From the New Yorker
Everyone celebrates his or her personal memory of individual teachers, yet, as a culture, we snap at the run-down heels of the profession. The education reporter Dana Goldstein, in her book “The Teacher Wars,” published in 2014, looks at American history and describes a recurring situation of what she calls “moral panic”—the tendency, when there’s an economic or social crisis, to lay blame on public-school teachers. They must have created the crisis, the logic goes, by failing to educate the young.
We have been in such a panic for more than a decade, during which time the attacks on public-school teachers have been particularly virulent. They are lazy, mediocre, tenaciously clinging to tenure in order to receive their lavish pay of thirty-six thousand dollars a year (that’s the national-average starting salary, according to the National Education Association). As Goldstein put it, “Today the ineffective tenured teacher has emerged as a feared character, a vampiric type who sucks tax dollars into her bloated pension and health care plans, without much regard for the children under her care.” Because of this person, we are failing to produce an effective workforce; just look at how badly we’re lagging behind other nations in international standardized tests. Our teachers are mediocre as a mass; we have to make a serious effort to toss out the bad ones before they do any more damage. And so on. It’s not just Republicans who talk this way. Democrats, too, are obsessed with ridding the system of bad teachers. From the President on down, leaders have been demanding “accountability.”
There’s an element of this rage at bad teachers that’s hard to talk about, and so it’s often avoided: the dismaying truth that we don’t know how to educate poor inner-city and rural kids in this country. In particular, we don’t know how to educate African-American boys, who, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, graduate high school at rates no better than fifty-nine per cent. Yet if students from poor families persistently fail to score well, if they fail to finish high school in sufficient numbers, and if those who graduate are unable, in many cases, to finish college, teachers alone can hardly be at fault. Neither the schools nor the teachers created the children or the society around them: the schools and the teachers must do their best with the kids they are given.
By the time kids from poor families of all races enter kindergarten, they are often significantly behind wealthier children in vocabulary, knowledge, and cognitive skills. Of course, good teachers can help—particularly that single teacher who takes a kid in hand and turns him around. But, in recent years, teachers have been held responsible for things that may often be beyond their powers to change. They are being assaulted because they can be assaulted. The real problem is persistent poverty.
Our view of American public education in general has been warped by our knowledge of these failing kids in inner-city and rural schools. In particular, the system as a whole has been described by “reformers” as approaching breakdown. But this is nonsense. There are actually many good schools in the United States—in cities, in suburbs, in rural areas. Pathologizing the system as a whole, reformers insist on drastic reorganization, on drastic methods of teacher accountability. In the past dozen or so years, we’ve seen the efforts, often led by billionaires and hedge-fund managers and supported by elected officials, to infuse K-12 education with models and methods derived from the business world—for instance, the drive to privatize education as much as possible with charter schools, which receive public money but are independently run and often financed by entrepreneurs. This drive is accompanied by a stream of venom aimed at unions, as if they were the problem in American education. (Most charter schools hire non-union teachers.) In the real world, however, highly unionized areas of the country, such as the Northeast, produce students with scores higher than the national average in standardized tests; the Deep South, where union teachers are more scarce, produces scores that are lower. So unions alone can hardly be the problem.
Public-school teachers have been trapped in a maze of standardized tests. There were the tests mandated by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind program, passed in 2001, which yoked schools’ survival to test scores; and then there was the Obama program, Race to the Top, passed in 2009, which encouraged states to promote charter schools and the Common Core and linked promotion or dismissal to teachers’ ability to get kids to score well on tests; and there’s the Common Core itself, which has new, more difficult tests reinforcing it. Teachers run from one testing regiment to another. But using the tests to evaluate teachers themselves has been questioned again and again by statistical experts as well as by critics of these programs. The heart of the criticism: the tests measure demographics (the class and wealth level of the students) more than teachers’ abilities.
As recent surveys have shown, the high-stakes testing mania has demoralized the profession as whole. It has forced teachers, if they want to survive, to teach to the test, in effect giving up curriculum for test preparation. Trying to score high, some schools gamed the system, or simply cheated on the tests; some abandoned such essentials as the arts, gym, and even recess. Teachers were discouraged from coöperating and from sharing material—this competitive ethos found in school, where coöperation and the sharing of information, particularly in the lower grades, is essential. Corporate thinking, mostly inappropriate to education, has turned teachers into individual operators potentially at war with one another. But men and women with that kind of competitive temperament are unlikely to go into teaching in the first place. The ones who do go into it may feel that their best instincts have been violated.
Reformers have denigrated public-school teachers in many ways—the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, and other governors have successfully attacked collective bargaining, and many reformers have advocated abolishing or limiting teacher tenure. The purpose of tenure is to protect free speech, to make it impossible for principals to fire people for personal or political reasons. My own feeling is that it should be easier than it is now for principals to fire bad teachers, but that tenure should not be abolished. The political atmosphere in the country has become so polarized that spirited teachers—men and women who actually say something—will not survive hostile parents or a disapproving principal without the protection of tenure. Abolishing tenure would create instability and even chaos.
In December, the Obama Administration pulled the plug on No Child Left Behind, deputizing the states to administer tests and to reward and punish—a de-facto admission that the program wasn’t working well as a general goad to improvement and especially as a way of eliminating bad teachers. The Common Core has run into trouble with both the left and the right. In New York state, the tests aligned with it were abruptly made much more difficult, which produced a drastic shift downward in students’ scores. Last December, Governor Andrew Cuomo established a task force that recommended temporarily banning schools from making decisions about teacher status based on these scores. But, by that time, teachers had been humiliated yet again.
We can admit that bad teachers, if they can be fairly identified, should be removed. But what can be done to recruit a new cadre of better teachers? Most centrally, we can increase teacher pay and status. According to Samuel Abrams, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, an American teacher earns, on average, around seventy per cent of what her peers from college earn (i.e., fellow-professionals who become engineers, accountants, financial consultants, and so on). If we seriously want to improve the over-all quality of teachers, we have to draw on more than idealism (in some cases) or desperation (in other cases). We have to make teaching the way to a decent middle-class life. And that means treating public-school teachers with the respect offered to good private-school teachers—treating them as distinguished members of the community, or at least as life-on-the-line public servants, like members of the military.
We also have to face the real problem, which, again, is persistent poverty. If we really want to improve scores and high-school-graduation rates and college readiness and the rest, we have to commit resources to helping poor parents raise their children by providing nutrition and health services, parenting support, a supply of books, and so on. We have to commit to universal pre-K and much more. And we have to stop blaming teachers for all of the ills and injustices of American society.