Those Who Can, Teach; Those Who Can't, Make Education Policy.

There's a saying from George Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." I don't know what the context for this line was in the play, but on its own this is a stupid and insulting statement. Watch this classic bit of slam poetry from Taylor Mali that's just about the best rebuttal possible. It would be far more accurate to say that those who care teach, and teaching is doing something very important indeed.

In any case, just two days ago a guest speaker came to my Foundations of Education class to talk about education policy, which she's been involved in for decades. Near the end of her talk, she mentioned that she never thought she could be a teacher, dealing with her two children being more than enough. This reminded me of something that's bugged me for a long time: Why are there so many people who have never been teachers who think they know the best way to run schools? It seems to me that a new saying is much more appropriate: "Those who can, teach; those who can't, make education policy."

Michelle Rhee (source)
This is a blogpost from a year ago with the same title as mine. I highly suggest you read it, since it states very well some of the points I have been trying to make in the last year or so in my education posts here. Obviously, I lay no claim to inventing this new saying; in fact, I saw it in the Arlington classroom where I did observations a few weeks ago, as a bumper sticker up on the door. Here's a blogpost with a variation: "Those who can, teach. Those who cannot, pass laws about teaching."

One of the most infamous non-teacher policymakers in recent history is Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools. She was a teacher for a grand total of three years, and apparently couldn't handle it, in one case even putting masking tape on her students' lips to keep them quiet, which bled when she pulled it off. (See here.) Later, somehow, she was selected to be DCPS dictator without any administrative experience, and began a spree of teacher persecution that spread throughout the country. Check out here, here and here for more information.

So, Michelle Rhee was a teacher for a little while, although a horrible one at that. But there are other prominent policymakers who apparently never even tried to teach, like Arne Duncan, whose most notable achievements appear to have been playing basketball. Like Rhee, Duncan was plucked out of nowhere to be put in charge of a school district, (Chicago's), and then in 2009 Barack Obama actually made him Secretary of Education. From my quick overview of their Wikipedia biographies, it seems very few—maybe two—of the nine Secretaries of Education there have been since 1980 were actually career educators. It's all about the politics.

Well, what are the problems here? For one thing, I believe there are too few teachers going into politics and policymaking after they teach—maybe after 5-10 years of experience, or certainly after retirement. (Have you seen how old most of the politicians in the U.S. are?) I know that commitment may not sound very appealing to many teachers, but it's better than the status quo, which is to have more and more non-teachers dictating how schools are run. At Georgetown, it seems like there are an increasing number of students with a stated desire of getting into education, but not by being a teacher. Since when did that become a popular career path for young people to aspire to? It's like aspiring to handle medical insurance without having had a desire to treat the ill. I mean, some people have to do it, but what is their motivation?

Check out this recent article on
TFA from the Georgetown Voice.
The motivation here is that education policymaking, or non-teaching in the education sector in general, has become a booming industry. You now have so many think tanks, consulting firms, testing companies, education technology companies, corporate-run charter schools, private schools and so on popping up that "just" being a public school teacher doesn't look cool (or lucrative) in comparison. People in my generation now seem to think that joining Teach For America and then becoming a "leader" in education (i.e. a non-teaching policymaker) is the best way to serve America's schoolchildren. Newsflash: It isn't. America's schoolchildren are harmed whenever decisions about their  lives are made by people who have no clue what education really is.

I have a very simple idea when it comes to education policy: Allow teachers to have more autonomy, more power, and more voice in determining how best to educate their students. Reinvigorate the idea of having PTAs: Are those still around? It seems like no one talks about them anymore. Guarantee teachers a seat (or more) on every school board, and they can recuse themselves when it comes to setting salaries and benefits. In essence, we need people who can teach to pass the laws about teaching. We need our education agenda to be set by people who actually know how to educate.