Teaching Profession Opinion

The War on Teachers and the End of Public Education

By Nancy Flanagan — June 16, 2017 3 min read
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Several years ago, when the concept of a “war on teachers” was first entering the national conversation, I used the phrase in a blog. I got a solicitous message from a casual ed-friend, a man with more degrees (and from more prestigious universities) than I have. He politely told me that using “purple prose” weakened any carefully supported argument I could make.

Besides, he didn’t believe there was, or ever had been, a concerted, organized effort to demean public school teachers—only disconnected bits of evidence that not everyone thought teachers were universally beneficent and professional. Nothing new. Nothing substantive. Just the same old grumbling about bossy, arrogant teachers, the bottom tier of the academic barrel.

I was probably more worried about what people thought of my writing back then, because I haven’t used “war on teachers” language since. Until I read this: Parent Unions inviting stakeholders in multiple California districts to weigh on survey questions.

Sample question: Over the last 10 classes you have taken. How many teachers would you characterize as idle, incompetent, rude, or lacks teaching ability? Another question: Unfortunately, the educational system has some bad apples who's [sic] actions not only affect other teachers, but also the lives of students. Help us identify some of those infected [sic] in order to preserve your educational experience, as well as the experience of the next generation. Are there any teachers that are abusing their authority in or outside of the classroom? The teacher (#1) I have listed below should be fired:___________________________________

You get to choose three teachers to be fired. And-- to be “fair and balanced"---you get to choose three who should get a raise. The “survey,” offered to parents and students (and social media trolls, of course) goes on in a similar vein, with small editorial bits about horrible teachers and their horrible unions, urging survey-takers to name names and get those incompetent offenders out of our classrooms, so that children can be better prepared for their future.

Is this a war on teachers? Organized by corporate-funded “parent unions?”

Or is it just same-old griping about teachers by resentful adults, including those who were never properly instructed on the difference between “who’s” and “whose”?

I would argue that we have genuinely reached a tipping point, one where we’re struggling to get young people to go into teaching as professional career (as opposed to two-year adventure before law school). Our state legislators are openly declaring that teaching is now a short-term technical job, not a career, and thus public school educators don’t really need a stable state pension.

That’s not only a war on individual teachers, but a war on teaching itself.

In the spring of 2011, the planning team for the Save Our Schools March of July 2011 struggled to clarify our aims. We knew it was important to have a set of lucid, defensible goals. We couldn’t speak to media or explain the purpose of rallying in Washington, D.C., without simple, easily understood objectives.

There were so many! Were we fighting against excessive testing—or the illegitimate uses of standardized data? Were we pushing for adequate funding? Local control? Did we want to see charter schools go away? Were we demanding teacher professionalism?

It seemed to me then—and still does—that what we were fighting for, in the end, was more basic: the preservation of public education. There were people on the planning team (who had more degrees than I, and from more prestigious universities) arguing that the existence of public education was not endangered. We wanted better support for public education, certainly, and improvements in public schools, changes in policy and practice. We were fending off threats, for sure. But public education itself would survive.

Three days ago, Diane Ravitch wrote this:

Public education today faces an existential crisis. Over the past two decades, the movement to transfer public money to private organizations has expanded rapidly.

She’s right. The end of public education as we know it is in sight. And there’s a war on public school teaching toward that end, with Betsy DeVos as Field General.

It really couldn’t be more obvious.

Last night, I went to my local Indivisible group meeting. I gave a two-minute report on education in my county. I said: There’s a war on teachers and we are facing the end of public education. It’s time to do something. And people applauded. What are you doing, in your county or district, to make these statements out loud?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.