Education Opinion

Blaming Teachers

By Deborah Meier — June 30, 2008 4 min read

Dear Diane,

You’ve caught me remembering what wasn’t there. I reread A Nation at Risk, and—you are right-- it didn’t claim that teachers were the enemy within. It even gave a few kudos to hard working teachers. It’s interesting (to me) that I should misremember it.

So how did we get from 1983 to 2008? I think that, in some ways, the argument put forth by A Nation at Risk is part of the problem.

First. The enormity of the crisis that they perceived and the sole focus on schools as the cause and solution eased the way into teacher bashing. While the authors of A Nation at Risk specifically avoiding naming scapegoats for the school crisis, unlike the Bold and Broad argument they took little (or no) note of other obstacles. They failed to ask questions about other institutional and systemic failures that need to be addressed.

Secondly, the report was inaccurate in claiming a “period of long term (school) decline” and tying that to the “15 year decline in industrial productivity.” First of all it takes 15-20 year for the products of schooling to reach the market—become employees! So which historic period should have been “blamed”? It quotes one Paul Copperman approvingly saying “Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country this generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach those of their parents.” That was inflammatory nonsense, only the last—"economic attainment” (wages)—is proving true.

Al Shanker defended these misstatements to me as necessary to awaken a smug public. But calling “fire” in a crowded theater can be dangerous. Dealing with “an unfriendly foreign enemy” easily slipped into seeing the people who ran our schools as in cahoots and demand a quick fix. Since the narrative of decline coincided with the growing unionization of teachers, a period of collective empowerment, it was a quick and easy step to seeing the unionization and empowerment of teachers as the enemy within. It struck a bell that had been used a few years earlier by the leaders in the Black power struggle in the late 60s, searching for their own empowerment and seeing teacher empowerment as an obstacle rather than an ally.

Third. The report notes that we have “lost sight of basic purposes.” But no where does it take up “basic purposes” except for outstripping our foreign competitors. It’s their rising tide, not our rising mediocrity that in fact is the problem. Was it the workers in the auto industry, or its union, that led to Japan and Germany’s rising competition? Or was it judgments made by those who had competitive scores? The fact that we put such enormous numbers of our low-income youth in prison—at rates and for crimes none of our competitors match—goes unnoted. In fact, since 1983 those numbers have soared.

No nation—with high or low scores—comes anywhere close. These nonproductive youth have an impact on both our economy, their families and our future. What can we learn from our competitors about “get tough” imprisonment policy?

Fifth. If the economy is the only dilemma, why does the report focus on “academic” skills? How do we connect such academics to the needs of the work world? Is there something else also at stake?

Bloomberg in his Florida speech rests his arguments on the same distortions. The Texas miracle, the Chicago miracle, and now the NYC miracle. I’m glad to see that Bloomberg didn’t claim that Wall Street’s woes are the fault of the NYC teacher’s union. Bloomberg is one of many that view anything that isn’t built around a harsh competitive spirit, with easy to count winners and losers, and money at stake can’t work. Maybe even shouldn’t work. Further, if you believe that nothing worthwhile happened prior to the arrival of one’s own new bold plans little attention need be paid to those “on the ground.” Crisis thinking has that inevitable downside—one has no for serious thought, for persuading or being persuaded by the reluctant in face of imminent danger. * All independent power blocs that stand in the way (like parents and teachers) must be immobilized so that swift and inflexible action can be taken from the top. (Bloomberg should reread War and Peace.) For noble ends, short cuts in truth-telling are allowed. We remember (and disremember) best what proves our point. (Mea culpa too.)

I’ve been reading new books about the Civil Rights struggles of the late 60s and early 70’s, and struck by an irony which I want to explore. Given that I shifted my work from the civil rights movement to teaching in 1965 I should be delighted with the slogan that “education is The Civil Rights issue of the 2lst century”. But I’m not.


P.S. It was similar over-stated alarms over literacy that paved the way for the scandals of Reading First—anything was better than the bad old days, and criticism of the new was tantamount to being anti-reform.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.