Thursday, June 2, 2011

War on Teachers?

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?


Sarah Stitzlein said...

Barb--Thanks for offering these snippets. The New York Times recently offered a "debate" on the topic "Why blame the teachers?" at Notice that the question is not "whether" to blame the teachers, suggesting instead that we've already moved past that point (though the organizer does raise this issue indirectly in the longer description of the debate). One debater is Diane Ravitch, who concludes that "Now it's open season on teachers and their profession." Indeed many of the teachers that I talk with daily, including my husband, feel stalked, hunted, and attacked. Not quite the same war metaphor that you explored in your piece, but a similar feeling of being under siege that you described near the end.

I have been writing letters to the editor in my local newspapers touting the important role of teachers and public education in hopes of shifting the rhetoric a bit. Perhaps such efforts only end up temporarily deflecting or reducing the blows on teachers, but even small steps like this seem worthwhile to me and I encourage others to try them. It's not a counterattack so much, but I hope that it at least bolsters our troops...or makes them less easy prey.

Amy Shuffelton said...

War might be the wrong analogy because it suggests some sort of organized, sustained effort. Attacks, yes, but a lot of it looks to me like desperate flailing. (Of course, I might be overestimating the organizational capacities of the military -- maybe war, too, is a lot of flailing about). My interpretation is that with middle class incomes declining, job prospects in the dumps, oil and food prices going up, environmental crisis looming, and previously underrepresented groups demanding a fair share of whatever is left of the pie, Americans are looking around for a scapegoat on whom to blame national disequilibrium -- and have settled on public education. It's handy, close by, and involves women and children, who are easy targets. If it's warfare its more like gang warfare or guerilla warfare than the sort of organized campaign directed by a central government -- which only makes it scarier.

Both Wisconsin, where I teach, and Chicago, where my daughter attends school, feel increasingly threatening to teachers. To me, it looks very scary indeed.