Another week, another plateful of teacher bashing in the popular press.
First, Time Magazine introduced its November 3rd cover story on the campaign to eliminate teacher tenure via litigation with a provocative cover picturing a judge’s gavel poised to smash an apple and a sub-headline repeating the inaccurate mantra that it is “nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.” Teachers across the country were outraged, and strongly written responses to the cover came from Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers and from Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association. The AFT is gathering signatures for a petition demanding that Time magazine apologize for the cover, but no sooner than responses to the Time cover began than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his education agenda in a second term in Albany would be to break the “public monopoly” of schooling in the Empire State by even more test based assessments of teacher performance and even greater charter school favoritism from his office. As the dust settles from that shot across the bow of New York’s 600,000 unionized teachers, Frank Bruni of the New York Times (and personal friend of anti-tenure activist Campbell Brown) dove back into the issue of teacher quality, a topic he has opined on previously with an extraordinarily one-sided perspective. Today, he gave entirely uncritical space to former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein who is hawking his own book claiming that “a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle” and saying that the teacher workforce will improve if we recruit teachers with higher test scores, limit or remove workplace protections, and offer pay for performance, which in Klein’s world is always measured in standardized test scores. Absent in the “discussion”? Any mention of the persistence of poverty in our most struggling school systems, and any plan for society taking full responsibility for helping to alleviate it — instead, it all rests on teachers and schools.
Today’s education reformers seem to think that our nation’s teachers are like piñatas. If you just keep hitting them long enough and hard enough, something wonderful and sweet and that will delight children will come pouring out.
Mr. Bruni thinks teachers are being closed-minded towards the likes of Mr. Klein and Ms. Brown. He dismissively portrays their reaction to the Time Magazine cover as evidence of teachers reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to any criticism, and he actually claims that people like Klein want to partner with teachers — even while advocating taking away their workplace protections. That teachers are finally speaking up loudly should not be taken by Mr. Bruni as some sudden intransigence on the part of a profession that wants to keep cushy perks, but rather it should be seen as the final straw exasperation of a profession that has been under constant attack since the early 1980s, probably longer.
Teaching has always had the potential to be contentious which is one of the reasons why tenure protections matter. Teachers are responsible for, as author, scholar, and activist Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children,” a task that comes with enormous professional and moral obligations. Practicing that responsibility potentially puts teachers at odds with parental, administrative, and community priorities, and it can require that teachers take unpopular stances on behalf of their students. However, the current wave of reforms had their genesis with the 1983 Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk” which declared our current school system so unsuited for the task of educating our children that it would be considered an “act of war” for a foreign power to have imposed it upon us. The constant refrain of school failure has hardly relented ever since, and it has gone into overdrive in its current iteration of test based accountability since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and its lunatic cousin Race to the Top. Since 2001, the standards and testing environment have merged to become test-based accountability for teachers, and since the Obama administration announced Race to the Top, states have been heavily incentivized to adopted teacher evaluations based upon standardized testing.
While pressure on teachers has increased, funding and resources have decreased. State contributions to K-12 education account for roughly 44% of all spending, but most states still fund schools below the levels that they did before the Great Recession. Because of the housing crisis which prompted the recession, local revenue in the form of property taxes have also declined, putting a further pinch on school budgets. In New York State, for example, Governor Cuomo and the Assembly have used accounting tricks like the Gap Elimination Adjustment to trim school aid by BILLIONS of dollars while enacting property tax caps that prevent localities from making up any shortfalls. Meanwhile, teacher pay has lost substantial ground with comparable workers with the wage gap growing by 13.4% between 1979 and 2006 and most of that loss happening between 1996 and 2006 as the age of test-based accountability started cranking up.
And now, after decades of declaring our schools to be failure factories, after a decade and half of warped accountability measures, and after six years of being told to do far more with far less even though their real world wages have declined, along come some technology billionaires who think the thing that is really wrong with school is the fact that tenured teachers have due process rights before they can be fired? They recruit telegenic personalities to lead litigation against teachers’ workplace protections (likely because their previous media hero is tainted by scandals and failure) and to do the interview rounds making claims that do not stand up to fact checking and research.
Meanwhile, serial misleaders like Joel Klein, whose claims about his record as NYC Schools Chancellor fail to stand up to real scrutiny, are out there claiming that all we need are great teachers and children’s lives can be turned around. We don’t have to worry that we’ve cut nutrition programs for the neediest even though nutrition in the first three years of life can have profound effects for a person’s entire life. We don’t have to worry that our economy is losing large portions of its lower middle class to wage insecurity, effectively sawing rungs off of the ladder of opportunity. We don’t have to worry about the long known impacts of poverty on children or on how it is deeply concentrated in specific communities whose schools serve high poverty populations.
We don’t have to do any of that, say the Kleins, the Rhees, the Browns, and the Brunis of the world. We just have to keep whacking away at teachers until the great teaching comes spilling out and children can jump up the ladder towards economic security without a single billionaire being asked to pay a cent more in taxes.
Frank Bruni pays about 27 words with of lip service towards supporting teachers and paying them more, but then immediately follows it with saying teachers should see the likes of Joel Klein as someone who wants to “team up” with them. After so many years of being continuously blamed for failings our society refuses to discuss and absolutely refuses to address, the only thing astonishing about recently voiced teacher frustration is that it has taken so long to hear it.
Teachers are not piñatas.