October
1st 2010
America’s war on teachers

Posted under: American history, childhood, jobs, students

Diane Ravitch tells it like it is about current “educational reform” ideas.  She nails the key issue I have with all of the educrats who are waging war on America’s teachers, this time around with the fetish of the standardized test:

Tests that assess what students have learned are not intended to be, nor are they, measures of teacher quality. It is easier for teachers to get higher test scores if they teach advantaged students. If they teach children who are poor or children who are English language learners, or homeless children, or children with disabilities, they will not get big score gains. So, the result of this approach—judging teachers by the score gains of their students—will incentivize teachers to avoid students with the greatest needs. This is just plain stupid as a matter of policy.

.       .       .       .      .       .      .       .      

Making war on teachers and principals is ridiculous, outrageous. None of the people at the foundations or in the policymaking circles work as hard as the average teacher, face as many challenges every day, for as little pay. None of the pundits who blithely denounce teachers would work 20 years with the hope of getting a salary (today) of $52,000. 

Yeah:  the problem with education is the people who actually give enough of a $hit about education to go to college for four years, and frequently earn Master’s Degrees and even Ph.D.s  so that they can become teachers.  It’s not the administrators or school boards who set the parameters and conditions for teachers’ work.  It’s not the public that regularly votes down school levies because of their terribly “oppressive” burden of taxation.  It’s not the fault of the U.S. citizenry, which is more interested in subsidizing the elderly than in providing food or medical care for children.  It’s not the parents of children who are too tired, too busy, too distracted, or too drunk or high to send their children to school with clean clothes and full stomachs, let alone be engaged with their children’s educations.

Instead, we blame the teachers.  It must be their fault.  After all, they’re the only ones showing up for the kids every day.   But this is America, where we mistrust anyone who doesn’t sell out for the top dollar, and anyone who would choose to consort with low-status people like children, day in and day out.  After all, they don’t vote.  They don’t have any money.  They don’t have any power.  They don’t even have as much candy as they used to.  What kind of losers would be willing to work with them?

41 Comments »

41 Responses to “America’s war on teachers”

  1. Susan on 01 Oct 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    Sing it, sister. I have nothing to add here. Teachers are supposed to magically make up for America’s disinvestment in schools and children.
    GRRRR.

  2. Notorious Ph.D. on 01 Oct 2010 at 11:40 pm #

    I get so upset at this. In my state, it’s also apparently okay to demonize nurses. To extrapolate on what you say, H.: the job is unglamorous, incredibly difficult, predominantly done by women, and earns you only moderate pay. Ergo, the people who do it must not be worth much.

    I’m going to go in the corner and think happy thoughts for a while now.

  3. JackDanielsBlack on 02 Oct 2010 at 1:35 am #

    Give me secondary-school teachers who “earn Masters Degrees and even Ph.D.s” in the subject that they are going to teach, rather than in education. Looking back on my own education at a fairly good private college preparatory school, many of my teachers, especially in math and science, didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. Sure, they could teach you to plug and crank, but they didn’t know any more of the underlying theory than I did. They sure could do lesson plans, though!

    Not to say that education courses are totally useless. When I got to college, I ran into a number of professors who knew their subject matter well enough, but didn’t have any idea how to teach it — sort of the opposite problem from high school!

    Maybe we could strike a happy medium — more subject matter courses for secondary school teachers, and at least a few education courses for college professors?

  4. Tony Grafton on 02 Oct 2010 at 4:16 am #

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am so sick of this nonsense.

  5. koshem Bos on 02 Oct 2010 at 6:02 am #

    The pogrom against the teachers is an old American tradition. It was the blacks (and still are), the Italians, etc. Then we have the perennial Jews. You didn’t it, but Jeffrey Goldberg caused the invasion of Iraq, Rahm is Mussolini’s alter ego.

    Of course, the argumentation against the teachers is complete garbage. But who cares. We found us a great group of defenseless people whom we can blame for not being number one. It’s not the kids whose lives our “give even more money to the rich” system left hopeless; it’s them the free loading teachers who face, in many cases, violent class and total lack of resources that are to blame.

    Who is lead the rioting pogromists if not our pathetic journalists who supported Bush over Gore, who haunted Clinton and who, there are exceptions, fall the job daily.

    We should be ashamed of our screwed up society.

  6. Historiann on 02 Oct 2010 at 8:24 am #

    koshem Bos’s comment, and Notorious’s, helps complete the circle I was gesturing at in my post. Namely, we despise those who do low-status work and body care. It’s not *just* women of any or all ethnic groups, but also recent immigrants, and frequently the lowest-status work is performed by female immigrants (housekeeping, nannying, cleaning, etc.)

