Published in California English Quaterly, Spring 2005
My Governator Let Me Down
By Mark Storer
Contrary to what seems to be de rigueur these days around the water cooler, there are some very fine teachers in public schools today. I know and work with many who are indeed great, but bureaucracy and red-tape hamstring them. They are saddled with poor facilities, bad administrative decisions, more demands on their time as class sizes grow and an over-abiding, even obsessive desire to prepare students for standardized tests. Combined with apathetic students and parents who want to coddle their children and make sure they get “A’s” rather than teach them to be intellectually curious, it is no wonder that so many teachers leave the profession before they reach the five year mark.
The recent Rand study showed a state educational system in disarray and in need of serious, urgent and real reform. Unfortunately, Governor Schwarzenegger’s state of the state speech, rather than confront and address the problem, gave into decades old ideas that have addled and worn out.
The first question to ask whenever someone suggests merit pay is, “who decides where the merit is?” I say this as a conservative, someone who voted for Governor Schwarzenegger and who has, in the past, supported some semblance of the voucher system. But the fundamental fact is that public schools, unlike corporations or businesses, are dealing with everyone’s children, not just those who want to be there—and this includes those who value education in the home and those who don’t.
At the top of the governor’s agenda is what he and so many others call “accountability.” The governor’s vision of accountability seems to be rooted in making certain that teachers can teach. This is a valid enough idea, but it stops short of its mark and once again the bane of politics seeps through real educational reform and ruins it. All of the research across the board indicates that the number one precursor to success in the classroom for any child is in the home. If education is validated and valued at home, then a student will be motivated to learn. If education is not valued, not really discussed or if homework is largely ignored and reading and writing are not attended to in the home, then a child’s chances of success go markedly down.
One of the reasons I voted for Governor Schwarzenegger is that he seemed to be cut from a different cloth. Constantly having to fend off charges that he wasn’t intelligent enough for the job, he has proven quite the opposite—and he has at times been very original in his offering of solutions to California’s many problems. But I am distressed that he has reached into the oldest bag of clichés for his answer to education. Accountability? For whom? Is it all of a sudden a given that the reason California is fairing so poorly in educating its children is because of the teachers? Have we teachers all suddenly gone daft somehow? Are we in need of stringent measures to make sure we’re not handing out dittos and collecting them at the end of the period?
I expected more from the governor. I expected a brave politician. Oh, for such a one to stand up and say, “it’s fine to hold teachers accountable, as anyone in any career should be accountable for what they do or don’t do. But where the accountability is most needed is in the home. We cannot begin to educate better students if we cannot provide better role models for education in our homes. There need be no state or federally mandated funding for this, nor does there need to be any new attachment of welfare reform, Medicare reform or any other reform. No, the one and only reform that will truly benefit our schools will be to reform ourselves, to make us better consumers of education for our children and, while holding teachers accountable for their tasks, hold our children accountable for theirs.” But I guess I understand. A speech like that wouldn’t win too many elections. We want to be told there is someone to blame and if we simply hold them accountable, things will get better.
If the governor really wants to make a difference in education reform in California, and he should indeed want that, then he could start with two simple things: First, he could begin to listen to the teachers and the parents. He should stop listening to the consultants and the bureaucrats. An army of administrators and bureaucrats with their testing schedules and clipboards won’t be able to fix education without committed parents at home and dedicated educators in the classroom. It isn’t about a multiple-choice test; it’s about people learning. Second, he must begin to wage a battle for the hearts and minds of the young people of this generation and those young people’s parents, telling them in essence that the time has come for accountability, in their teachers and administrators, yes; but more importantly in themselves.
Our state has been at so many crossroads it is hard to keep count. But here we are again. We still have the ability to fix what is wrong, of course. That will never happen, however, until some of the famous bravado and hard charging mass appeal for which the Governator is known, is directed at all of education’s stakeholders, not just the teachers.