MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Teachers head to D.C. to say, ‘Enough trashing of public schools’

As a rule, schoolteachers aren’t a rowdy lot — even when they’re mad as H-E-double-hockey sticks. And so the caravan of educators making its way from the Twin Cities to Washington, D.C., this week has done so mostly under the radar.

A number of local teachers are headed to the capital to take part this week in Save Our Schools, a march and series of associated events where they will ask the nation’s politicians to pretty please take their feet off of public education’s neck before they succeed once and for all in choking it to death.

It’s about time. I visit a lot of schools in service to this blog but I never encounter a teacher who starts ranting and throwing pencils around the room about the tests they administer, the various plots to tie their pay and job security to said tests and about politicians’ practice of cheerfully balancing budgets by cramming more kids into their already overstuffed classrooms.

Mostly they just mutter something about wishing they could make a bigger difference for more of their kids and then disappear back behind the stacks of papers and homework from whence they were summoned.

St. Paul Central High School English language arts teacher Kaye Thompson Peters will not be marching on Saturday, which is bittersweet. Bitter because she has spent quite a lot of time spreading the word among her colleagues about SOS. Her activism even came to the attention of Education Week, where a story about the effort was graced with her photo.

Kaye Thompson Peters
Kaye Thompson Peters

But sweet because Thompson Peters’ daughter is making a rare visit from Switzerland and, well, isn’t it enough she’s helping connect others with the aforementioned caravan?

We’re grateful, then, that Thompson Peters took a few minutes out of her family reunion to talk to MinnPost about the rally and the movement she hopes it will inspire. What follows is a condensed version of that interview.

MinnPost: I’ve been curious that educators have not been quicker to be up in arms about the things that have been coming down the pike at them.

Kaye Thompson Peters: I think, frankly, we’re somewhat skeptical that anybody will listen to us. I’ve only been teaching 14 years. I became very active three to four years ago when I felt that it had gotten to a point where it was now impinging upon my ability to do my job in the classroom.

With the testing and with all of the stuff that has happened since No Child Left Behind occurred, they’ve increasingly tried to find ways to control how teachers teach, thinking that that’s the answer, to somehow systematize things. It has gotten to the point where they frankly are now figuring out how to interfere.

People can say things about you, but it’s when they begin to interfere with my ability to teach children and to engage children in learning — that’s when we really got angry. That’s a lot of what teachers are really aggravated about now. They feel that their ability to do their job has now been affected, where previously, they could still go in their classroom and do what they felt was the best thing to do with their students.

No one has challenged the system, and that’s what the real problem is: A system that doesn’t fully fund their schools, that has a new fad every few years. They’ve changed the state’s standards for what I’m supposed to teach three times in 14 years. So it’s like, why should I bother learning all this stuff and working hard when they’re going to change it anyway?

That is, I think, what some people mistake as just apathy. Instead, teachers have become very cynical about whether anybody is going to listen to them and whether they can change the system, because it’s a big, bureaucratic system. But people are getting angry enough now that I’ve seen a real growth in activism within the union in the last few years. Now this thing in Wisconsin has only fueled that. 

MP: So tell us what Save Our Schools is and how it was born.

KTP: Because I’m involved in a lot of education activism stuff, I received an e-mail from them … about the march and the movement. It’s a combination of parents, academicians and public school educators all with the common purpose of saying, “Enough trashing of public schools. Their resources have been stripped. There’s so much money going to consultants and to paying testing services that could be going into actually engaging in rewarding programs for our students.” 

Diane Ravitch [A No Child Left Behind architect turned critic whose book “The Life and Death of the Great American School System is a powerful indictment of high-stakes testing, among other things] is doing a teach-in that is [tied into] a fundraiser; they found a way to do this through a webcast. Then there are a number of teach-ins and movie screenings and stuff happening throughout D.C. this week. Then the march is on Saturday.

They’ve lined up special airfares, special hotel rates and coaches and shuttles and stuff to try to make it easier and less expensive for teachers and parents to get to D.C. So I’m really hoping that it’s a huge turnout.

MP: Do you expect it to have ripples here at home after everybody comes back?

KTP: I hope so. I hope that what it does is build momentum. Because the more we feel like people are with us, the more people will be energized to fight this fight. And we do have to fight it. This corporate approach to education that ignores that we’re supposed to be teaching all children.

[Consider] the whole organizational structure, like Race to the Top. Ravitch spoke at our convention last year. She said a race implies winners and losers. In public education, we shouldn’t be planning any system that allows for losers. 

That’s I think a critical piece. We’ve allowed this corporate mentality to intercede with what the mission is with public schools. In fact, we’ve jettisoned ourselves back to the 19th century factory model. We’re not training kids to go into factories and work anymore; that’s not part of the mission of public schools. 

We’re trying to foster critical thinkers who can be prepared, as our union’s narrative says, to take their place in a world that we can’t even envision. Because it’s the future, and our world and our country are changing so quickly now, we need people who are adaptable and critical thinkers who stop and ask why or how.

All of this regimenting education in the name of trying to make everything the same is actually restricting kids and preventing them from being the kind of students that I think everybody would agree they need to be.

MP: What else do you want people to know about Save Our Schools?

KTP: I think it’s just so important that people understand that this is all part of a piece. What’s happening to public education is also what has happened in all other aspects of our society. There was just a report on Minnesota Public Radio this morning about the financial disparity right now between the average white family and the average black family in this country.

There is an increasing gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Public education has always been seen as a place where people who maybe haven’t had the entitlements and the privileges that the upper-class white, well-educated, Ivy League-type classes had can get their footing. It’s the heart of meritocracy that people can rise above the limitations of class and economics.

