Zacks ’15: Leave those teachers alone

Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Last week, the editorial page board struck once more. Having shown the lazy, spoiled high school teachers of Chicago what’s what, the board turned its attention closer to home. Rhode Island educators, this must be your lucky day. Brown students, forever cognizant of the “financial and social worth of being educated,” are here to save your state’s brain (“Save Rhode Island’s brain,” Oct. 8).
Why are we at Brown? Maybe because we were waitlisted at Yale, maybe because our parents went here, maybe because we went on the tour and someone told us about the anti-apartheid protests in the ’80s. We all have our reasons, ranging from the open curriculum to the new fitness center. But to say that we are here – and other people are not – because our mentors instilled in us a deep appreciation for knowledge is simply disrespectful to all other lovers of learning who could not afford to take an SAT prep course, or had no one to edit their personal statements.
Whether at Brown, in Chicago or in the public schools of Rhode Island, the editorial board is consistent in its individual-based analysis of social realities. Instead of examining the structural problems behind the crisis of public education in cities like Providence and Chicago, the authors choose to focus on the teachers themselves, as if they ought to bear responsibility for the failings of a system entirely beyond their control. By this logic, we Brunonians are attending an Ivy League university thanks to our hard work and personal drive.
Indeed, by this logic 40 percent of Chicago public school students do not graduate because teachers are out there demanding improvements rather than acting like Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds” in class, and Rhode Island schools are failing because teachers just “aren’t fit to inspire.” Preferring to avoid a more comprehensive discussion of unpleasant sounding concepts like “race” and “poverty,” they opt for an analysis committed to preserving the status quo. Blame is placed with the individual teachers while the system that negatively impacts them as well as their students escapes unscathed.
Coming from this particular analytical mode, it makes perfect sense for the board to enthusiastically embrace the Race to the Top program, a federal competitive grant that promotes educational reforms and standardized testing. Race to the Top, the Obama sequel to the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind, is absolutely loyal to the status quo; it is but another tool for the privatization and corporatization of public education. Its suggested reforms aim to weaken rather than strengthen public education. We could call it incentive, but considering the emphasis on standardized testing it is impossible to see in it anything but a fierce attack on public education. To subject young children from poor families – often immigrant families – to standardized tests is to ensure the persistence of social inequality.
The new teacher evaluation system that the editorial celebrates as an overall positive development means that students’ scores will determine teachers’ livelihoods. This is a complete distortion of the supposedly invaluable “appreciation of education” Rhode Island students need in order to one day become Brown students. Perhaps the authors trust “the honorable, self-sacrificing” character that their piece on the Chicago teachers evokes (“Have your apple and eat it, too?” Sept. 18). But if we remember teachers are just as human as engineers and bartenders, pay the same rent and buy the same goods, it makes little sense to me why we should apply a different moral standard to them and demand that they be selfless and devoted.
Sure, a teacher can be a life-changing figure in a student’s life. I do not doubt that many Brown students have had unforgettable teachers, mentors who have shaped who we are and what we do. However, the teacher as such is not the key source of under performance in state schools. To claim so is to fail to appreciate much greater structures that determine who will develop “a deep passion for learning” and who will have to drop out at 16. It is unfair to the teacher and unhelpful to the students.
The solution to the public education crisis in Rhode Island does not lie in grants like Race to the Top that encourage competition between teachers, schools and states. It does not lie in evaluating teachers with measuring tape. If Rhode Island is to fight for its knowledge economy, it needs to rethink the meaning of education and search for alternatives that can challenge and replace current notions of assessing performance and achievements. And if Brown students want to help save our state’s brain, I think paying taxes would be a better way to go about it than remarking on Rhode Island’s poor academic performance.

Mika Zacks ’15 hopes the board begins to address the deeper problems in the American education system. She can be reached at


  1. Amazing, thank you for writing this and realizing Brown’s place in the community!

  2. This piece is accusatory, fallacious, and ultimately offers no positive solutions or alternatives to the editorial piece or to the existing ‘Race to the Top’ program.

    If you want to talk about change, point out where and how the system should be changed, not that people need to “rethink the meaning of education and search for alternatives that can challenge and replace current notions of assessing performance and achievements”. That doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a lofty and wordy assertion that proves how you are just as, if not more, out-of-touch than the peers you criticize in this column.

    Your column provides the same solution as race to the top. Throwing money at a flawed system without a reliable metric to measure student growth and development. If there are structural flaws in the system, how does paying more money into that system via taxes provide any positive change?

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