Jun 30, 2011

In Ed Reform, Exchange Of Ideas Threatened (By Reality)

Wisconsin-based writer Carolyn Bucior has written on substitute teaching for the New York Times. Her new education memoir, "Sub Culture: Three Years in Education’s Dustiest Corner" spotlights substitute teaching and teacher absenteeism.

I was still in my pajamas this morning when I was publicly called an IDIOT! (caps not mine) online. Why? Because I stated in a letter to the editor of the Providence Journal that the 20 sick days being taken by the city's public school teachers were at the expense of student achievement. The article on which I was commenting stated the following: 37 percent of teachers missed 19 or more school days last school year; the absences disproportionately affected minority students and the poorest students; the absences were costing the city millions of dollars and significantly lowering test scores.

But by online critic's reasoning, Providence students' shortcomings are the result of living in one-parent households and speaking "a language other than English." And that Carolyn Bucior is an IDIOT!

By the time I poured my second cup of coffee, another critic suggested I was angry because a teacher reprimanded my child and I therefore had a "big log" on my shoulder.

What's happened to civility?

Last time I published an op-ed piece critical of teacher absenteeism, 18 months ago in a Sunday New York Times, online comments weren't allowed. Still, about 40 readers googled me, found me at my university office, and told me what they thought. The vast majority were supportive, or made a good point for the opposition. But the earliest bird was the angriest bird, and wrote, "I can't tell you how disturbing I found your letter," then he told me how disturbing he found my letter. (In short, it read: I'm a substitute teacher at a private New York City school; all the teachers I know work hard; all the subs have master's degrees in education; this must be true nationwide; in other words you're an IDIOT!) Meanwhile, over in the New York City public schools, 20 percent of teachers were missing more than the two weeks allowed them, with the highest absenteeism rates in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

What happened to dealing in facts and listening to other people’s experiences?
Angry letters or online comments are intimidating. They are meant to be. When I read these two comments this morning, I left my home office shaken and found refuge in methodically folding laundry, momentarily deciding not to speak out again.

These days, education debates can become intense and personal. One starting point for handling a heated debate, whether personal or professional, is for both parties to listen to each other, then gingerly sort fact from fiction. Thoughtless, angry reactions never move conversations along. But moving the conversation along, and learning from them, is essential if we want to improve education in this country. So let's talk, let's listen, and let's be civil. If we do that, maybe it will help our kids in more ways than one.

The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

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