    Although nursing and teaching require at least 2- or 4-year degrees–and frequently both nurses and teachers have M.A.s or Ph.Ds–their work is degraded because of their association with intimate body care and/or the care of low-status people like young children and the sick. (And teaching very young children frequently involves contact with excreta, vomit, snot, etc.–much like nursing.)

  7. Historiann on 02 Oct 2010 at 8:27 am #

    And Jack–I agree with you about the relative merits of subject training versus ed training. The teachers I know best all major in History or get their M.A.s in History. I agree with you that subject training is more valuable than ed training for people who aim to teach grades 7-12. That’s what both our undergraduate teacher-track major and our M.A. program is designed to do.

    Although public history is the biggest emphasis in our grad program, a number of our best and brightest grad students become secondary-school teachers.

  8. Vellum on 02 Oct 2010 at 9:02 am #

    I was watching an article on high school education in I think it was Finland on the NBC news the other night. They were comparing that country’s education system (and its successes) with the US’s system (and its failures). The most surprising thing to me (but which rang most true to me as well) was the testimony that, in Finland, being a high school teacher is right up there in terms of respect with being a doctor or a lawyer. They seem to have a culture in which everyone believes that education is a good thing. Compare that sentiment with here in the US, and I think we can see one of the bigger problems. If everyone here thought that getting an education was not only good for them, but also their duty for the betterment of the country, then I think you’d see a lot of the problems going away. The question is, how do we convince the whole country that education is important enough to spend the money on it?

  9. GayProf on 02 Oct 2010 at 9:33 am #

    I have also been amazed by the sudden and inexplicable targeting of public school teachers. My mother had a long career as a special education teacher. She worked extremely hard and spent long hours thinking about how to be better in the classroom. Meanwhile, she was paid almost nothing and was given minimal resources to complete her job.

    There is the classic problem in the U.S. that Americans simply don’t want to pay taxes, even when the benefits of paying those taxes actually improve their own lives. It also seems that people are unwilling to consider their personal responsibilities to themselves (When did we decide students weren’t required to be take charge of their own learning?) or to their fellow citizens (by insuring equal access to quality education).

  10. thefrogprincess on 02 Oct 2010 at 9:43 am #

    Did you never have a bad teacher, Historiann? You must have lucked out. I can name several teachers who were unqualified, who were teaching subjects they hadn’t majored in, who expressed clear disdain for the language they were teaching, and who routinely made errors in the math problems they were teaching. I can also name several amazing teachers I had, who were knowledgeable in their subject, who had good class control, who were passionate about the material, and who generally wanted to be there. Teacher quality is of utmost importance and I don’t get why you continue to act as though all teachers are of the same quality.

    I agree that teaching should be more valued and better paid than it is; that it pays so little is criminal. The Finland example is a good one, although I generally stay away from making comparisons to Scandanavian countries. As I understand it, teachers in Finland also have to be among the smartest in their classes. But here’s the problem for me: the corollary about not paying teachers well in this country is that teaching can become a spot for the least-achieving students from the local college; I actually had a teacher who took pride in this fact.

    I also agree that test scores aren’t the way to go here. But why should children spend precious time in classes with poor teachers while we wait for decades and decades for teaching to be better valued?

    Historiann says: It’s not the parents of children who are too tired, too busy, too distracted, or too drunk or high to send their children to school with clean clothes and full stomachs, let alone be engaged with their children’s educations.

    That’s some serious condescension. And wasn’t it you who was suspicious of parents who were too involved with their children’s educations?

  11. Historiann on 02 Oct 2010 at 11:04 am #

    I wish that all parents were responsible and did the best by their children, but it’s just not the case. Fratguy could tell you about the troubled families he’s worked with, but that would break patient confidentiality and probably be unethical.

    Sadly, it’s a fact that many parents aren’t involved with their children’s education, or even work actively against their educations. I would say it’s mostly because they’re economically stressed, but I also think there’s no small amount of adult selfishness that cuts across class lines. My point is only that teachers are not the only adults who bear responsibility for student failure, and sometimes those adults are the parents.

    I had some not-so-great teachers. But when I look back on some of the teachers I didn’t work well with, I have to take responsibility for being a difficult student. I got along well with most teachers, but I was also a jerk to some teachers.

    I’m not saying that all teachers everywhere are great. I’m saying that they alone are not to blame for the problems with education in the U.S., but the discourse on “school reform” these days suggests that blaming and firing teachers is all we need to do. We could do that–but it won’t solve the larger problems we have.

