Freethought Almanac

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Teachers Are Not the Problem

When I was in public grade school, if there ever was any problem between my teachers and me, my parents – without the slightest hesitation – took the side of my teachers. I didn’t like it at the time, but, with the clarity of hindsight, I know they were right: my unionized teachers really had my education as their number one priority and this is what my parents believed. When I later became a high school substitute teacher, and later an adjunct community college professor, I learned for myself that there is simply no way a sane person would suffer the long hours and low public esteem of a teacher without an abiding love of opening and expanding student minds.

I briefly considered making education my career. But I never lost my respect for education and educators. Even when the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike September 10.

Recent editorializing in the Washington Post and the New York Times falsely claimed the CTU want to keep the status quo in Chicago schools when just the opposite is the truth. Rather than pitting the teachers against their students, in fact the teachers, supported by a majority of informed parents, were striking for the benefit of their students and against the status quo.

You can tell this because every single issue in the CTU strike is a wedge to bring more corporate control to and extract more profit from education. Let’s look at the issues in the strike: merit pay, an expansion of charter schools, teacher and principal assessment systems that are linked to student standardized test scores, a longer school day and job security for veteran teachers – not to mention an increase in music, art, and gym programs available at public schools – and you’ll see a union marching toward better education.

Merit pay based on teacher performance is excellent in the abstract, but how is teacher performance evaluated? It is easy to see that having a great teacher in the classroom will benefit every child. But it does not follow that, if a child fails to learn, that is solely the teacher’s fault. Using student performance on standardized tests to evaluate teachers (or schools) is like using a sobriety test to evaluate your driving skills: you’re getting the drunks off the road, but you’re measuring the wrong thing!

Expansion of charter schools is one solution offered for failing schools. But in 4/5 of cases, charter schools – another name for corporate-controlled schools with selective entrance requirements – are a solution in search of a problem. If charter schools are no better than neighborhood schools, who is pushing them? Watch pro-corporate control, anti-teacher union documentaries, like Waiting for Superman (2010) and Won’t Back Down (2012) and you will see for yourself.

In spite of a long history of teachers and their unions fighting for better school funding, smaller class sizes and increased school resources and facilities, Waiting for Superman casts teachers as villains and charter schools as the saviors of education. And when the filmmakers compare U.S. schools to schools in Finland, they neglect to mention the unionized, tenure-guaranteed teachers and the cradle-to-grave social welfare system there!

This year’s documentary, Won’t Back Down, is a classic bait and switch: professing to favor parent-empowerment with “parent trigger” laws which theoretically turn control of failing schools over to parents, in fact such laws give control of schools to for-profit corporations! The “parent trigger” laws touted in Won’t Back Down are sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), among others. You may remember ALEC as the infamous reactionary lobbying group pushing retrograde legislation on conservative members of state legislatures.

Teacher and principal assessment systems that are linked to student standardized test scores proposes a solution that doesn’t fit any problem. Even the makers of standardized tests agree. The media discussion of failing schools has been narrowed to issues of teacher quality, as if that is the only factor in student performance. As long as the media talk only about teacher quality, and measure that with student test scores, we can blame and punish teachers, cut their salaries, increase their class sizes and restrict their collective bargaining rights. As long as the media talk only about teacher quality, corporate-backed education reformers can lay on their business model of education and suck taxpayer money into corporate coffers – even while achieving palpably paltry outcomes.

Student achievement does not spring from a vacuum: there are significant environmental factors influencing performance, such as poverty, homelessness, crime and other social issues. These are beyond the teacher’s control. Standardized assessment regimes compel teachers to “teach to the test” or lose their jobs. And who do you think creates and sells these standardized tests to the schools? Huge corporate testing companies such as ACT Inc, ETS and College Board, who average $62 million profit in a single year (2007)!

The line the corporate education reformers use as a whip against the Chicago teachers and their fellow professionals across the country is, “Let us just get rid of a few bad teachers and everything will be fine.” It’s a major PR achievement making teachers look greedy and billionaires look altruistic! Sure, Chicago teachers make more money than the low-income parents whose children they teach (in fact, so do most of the corporate media journalists who covered the strike). But teachers are highly educated professionals with a serious responsibility.

Teachers deserve respect, not derision. If they are protected from being fired for reasons unconnected with job performance (tenure), that is a good thing. If they make good money, that’s another measure of respect. Teachers are not the problem. They don’t teach because they make a lot of money, they teach because they make a lot of difference.

To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: Teachers Are Not the Problem

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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