While I am a teacher-educator now, I worked as a public high school social studies teacher for over a decade and as a local officer and lobbyist for the teachers’ union in Minnesota. With all of that in mind, I now feel compelled to say we have brought threats to our profession upon ourselves.
Yes, the looming disaster, whose beginnings we saw this past spring in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, is partially of our own making. Certainly, much blame goes to pundits and politicians who propagandize that teachers are incompetent, greedy, and undeserving of decent compensation. However, they could get little traction with their distortions if not for us.
The most immediate way we have done this is through our buy-in to the standards movement. Standards-based thinking has led most people to mistake test results for education and blame teachers for shortcomings on the tests. They have ceased to comprehend that students, families, teachers, and cultures share responsibility for education and that tests are limited instruments. It is going to be hard to get back out of this mess because people tend to prefer simplicity to complexity. The last decade has changed people’s understanding from one that accepted complexity to one that renders schooling too simply.
While our primary lament must be for students caught in a testing-manic society, we must also examine the damage done to ourselves. We are stuck with impersonal accountability based upon measures that are educationally dubious and that make us look bad even when we do well with them. Even when the vast majority of students pass the tests, selective use of data undermines us. For instance, when districts fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, it is often because students with disabilities or from lower socioeconomic backgrounds fail to excel on tests designed without consideration of their disadvantages. The headlines don’t mention this.
But our culpability extends much further, beyond the circumstances of our own time. All the way back to Horace Mann, we have promised everything to everyone. To attract the support of the rich, we promised them a thrifty and compliant working class. To push the working class and the poor to send their children to public schools, we promised upward mobility. To get the middle class to buy in, we promised that society—and public education—would be developed according to middle-class standards and aspirations. What is most remarkable is our success at actualizing these promises. We are generally a nation of functionally literate and numerate people who share a common language and live peaceably. We are this way largely thanks to public school teachers. We really have, against the odds, met a lot of our promises. However, there is no way we can ever meet them all, and this will be held against us as long as we keep promising things we are hard-pressed to deliver. By ourselves, we will never create an American utopia, nor even solve the most pressing problems of society.
Our culpability extends beyond the circumstances of our own time. All the way back to Horace Mann, we have promised everything to everyone."
We have also made teachers into society’s whipping boys by defending our professional prerogatives through the labor-union model. It is true that unionization gave teachers a voice in curricula, a professional salary structure, and job security to perform according to our own best judgment. Unfortunately, unionization has also stuck teachers with permanent problems.
The first is one of public image. We are categorized in people’s minds with laborers rather than knowledge professionals. This stands in the way of a societal prestige that is vital both for recruitment and effectiveness.
A related problem, one of professional autonomy, is based upon a lack of control over who teaches. Teachers—unlike their counterparts in professions such as law—have almost no control over licensing, or, in other words, who may enter their profession. The teachers’ unions have struggled to become partners in licensing, so far with only token successes. The states determine who is certified to teach, and increasingly they jealously guard this role. For instance, although teacher-preparation programs are rigorously examined by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, many states are using their own, independent accrediting systems, a massive and poor duplication of effort at the cost of millions of dollars per year.
Without the continued protection of collective bargaining, supply and demand tells us that minimum-wage teaching might not be far away. If teachers could use a professional association to control the gates to the profession, the field would become far more competitive, and our performance and prestige would increase. For now, we rely entirely upon collective bargaining, which is likely to be lost.
Related to this, we have allowed our unions to keep some of the worst of us in classrooms. This has led the populace to believe that tenure is a plot to favor lazy incompetents. Of course it is not, but it has been abused enough that the conclusion is understandable. The enemies of tenure are correct that getting rid of tenure will enhance the ability of districts to get rid of the very worst teachers. No one will be happier about this than the other teachers. But we also know that losing tenure will make teaching less attractive to talented candidates and will initiate a climate of fear for our best teachers. Teachers who act beyond convention with passion and dedication can be as problematic for districts as bad teachers and can be forced out of the system almost as quickly. The long-term result of the loss of tenure is that our schools will be staffed with bland, mediocre instructors implementing soulless curricula. We have lost our integrity for making this argument because of our readiness to keep a relative few people in the classroom who have no business being there.
Perhaps the most profound element of our own culpability is that we have not effectively taught most students the use or value of critical thought. I do not mean the worksheet variety in which the aim is to prepare students to serve in the cubicles that await them. I mean the character trait of critically examining controversial ideas as a matter of course. It is at least partially our fault when a pundit can get away with denouncing teachers for having average salaries over $50,000. If the viewers had been brought up to habitually gather evidence and think through arguments, would they really conclude that our salaries are some kind of outrage? Or might they conclude that the pundit is being misleading and should be out of a job? So far, such pundits are secure in their high-paying jobs. We have done almost nothing to fight our society’s drift into bathos and distraction although it is among our central mandates.
Once we have acknowledged these and other ways in which we have put ourselves in a bad position, we must do our best to change what keeps us so vulnerable. The good news is that changing these things to keep ourselves safe also means we will be serving our students and our society.
A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2011 edition of Education Week as The Role Teachers Play in Teacher-Bashing