  12. Janice on 02 Oct 2010 at 11:43 am #

    The systemic attack on teachers is maddening. I am also sometimes shocked to hear other parents rail against a teacher who I and my kids adored. (Goes to show how subjective opinions can be, in part.)

    Individual teachers are sometimes a problem, but most teachers that I’ve observed over many years from many perspectives? They’re trying hard with few institutional or economic supports in place. Even in well-to-do schools, teachers inevitably end up shelling out from their own pocket to buy things that their kids flat-out need, for instance. So it maddens me when the conventional rhetoric is all “how easy they have it, working 9-3, 8 months a year!”

    It’s a damned hard job to be a K-12 teacher. I am proud of many of my former students who’ve gone on to carve out careers as teachers and I thought my eldest nailed it on the head after several weeks of working as a peer mentor in one of her HS’s ASD classrooms: “I have so much respect for teachers, now!” Darned tooting!

  13. Indyanna on 02 Oct 2010 at 11:59 am #

    I’m sure there are (some) bad teachers, here, there, and for all I know, everywhere, but they’re mostly in place because they’re not competing with people who would be better teachers, but are driven away from–or rather, wouldn’t go near–the trade because of all the regimentation and bureaucratic gobbledygook and hyper-administration that’s accreted to it over the years, overwhelmingly in the public realm. I had some bad teachers too; they all had degrees in education and various forms of certification. In a small private school that my parents couldn’t really afford the teachers wouldn’t have known a lesson plan from a business plan, but they were interested in actual stuff, and they made us read and write and then write again.

    This world of hyperadministered, hypertheorized “praxis” is seeping up to the collegiate world, in the form of the layers of management that have been commented on in this blog over and over, and politically-driven mandamus policy interventions symbolized by “outcomes” [sic] “assessment” [sic] and its tribe of woolly-headed accreditory and curricular offspring. Good for the consulting business, though. What’s in *your* portfolio…?

  14. thefrogprincess on 02 Oct 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    Yeah, there are certainly parents out there who don’t give a crap but the way I read your first comment, you seemed to give them more weight than those who are too economically disadvantaged to do so. I’ve heard some experts suggest that schools should just provide breakfast for all kids to eliminate the shame that’s associated with having to shuffle off to free breakfast and also to make sure that everybody’s getting the appropriate nutrition. (Although of course, that requires tons of money and tons of effort to make sure that school meals are nutritious.)

  15. Historiann on 02 Oct 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    thefrogprincess–that absolutely wasn’t my intention. I’m sorry if it read that way to anyone. My view is that the vast majority of parents are trying to do their best, but that many don’t have either the time or the money to do any better than they can. However, there are some parents whose selfishness or abuse damages their children–and as I said, that absolutely cuts across class lines.

    Janice: good story about your eldest. I have more and more respect for them too, as I’ve gotten older and become (a bit) wiser.

    Indyanna is absolutely correct: standing up for K-12 teachers can be seen as enlightened self-interest for us college and uni proffies. They’re coming for us next.

  16. quixote on 02 Oct 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    The worst thing about the war on teachers? It’s so STUPID. That generates more stupid, which makes more war on teachers, which makes more stupid, and around and around in a death spiral.

    Anybody who has taught, which probably means everyone reading this blog, knows that the primary determinant of good teaching is good *conditions*. Small class sizes are far and away the number one component during K-10 or so. Since that’s the foundation, that’s what’s important. A brilliant teacher with 45 students will make barely a dent. An average tutor with a “class” of four will manage to teach them all quite a bit. It’s that simple.

    What’s also simple is that small classes cost money. So that’s a non-starter. It’s way cheaper and more fun to beat up a bunch of people who can’t fight back. The fact that it will make all the good teachers escape is tomorrow’s problem.

  17. Historiann on 02 Oct 2010 at 2:50 pm #

    Upon review, I should have written this in the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph:

    It’s not the parents of children who are BECAUSE OF POVERTY too tired, too busy, too distracted, or BECAUSE OF THEIR SELFISHNESS too drunk or high, to send their children to school with clean clothes and full stomachs, let alone be engaged with their children’s educations.

    I had intended everything in that list to be seen as an independent variable, but I didn’t make that clear enough. Some parents can’t send their children to school with full bellies or clean clothes because of poverty, not because of parental fecklessness, and I didn’t make that clear enough with my sentence structure.

