week to meet with a tutor and be assigned work to complete on their own time.) And while I did all four years of high school in my local tests-and-standards-obsessed public behemoth (in which I was threatened with disciplinary action for exercising my legal right to opt out of the state standardized tests!), most of what I learned that prepared me for elite east-coast college was self-taught–homeschooling of a different kind.


  27. A very good friend of mine has two kids, and her husband lost his full-time job a few years ago due to health problems. He was able to get part-time 3rd shift work after a mostly full recovery; he used his free daytimes to tutor their two kids.

    This wasn’t a full “home-school” program; they went to regular public school until around 2:30 and then spent a couple hours doing extra work (in addition to whatever minimal homework assignments from school-school) but he had lesson plans, workbooks, additional enrichment activities, etc. (He also frequently volunteered at the school itself during the day, tutoring other kids etc.) At root, they are dissatisfied with their school district’s ability to get educational fundamentals in place.

    Now that he has a full-time day job again, he’s cut back somewhat; he often says if they could afford to live on just one salary, he’d home-school them full time. But it’s just not feasible for them, and probably won’t be ever. He’s the only father I’ve ever met that came close to being a home-school teacher.


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  30. “I still think homeschooling is a crappy deal for everyone. Which families can afford to sacrifice the labor of one adult? Oh, yeah–the ones who can probably also afford the time and money it might take to find a suitable public or private school option! (And yes–I’ve NEVER in my life met or even heard of a full-time homeschooling father.)”
    Well, my father was a full-time homeschooling father. What kind of family were we? The kind that had no choice but to sacrifice the labor of one adult- due to a bout of serious medical problems. But we were also the kind who had no affordable suitable private school option (despite a plethora of superb independent schools in a nearby major city… that were simply financially impossible at our near-national-median family income).

    Of course, our homeschooling group *also* had a homeschooling father who was an O-chem professor (at a teaching oriented university), so I’m not so sure it’s as impossible as it might seem, even for people that didn’t already have a house-husband.

    The time-obligation is intensive, but less so than many people who are unfamilar with unschooling imagine.

    Now, even though many generalizations about homeschoolers drive me batty, one thing you *can* say about homeschooling is that it’d be a terrible solution to national educational problems- it doesn’t scale, and the people who most need things to change are also not going to be able to do homeschooling.


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