There’s a real attack on that, and an attack on unions as well.  A big part of this, I can’t help but think, is that teachers are one of the last strong unions in this country. I didn’t join the fight with the union. I was a union member, but I didn’t become an activist because someone was attacking my pay. I became an activist because someone was attacking my ability to do my job and to advocate on behalf of my students.

There’s a lot of power in that. I think there are people who recognize that and would prefer that that power not lay in the hands of teachers.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Spencer Jones on 07/27/2011 - 12:04 pm.

    I just don’t understand why teachers are always complaining. Their union has made it this way for them. If they would only relize that the unions only want their money, and that’s it. Why should we keep teachers that aren’t any good, or all burnt out and don’t wanna do their jobs. If your average person has poor performance consistantly. They get fired. Yet, poor teachers can stay in the class, and or sit in an empty room and collect pay. What’s with that. Fire all none performing ones, hire new kids out of school disolve the unions, and shut down the money pit that is the Department of Education. Open more charter schools, and let the money follow our children where they go. Let the scores tell the tale of whom is the best, and pay the teacher accordingly. Just like the rest of us. Their no better than the rest of us. They just complain more.

  2. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 07/27/2011 - 02:20 pm.

    Spencer Jones is deeply confused. Teacher unions have little to no affect on the creation of curriculum which is to what Peters is referring. It helps if you read the article, Mr. Jones.

    You spill the usual conservative lines but you don’t seem to have any idea how many teachers are ineffective. Or how ineffective the tests are at measuring student ability. You talk about opening charter schools as if they are magical. There is no evidence to support that they are more effective than public schools. Plus that costs a lot more money.

    Lastly, dissolving the union means paying public teachers what they earn in private schools–which is significantly less. In most cases you get what they give you. Private schools are a nice place to be if you don’t want any hassles during the school day–private schools select the students they want in their schools. But, consequently, private school teachers earn far less than their public colleagues and are generally not as well trained.

    Mr. Jones, you know as well as I that our current government is not willing to pay even the very best teacher what she/he is worth. With the crowd you support it is a race back to the 19th century.

  3. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 07/27/2011 - 05:20 pm.

    You ask why it has taken so long to fight back, and your first commenter provides us with a fine example. Disregard that non-union right to work states have just as bad, if not worse problems, it’s all the unions fault. Disregard that we know taking away unions doesn’t solve the problem because many states have done that. The solution is still to disband unions.

    It’s an ideological fight about grown up things and teachers can’t win. If we defend ourselves as professionals, deserving respect, then they say we don’t care about kids.

    St. Paul is cutting edge on teacher evaluation. My principal himself has been in my room more times last year than all previous years combined, and teachers welcome that. We are not afraid of being evaluated. We want to get better because it crushes our hearts when our students don’t do as well as we believe in them.

    So, every year, no matter how good I do, my heart is broken when not every kid reaches where I want them to. Then we get over it and figure out how we can do better the next year, together. We don’t need some damn incentive pay to motivate us.

    The sad truth is, though, that there is no respect for the teaching profession anymore. Everyone loves their kid’s teacher, but all the other teacher are horrible, money grubbing pigs out to use and abuse kids. It gets old. Now we even have traditional allies even bashing us.

    We just want to teach. You ask why we haven’t fought back since now? We just want to freaking teach.

  4. Submitted by Steve DiBona on 07/29/2011 - 01:13 pm.

    Mr. Spencer Jones,

    You are exactly what is wrong with education.

    “I just don’t understand why teachers are always complaining.” Maybe because we’re underpaid, under appreciated, and constantly under attack from every direction.

    “Why should we keep teachers that aren’t any good, or all burnt out and don’t wanna do their jobs. If your average person has poor performance consistantly. They get fired.” Teachers face evaluations just like anyone else. Tenure is so over rated and misundersttod. Not to mention 46% of teachers quit before their 5th year. That stat is astronomical.

    “Yet, poor teachers can stay in the class, and or sit in an empty room and collect pay.” What are you talking about?

    “Fire all none performing ones, hire new kids out of school” This happens every year.

    “Open more charter schools, and let the money follow our children where they go.” Charter schools are a mirage. They only accept the students they want cut those loose who don’t perform. I can’t do that; it is my job to teach EVERY student from the brightest to the most severely special Ed.

    “Let the scores tell the tale of whom is the best, and pay the teacher accordingly.” This is impossible to do fairly. It is a fairtale theory.

    “Their no better than the rest of us. They just complain more.” I’m assuming you meant they’re; and you are the one complaining. We simply present facts to defend ourselves against idiots and “their” sheepish ideas.

    God bless public school teachers. They fight the good fight against all odds, and are among the few truly noble people left in society.

  5. Submitted by Kimberly Colbert on 07/29/2011 - 10:38 pm.

    Mr. Spencer Jones:

    You need to educate yourself. Unions have nothing to do with the anti-teacher, anti-intellectual thinking that is pervasive in this country and is creating a backlash for teachers. Educator unions have everything to do with due process in particular for the academic freedom needed to help our students become global, critical thinkers. It is the conservative reliance on those very test scores that you so ignorantly tout as evidence of good teaching that keep our public school system close to the Stone Age. It is the educators who ARE the union and our allies who are struggling to keep us out of the dark ages of learning. Thanks Kaye Thompson Peters and all the other educators who will march for representing us so well and putting the intellectual welfare of ALL the children of this nation first.

  6. Submitted by Andrew Burfeind on 07/30/2011 - 01:58 pm.

    I don’t think Mr. Jones knows what he’s talking about. But given the size of NEA and AFT, the amount that they spend, all of the information in the American Educator and NEA Today, all of the meetings, plans, programs, solutions, etc. how is it that we have made so little progress?

Leave a Reply