  18. koshem Bos on 02 Oct 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    It’s also false that American education is bad. What everyone talks about is averages in test results. This country has many marvelous schools. For instance, Montgomery County in Maryland has a great system although it does have immigrants and poor residents. However, both the immigrants, many illegal, and the poor, there is a partial overlap between these two, are far from being the majority. The system is working hard to help those who need.

    The same is likely to hold in many urban areas and small towns in this huge country. Of course the media never mentions it. The good schools should also show the wider education system that one can do better with way more resources and the will to do it.

    The current favorite “solutions” are to have CEO type school system leaders who look down on its “customers.” And the magic bullet called charter schools already that were already proven to be not better than the despised average.

  19. Historiann on 02 Oct 2010 at 3:51 pm #

    That’s right, koshem Bos. And what none of the “reformers” want to admit is that all of the high-performing schools and school districts are in relatively affluent communities.

    I’d love for Michelle Rhee, or Michael Bennet, or Arne Duncan, or any of these career educrats to spend a year teaching fourth grade in Washington, D.C. But that’s never gonna happen. Being an educrat means never believing that teachers have anything to contribute to “reform.”

  20. JackDanielsBlack on 02 Oct 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    Historiann, I believe that Michelle Rhee has already had the experience you recommend for “educrats”. From her writeup on Wikipedia:

    “Rhee taught in Baltimore, Maryland as a recruit of Teach For America for three years. According to her resume, over a two-year period she moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.”

    So, it would appear that she at least has walked the walk.

  21. mandor on 02 Oct 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    Here in Los Angeles, the LA Times has decided to essentially attack LAUSD teachers by creating/publishing online a ratings database of ~6000 teachers. The faith we put in data collection and statistics astounds me. As if there is nothing in the world that can’t be properly quantified or categorized and analyzed to non-spurious results.

    I haven’t looked at the database out of some small protest. Is property tax revenue a variable, I wonder? I am curious as to how two schools in the Silver Lake neighborhood contrast. One draws from the high rent (largely single family homes) area in the hills and around the reservoir. Real estate listings mention if a home is in this school’s district because of this school’s great reputation. The other school draws from a less pricey area and is known for having a lot of english language learning students. Needless to say, real estate listings do not mention this school’s district.

    My final public school anecdote for the day…my sister teaches 6th graders in a rural/impoverished school. She was told this summer that due to state budget cuts she will get no $ for her classroom this year. This means she can pay out of her own pocket for whatever supplies she needs and/or ask parents for donations.

    Does anyone point to public schools in well-off communities when they want to talk about our “failing” public education system? Hmmm. Why could that be?

  22. Historiann on 02 Oct 2010 at 4:54 pm #

    Thanks for the corrective info, Jack. I should have remembered that from the conversation at Tenured Radical a while back about TFA. As you know, I share her opinion about boutique-y fake “reform” strategies like TFA, which seem more like domestic Peace Corps-like resume buffing rather than a solution. But, she has walked the walk.

    Maybe Rhee worked with a bunch of incorrigibly bad teachers who refused to mend their ways, and that convinced her that teachers are the enemy. Or, maybe she figured out that the structures that really control public education are too difficult to change, compared with the relatively easy and low-risk strategy of demonizing teachers. (At least it’s more remunerative than, say, working for better, fairer school funding and better, fairer social safety nets for children.)

    Teachers in the U.S. should strike for a week, or a month. Call it the Red Apple Flu. If teachers are what’s wrong with education, then that should fix everything! Everything will be AWESOME without all those wretched teachers.

  23. Comrade PhysioProf on 02 Oct 2010 at 5:05 pm #

    It’s not the fault of the U.S. citizenry, which is more interested in subsidizing the elderly than in providing food or medical care for children.

    Soylent green is…peeeeeople!!!!

  24. Mamie on 02 Oct 2010 at 7:03 pm #

    Mandor’s sister reminds me that I sometimes think donorschoose.org is the saddest charity in America. For those unfamiliar with it, teachers post their classroom needs (books, science equipment, bus rental for a field trip) and a dollar amount to cover the need, and donors put their dollars toward specific proposals. Often, the amount requested isn’t much, and the need very basic. It is sad that our system of school funding (or not funding) turns teachers into beggars–or expects them to fund their classrooms out of their own pockets. Heck, there’s even a federal tax deduction for it, because teachers paying the costs of public education out of their crappy salaries has been institutionalized. How sad is that?

  25. Z on 02 Oct 2010 at 11:38 pm #

    K-12 educrats have apparently taken over my university. As we adjunctify, we will buy content from “content experts” and then have “teachers” deliver it. There is some question as to whether faculty should be considered “stakeholders” in the content of the courses they teach.

