Thursday, June 02, 2011

War on Teachers?

Cross-posted from JDS Social Issues:

From my inbox almost two months ago:

So, where did this war on teachers, and other public employees come from? I certainly didn't see that coming.

A former colleague (a faculty member in a humanities department) was responding directly to word that Pennsylvania was cutting P-12 funding and slashing state support for public higher education. But her consciousness was framed by events in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

So I have been paying attention to the news in a new way. Is my colleague right? Is there a “war on teachers”? I think she may right that there is a “war” going on but I’m having a little more difficulty determining just what it is we are fighting about and fighting for. Are teachers the target? Or are teachers collateral damage in a larger struggle –because teachers (and their students) don’t fight back and because everybody feels entitled to an “expert” opinion about educational matters generally?

I hope to think more about this over the summer and invite any readers to join in with news items, anecdotes and analyses that help us all figure out where we want to stand in what is clearly a struggle for the social, economic, political and educational terrain within our own communities and our nation.

Here are a couple for starters:

· Randy Turner, commenting on the Huffington Post about new education legislation in Missouri, asks whether public school teachers are an “endangered species”? His question is motivated by regulatory proposals that seem to suggest that all teachers are lazy perverts.

· Paul Mucci, a fifth grade NBPTS certified teacher, asks

“since when did teachers become the bad guys?” Mucci is in Florida where education is rapidly being “reformed” on the backs of teachers: “elimination of teacher tenure, teacher pay based on student performance, increasing teacher contributions to the Florida Retirement System, raising the retirement age/years of service, increasing student testing and reducing the number of "core" classes to name a few.”

He conveys his demoralization clearly:

“More important, gone is the respect teachers once had. The steady erosion of respect is palpable in parent conferences, in line at the grocery store and in politicians' statements in the media.

As one legislator said to me, ‘The public deserves accountability they deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent.’ In one respect, he is right, but what good are numbers and test results if we lose our integrity, our compassion, our humanity along the way?”

Mucci notes that it is ironic that the rhetoric is all about “good teachers” but in the process they are destroying any chance of respect [for teachers].

· Bill Haslam, Governor of my new home state of Tennessee apparently hasn’t met any Paul Mucci type teachers. Last week he rejected the Tennessee Education Association’s claim that “teacher morale is flagging,” despite passing measures that limit collective bargaining and proposing others that would end any licensure for educational professionals. (More on events in Tennessee in the days to come.)

As someone who spends a fair amount of time cultivating partnerships with public schools so that we can jointly (university/school) provide substantive and challenging but guided practical experience for teacher candidates, my sense is that teacher morale is fragile at best. Neither principals nor teachers – no matter how accomplished --generally feel free to take on novice teacher candidates. Even when they can identify the value of teaching collaboratively with a young person with energy and ideas, they are hesitant, even fearful, about jeopardizing their compensation and even their jobs (based largely on student test scores). Everybody is looking over both shoulders at once.

What do these snippets suggest?

Whether or not there is a war on teachers, teachers are feeling under siege. And the march of legislation that targets the teaching profession is undeniable. But the point of the legislation is harder to tease out. Limiting collective bargaining might be a cost-cutting measure. It might be an undercut-the-unions measure (my favorite theory with thanks to Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow). The undercut-the-unions theory is supported by proposals in Tennessee to get rid of teacher licensure all together. Put this together with the appointment of a new Commissioner of Education with a Teach for America and charter school background and it does appear that the war is not on “teachers” per se but on the public school “establishment” (whatever that is).

The point then is an utterly free market for education? (Odd that we would seek a free market for the development of human capital when we have no such truly free market for any other commodity – oil subsidies, farm subsidies, interstate highway systems anyone?)

But this is a kaleidoscopic phenomenon, I think, and this particular ideological interpretation is just today’s turn of the barrel. What does it look like to you? What will it look like tomorrow?


Nancy Flanagan said...

I agree that escalating the rhetoric--phrases like "a war on teachers"-- leaves me feeling as if there were no discourse, only adversarial shouting, about important issues. And for those of us who are still in functioning public school districts, we regularly hear from our (ahem) clients--parents, students and community--that our work is satisfactory, even great.

But there is no doubt that the attacks on teachers are becoming more frequent, more carefully constructed, and more deceptive. For example:

Please don't tell me that this powerful man isn't being paid (somewhere in his professional pipeline) to write things like this. Another potshot at the great ship of public education, in the (obscured) quest for All Things Market-Based.

Personalized Learning Now said...

We must get over the traditional classroom model and acknowledge it's , inefficient and ineffective. On line learning can handle the needs of motivated students better than 90% of current classrooms. The underserved and unserved, whether poor, disadvantaged or gifted can/will utilize rapidly developing interactive personalized learning tools that will adjust the lesson style, content, pace etc. to accommodate the special preferences and needs of kids in real time. What we call teachers now will be information managers insuring each kid has access to the most useful/productive learning regiment. Why all the effort to save a dysfunctional system. We need to spend more time communicating the need for a systemic change not worrying about teachers feelings.

admin said...
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Valerie said...

@Personalized makes some valid points. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I, too, think we need to revamp our outlook on public schools. But the "war on teachers" is to me a political move to get fundamentalist values and teachings (sexual abstinence, no abortion, no stem cell medical practices, no global warming influences, and no evolution)into the mainstream. Public schools base educational frameworks on current science and technology, and on humanistic values. This is anathema to the Far Right. Hence the devaluing of public school and public school teachers. Let us talk about the true problems of public schools--the industrial-training model of the last century that does not fit the current information-based society of today; poor parenting and lack of parental support; lack of childhood innocence with the bombardment of sexual and violent images on media and in neighborhoods; drugs and crime and gangs; poverty; and religious resistance to liberal education. These issues are immediate causes of illiteracy, making effective teaching difficult. That they do not make it impossible is a tribute to the good teaching that is taking place despite all the hype. One aspect of effective schools is that students are responsible for their own learning just as teachers are responsible for providing the opportunities needed to facilitate that learning; likewise, students are responsible for their own behavior, just as teachers are responsible for seeing that students face pre-defined consequences for well-defined-and-agreed-upon inappropriate behavior. The current war seems to place all the responsibility on the teacher.

We do need reform, but not as defined with the current policies.

Christine said...

Thanks for writing about this. Disrespect and animosity for teachers is probably the main reason I recently created my blog, From high stakes testing to differentiated instruction, WE ALONE are held to impossible standards. We are scapegoats for societal problems that have churned out a number of poor performing and delinquent students.

mlu said...

The cluelessness is a symptom of the problem. America is deeply divided over cultural issues, and nearly all teachers are on one side. That leaves a majority of parents sending their kids to people who don't understand them.

mlu said...

It's somewhat of a perfect storm. Those on the right think public education is full of ideolgical indoctrination and they want to corral teachers. The progressive elites (Obama etc) see teachers as pawns (useful idiots) in a power stratagem. There are more direct routes to control of the curriculum than negotiation with unions, and they are choosing those--charters, national curriculum, national assessments. Teachers chose civil service over professionalism and are reaping what they sowed. They have contracts--which are being renegotiated--but they don't have a lot of credibility.

mlu said...

Listen to Valerie. She could be a poster child for what a great many people are fighting against. If she is typical, she can't articulate accurately the intellectual arguments against her positions on the issue she cites: "sexual abstinence, no abortion, no stem cell medical practices, no global warming influences, and no evolution)into the mainstream" but she seems to believe reason is all on her side, and those who oppose her are ignorant. Why shoul we who disagree with her send our children to her?

andrew Charles said...
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