Food For Thought

An Open Message to My Congressman on Education: Just Keep Quiet!

by Dr. John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John Bonfadini

I was sitting in church Sunday morning thinking about the teaching profession when I should have been concentrating on the homily. Iíd read the paper before going to mass. One article discussed a proposed bill in Florida that would abolish teacher tenure and tie teacher pay increases to student test scores.

This seems to be the general trend these days in discussions about the teaching profession: Teachers need to be held more accountable for the perceived decline in student academic achievement, social behavior, family values and a host of other things. But to me, making teachers feel less secure by removing tenure and holding back pay doesnít seem like a good way to motivate educators. So much legislation dealing with education has more to do with politics than student achievement.

The constant legislative attacks on the education profession tend to demonize a part of our society that should have the highest respect if it is to succeed. Past generations understood that teachers and their profession must be viewed with respect, even if some individuals in the profession were ďborderlineĒ on deserving it. Kids were taught to respect the profession. Today we seek to evaluate the profession by examining minute details of the educational process and requiring a crisis intervention into every shortcoming.

In education, some things remain constant, some things change. The constants are easily identifiable: Kids need to be able to read, write, speak and do math to succeed in life. But education also includes more subjective material to help round out the studentís citizenship skills. How much history, technology, music, physical education, foreign language, art, sports, job-skills training and similar information and training does a student need? The real answer is it varies for every student ... thatís why so much is written about individualized instruction. Standardized tests just donít do a good job with the citizenship evaluation.

The teaching profession is very simple. Iíll use an art analogy to illustrate my view. The goal is to paint something thatís useful and appealing. To accomplish the task an artist must have the tools of his profession: brushes, canvas, paint, easel, charcoal, pencil, pen, and other tools, including fingers. Knowing what tools you need is useful. Now comes the difficult part ó using the tools to get something on the canvas. There are as many different styles as there are different artists. Which style or combination of styles to use is not an exact science. Whatís pleasing to one person may not be pleasing to others. The difficult part of teaching is getting the paint onto the canvas and eventually creating a painting. Knowing and naming the tools is important, but is still secondary to the main objective, which is a finished picture.

One of the problems created by much of todayís education-related legislation is that the majority of the paintings would be done ďby the numbers.Ē There is little space for creativity in a paint-by-numbers world. Evaluate teachers by student test scores and youíll get paintings done by the numbers. ďNumber paintingsĒ donít show up on great museumsí walls, or even in most homes.

Every July, Cooperative Living publishes its annual youth art contest results. Just look at the artwork in this issue. What a beautiful contribution these children make to the issue with their individual artistic expressions. We select winners, but in reality all the kids win. They have been given a chance to learn and explore something beyond the numbers.

As I lift my head, I see a piece of art done by my granddaughter, Brooke. Itís been hanging there for about eight years. I could give it a numerical grade, but the drawingís underlying message, ďI love you, grandpap,Ē is beyond the numbers. Iíll trade my tenure for that any day.

I see my other grandkids putting their ideas down on paper every week. They love to express their thoughts with pictures. I just hope some teacher doesnít have to take away the canvas because we are now requiring so much time for naming the tools of the trade. Speaking of trade, itís also okay if some students use a house as the canvas ... not every one of us will be a Leonardo da Vinci.

Iím including a personal letter (pictured above) written about six decades ago by my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Alsko. It speaks to another great responsibility of the teaching profession: keeping Johnny in his seat so that learning can take place.

Warming Johnnyís seat ó now thatís an old concept that might improve test scores. I read recently where it was making a comeback. What do you think, Mr. Congressperson? I know what my mother had to say or do in response to Mrs. Alskoís note, and it wasnít a call to her congressman. My butt still hurts from Dadís response. Support your childís teachers, even if they are not perfect ó itís for your childís own good.

My children who are teachers are facing furloughs, no pay raises, loss of benefits, increased workloads, and lack of workplace financial support, like most other workers. Iíll speak for them in response to those in Congress who think they know best: Just be quiet and let the educators do their jobs.

In November, many campaigned on providing increased support for education, then a few months later the same individuals are recommending severe cuts in education budgets. Talking about taking away tenure and using merit pay is a joke. Stick to fixing the economy, because right now all elected officials are getting a failing grade in that subject. 

Whats Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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