  26. Liz2 on 03 Oct 2010 at 8:35 am #

    This is interesting because I am currently wrestling with my child’s school (elementary) about his “learning”. He’s at a charter school that focuses on how fast kids can answer the questions. They are tested every month to see where they are “at” and moved around and given nominal tutoring in response to the testing – all so that the state standardized tests will be perfect. My kid gets all his answers right just not fast enough and they’ve now pegged him as ADHD and even suggested OCD. It MUST be something wrong with the KID not the system. That is what I’m getting from the school now. So the children are begin demonized now – cause you know there is always someone below you…

  27. Historiann on 03 Oct 2010 at 9:11 am #

    “Stakeholders.” Jeezy Creezy, Z. I’m sure we’re all headed where you are within a decade.

    Liz2–it sure does seem like elementary school has a lot more testing. I’m so sorry to hear that your child is being scrutinized for not running the mazes fast enough.

    But, this is the inevitable result of the Theology of the Test. If we beleive that standardized tests reveal with accuracy and certainty all we need to know about the quality of education in a given school or classroom, then anyone who jeopardizes a school’s or a teacher’s standing will be identified as a problem to be solved, rather than as a student to be educated.

  28. Comrade PhysioProf on 03 Oct 2010 at 10:28 am #

    My impression is that testing mania is yet another manifestation of corporate capture of government functions, in this case by the massive corporations that profitably generate and administer tests.

  29. Comrade Svilova on 03 Oct 2010 at 9:10 pm #

    Ergo, the people who do it must not be worth much.

    No, didn’t you know, they do it “because they love it” and that is its own reward!!

  30. Historiann on 03 Oct 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    . . . and if they don’t agree to do it for its own reward, they’re evil and bad and need to be made vulnerable. Certainly, we need never show teachers respect for their professional training and experience.

    Commenter Matt L. made this point almost two years ago:

    One of my colleagues, who had spent a decade in K-12 education said that all teachers were held to an unspoken ideal: the Roman Catholic Nuns who taught in parochial schools. They were sexless, had few or no material needs, required no pay for their work, and disappeared into the convent out of sight at the end of the school day. The trope of the WASP amateur historian or the celibate scholar in the frayed tweed jacket is similar. People with no visible means of support carrying out a higher cultural mission in the name of virtue, not material gain.

    Ultimately, these myths mean one thing. People, that is to say parents, students and legislators, do not value education enough to pay for it. Instead they would like it to be a commodity that costs as little as possible. If you want to know what society really values in a university go look at the salaries of Big 10 football and basketball coaches.

  31. Z on 03 Oct 2010 at 10:51 pm #

    This, from PhysioProf, is astute: “My impression is that testing mania is yet another manifestation of corporate capture of government functions, in this case by the massive corporations that profitably generate and administer tests.”

  32. Tim Lacy on 04 Oct 2010 at 11:49 am #

    I’m just “liking” this for the sake of it. – TL

  33. Freckles on 05 Oct 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    “Instead, we blame the teachers. It must be their fault. After all, they’re the only ones showing up for the kids every day. ”

    You tell ‘em!!!

  34. jennybean on 19 Oct 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    I think it’s true that “blame the teachers” is not, in *general*, the way forward.

    But *nothing* makes a kid’s education like a good teacher, and not much harms it more than a really bad one.

    I think we need to support teachers with better pay and better *everything* if they are doing a competent job (NO not just based on test scores…also factoring in parent surveys or focus groups, kid surveys, portfolios, classroom observations).

    But then we need a real process for getting rid of (or at least demoting and paying less for) teachers who just aren’t good at teaching. I complained about a teacher once (once!) The principal said she’d be happy to listen to me “vent” if that helped (um, no, not really). But she had no process to follow unless the teacher’s behavior was “offensive, discriminatory or criminal.”

    That just can’t be right either.

  35. Historiann on 19 Oct 2010 at 7:40 pm #

    But, what makes a teacher a “bad teacher?” One parent complaining that one teacher is ineffective at teaching one student does not mean that the teacher is “bad.” (I’m not saying that other students weren’t complaining in your case–I’m talking about a hypothetical.) The fact is that some teachers work for some students and parents, and not for others. In my line of work, I have the luxury of telling students to take a hike if they don’t like me or my methods. K-12 teachers don’t generally have that kind of luxury, nor do their students, since school until age 16 is mandatory and state-enforced.

    I understand your frustration, but I think there needs to be a fair process for the teachers, and a recognition that different teachers work better with some students than others, and that’s not necessarily the teachers’ fault.

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