It Makes Me Wonder Why All the Amateurs Have Come to Education

I'm a little late to this party. I was clued into this 2012 video of a Kennedy Center Honor's performance of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." I'm not normally sentimental about videos that get passed around. Perhaps the stakes were higher because the late John Bonham's son made a surprise performance on drums. Surviving members of the band, watching from the balcony, were noticeably emotional about the performance. The viewer could not help feeling a little bit of that as well.

The performance itself was unbelievable. Here you had musicians and artists in a moment of perfection, watched by the elder creators of a nearly perfect masterpiece in song that has affected generations, and more to come. I then imagined of all the amateur wannabes who think that sitting in line outside a basketball arena in Wichita for two hours, belting out an awful cover of Whitney Houston, makes them an artist.

Perhaps not for musical legends like Led Zeppelin, but it must be annoying for some established artists to force making nice with new cohorts of winners and runners-up from the innumerable talent shows. Musical bandwidth is also trafficked heavily by once and future reality TV stars who, exploiting new audio technologies, are able to release recordings only slightly better than an inept yodeler with laryngitis.

I must say that this definitely has something to do with education. As an educator myself, it always does, am I right? I don't claim to be the Led Zeppelin, or even the Miley Cyrus, of education, but I think I've earned the title of professional. I wistfully imagine legends whom I respect, like Richard Hell or Patti Smith, looking on with mild disgust at the amateurish and artificial qualities of most contemporary music and its artists. When I gaze upon the current debates on education reform, as a professional educator, I think I do the same thing.

Every single day when I fire up the laptop with my morning coffee, I am aghast at the absolute rank sloppiness and ineptitude of what counts as education "reform" and in who makes claims on its mantle. We have legions of twenty-something's with no classroom experience writing and speaking with authority under the auspices of think tanks. There's a skeleton crew responsible for a national curriculum absolutely devoid of any new ideas. Former investment bankers with MBA's are actually permitted to start schools, chains of them, based on little niches and boutique-style experiments with low-income students as test-subjects. Social entrepreneurs, without even the faintest sense of irony, mask their desire to seek heavy returns on their investments with public displays of piety that would even embarrass Will Arnett's G.O.B Bluth in Arrested Development.

Districts and school systems throughout the country crank out waivers, like counterfeit bills, for fresh cohorts of leaders whose only experiences in schools seem to be as students themselves. Journalists, crafty with a keyboard, are actually taken seriously in debates on education because they toss around key terms like "innovation," "achievement gap," and "accountability." In fact, summoning the will to close the ubiquitous achievement gap is akin to absolving all sin with a few Hail Mary and Our Father's. The keys to Heaven will be yours; and by Heaven in this instance, I mean high-level and well-remunerated superintendencies, chancellorships, chief officers of various kinds, and supportive platoons of fellows, analysts, coordinators, and project managers.

Surrounding all of this self-congratulatory activity are the silent and talented professionals whose status has eroded tremendously in an age of cheap, do-gooder narcissism.

Although not true in all cases, it seems as if many prominent spaces in the music industry today are earned by a well-timed YouTube video posted by one's mother. The same can actually be said of education, whereby free tutoring sessions posted online by an enterprising entrepreneur can earn one the façade of transforming learning as we've known it. Disruptive innovation, they call it, to give it an appearance of being something more than it actually is.

The strong, silent professionals who actually do all of the shoe-work in education are distracted by, of all things, what got them in the profession in the first place. It's their work with children and young persons that is most important, so that's where their attentions rest. But while this occurs, profligate amateurs and salespersons exploit the practitioner vacuum in the debate to promote their expensive ideas. Like magical hacks, they wave spirit fingers with one hand to distract from real problems and then sell educators solutions for problems we never knew we really had.

But do we have them? To some professionals like myself, the coincidence of convenient solutions being sold aggressively alongside manufactured problems is not lost on us. So let us make sure that when they come, the stores are all closed, when they try to buy a stairway to Heaven.