Why Blame the Teachers?

I opined yesterday — “Teachers and Scapegoats” — that at the heart of our many serious problems and issues about education in this country is the fact that as a nation we have for years enthusiastically devalued teachers and teaching. And in the long run, that is going to have significant consequences for our economy, our ability to compete in today’s global economy, our businesses, our young people, our communities and our very democracy.

Now The New York Times joins the debate with an interesting feature — “Why Blame the Teachers?” — that provides a number of different viewpoints on the issue. Here are excerpts.

Diane Ravitch — “It Started With No Child Left Behind.” [Ravitch is the author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”]

A historic strain of anti-intellectualism in American thought has merged with fiscal conservatism, producing the present campaign to dismantle the teaching profession. It echoes a deeply-ingrained American belief that anyone can teach, no training or experience necessary.

Although politicians and corporate leaders claim they want to reform education, it is impossible to see how the campaign against teachers will advance that goal. No high-performing nation in the world is reducing the status and rights of the teaching profession.

Frederick M. Hess — “A Policy Debate, Not an Attack.”  [Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the Education Week blog “Rick Hess Straight Up.” His most recent book is “The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas.”]

So, today’s debates about teacher tenure, evaluation, or benefits hardly constitute an anti-teacher assault. Rather, public officials and union leaders have negotiated problematic policies that have dispensed benefits while hurting schools and creating unsustainable obligations. In response, some officials (most famously, Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker) have argued that modest concessions aren’t enough, and have sought to use this moment to address structural problems with public employee collective bargaining and teacher tenure.

The response of the teachers unions and their allies has been to insist that such efforts represent teacher bashing. President Obama has spoken of an “assault” that has “denigrated” and “vilified” public employees. As an article in the Times last week noted, “Many teachers see demands to cut their income, benefits and say in how schools are run through collective bargaining as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their value to society.”

Yet, those accused of espousing anti-teacher sentiment keep taking pains to explain they’re focused on solving problems and to honor the importance of teaching. Indiana’s state superintendent and veteran educator, Tony Bennett, said in the Times article, “This is in no way, shape or form an attack on teachers; it is a comprehensive effort to reform a system.” Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels has remarked, “I’ve been praising teachers and public education and trying to support it relentlessly for six years. It does no good. When you cross the union, you’re the enemy.”

When the president declares in the State of the Union, “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation…become a teacher,” the profession is doing pretty well indeed. At such a time, it’s useful to keep in mind that policy debate is not the same thing as personal attack.

Richard D. Kahlenberg — “A Bipartisan Attack.” [Kahenberg s a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of “All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice,” and “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy.”]

American teachers and their elected union representatives are under unprecedented attack across the country, from Wisconsin to Ohio to Indiana. The dominant narrative suggests that teachers are both stopping us from balancing state budgets and preventing us from adopting reforms that will improve education for students.

How did the budget crisis — brought on by a recession caused by Wall Street — end up in the laps of America’s schoolteachers? How did teachers, most of whom work very hard every day to educate schoolchildren, become the scapegoats in education reforms circles?

Historically, before teachers unionized, they were underpaid, pitied and well thought of. In the early 1960s, when Albert Shanker and others convinced teachers to band together to fight for greater dignity and decent wages and benefits, teachers became important political players, generally supporting Democrats, who tend to favor greater investments in education than Republicans.

Molly Putnam — “What Politicians Don’t Know.”[Putnam has taught at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn for almost seven years. She currently teaches government and economics in the social studies department.]

Politicians are threatening to lay off thousands of teachers and then using that threat as a bargaining chip with the teacher’s union. They are specifically aiming at seniority rights, contending that the “last in, first out” rule, when applied, will cause great harm to the public schools.

They’re trying to convince the public that the most “effective”/newer teachers will be laid off and the “ineffective”/older teachers will be left behind to foist a sub-par education on our children. They claim this approach — by ridding the system of highly-paid senior teachers — will allow them to balance the budget and make their teaching force younger, less costly and more effective.

Anyone who believes it will work out this way hasn’t spent time in a public school.

Jeffrey Mirel — “Discouraging New Teachers.” [Mirel is the David L. Angus Collegiate Professor of Education and a professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author, most recently, of “Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants.”]

Recent right-wing attacks have described teaching as a “part-time job” or a glorified form of “baby-sitting.” This characterization of teaching is simply wrong, and the initiatives that it supports — cutting salaries, benefits, tenure and collective bargaining — are maliciously wrong.

Teaching on the kindergarten through 12th grade level in the United States today is an incredibly challenging, complex and difficult enterprise. Teachers in 21st century American public schools need to be skilled managers of large classes that are increasingly diverse in terms of race, culture and special needs. These teachers need to understand: what discipline-based content and skills their pupils need to acquire; how their pupils learn; and how to best represent content so that their pupils master it. None of these things are simple, easy or natural. Teaching is learned over years of practice.

Can and should the work of American teachers be improved? Of course. Are there inept teachers in some schools who should be fired? Yes. But it is absurd to believe that mocking and maligning the teaching profession as a way to justify cuts in salaries and benefits, and putting an end to tenure and union protection, will in any way aid the process of improving public schools.

Pedro Noguera — “Reforms Driven by Education Fads.” [Noguera, a sociologist, is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He is also executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and serves on the State University of New York Board of Trustees.]

The recent attacks on teachers can be traced to the convergence of three distinct but related trends: continuing concerns about the lagging academic performance of American students, a belief among policymakers and some foundations that firing “bad” teachers would lead to significant improvements in student achievement, and a desire among lawmakers to balance state budgets by reducing financial commitments to the pensions, salaries and benefits of public employees, particularly teachers. There have also been a number of high profile news stories and movies (“Waiting for Superman”) that have reinforced the idea that the prevalence of bad teachers is at the root of America’s education problem.

What is most troubling and dangerous about this convergence is that it is drowning out a rational analysis of what should be done to support and invigorate the teaching profession in the United States. If measures are not taken quickly to slow down the push toward sweeping, ill-conceived reforms, the damage could have long-term consequences for American education.

Donna Foote — “Elevate, Don’t Denigrate.” [Foote is the author of “Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches With Teach for America.”]

The single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Knowing this, along with the fact that American students rank in the middle of the educational pack among industrialized nations, and that the achievement gap in the U.S. between lower income kids and wealthier students is widening provides us with tremendous challenge and real opportunity.

Instead of initiating endless rounds of educational reforms often based on nothing more than wishful thinking, we should attack the real problem: the quality of our teachers. Unlike those countries whose students score in the top tier in the education rankings, America no longer values teaching as a profession. If we want to raise student achievement and close the achievement gap, then we have to elevate the status of our teaching corps. The classroom must become as desirable a destination as the boardroom or courtroom or operating room. For that to happen, we must develop an entirely new, highly selective system to attract, train, support, evaluate, retain — and amply compensate — high quality teachers in our classrooms.

Why blame the teachers? Wonder if Charlie Sheen is at all worried about this?

Just askin.’


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