American teachers are under attack. Across America and across party lines teachers are being blamed for poor student test scores, the widening achievement gap, low rankings on international student evaluations, and an American workforce that is ill-prepared to build the nation’s economy.
Recently, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie lambasted a teacher, yelling at her to “do your job!” This happened a few days before Christie was reelected governor in deep-blue New Jersey with over 60% of the vote — so clearly, his tactics struck a chord with many. But this problem is not just confined to New Jersey, and Governor Christie’s assault is but one example of the bullying teachers are up against. Oklahoma teachers have been threatened with the loss of school funding, New York teachers and parents have been blocked from criticizing the new Common Core, Alabama teachers have been disparaged for criticizing the state’s education crisis, and there have been a series of mass firings.
Attacks on teachers have developed in the midst of broad-based attacks on the bargaining rights and benefits of public workers. But teachers and teachers’ unions have been singled out for public demonizing. Teachers in New Jersey, Idaho, Rhode Island, Florida, Nevada, and New York have seen losses in their rights to unionize, losses in their collective bargaining rights, losses in their salaries, and losses in hiring. In the midst of a trenchant anti-bullying movement, it is ironic that many Americans remain complicit in the bullying of teachers.
It’s easy to blame teachers, because we most often imagine them as leading the classroom and directing students. A study published by the Frameworks Institute found that when people think about education they imagine teachers. When asked about the problems affecting our education system today, surveyed informants focused on teachers, assuming that teachers are not accountable, too greedy, and just not working hard enough. The tendency to focus on the small picture — individual teachers — misses a huge opportunity to see the many, interlocking issues shaping the public education landscape.
The most glaring example of teacher scapegoating is the trend of blaming teachers for the widening achievement gaps between white students and students of color. The issue of fixing achievement gaps should not rest on fixing teachers as an individual group, taking away their bargaining rights, or weakening their unions. Instead, much more attention should be given to the multiple and interlocking systemic problems plaguing public education, and affecting student performance.
One of those problems is high-stakes testing. Standardized tests have become the gold standard for measuring student learning and goals of teacher accountability, but the truth is that testing outcomes are not a reliable marker of student or teacher success. Research consistently shows that tests more accurately reflect teacher emphasis on tests, narrowing the curriculum, and limiting teaching and student learning. Students and teachers deserve better. Students deserve a richer curriculum from which they can grow, and teachers deserve an opportunity to put their well honed skills to practice.
Poverty and its related problems are another major issue affecting public schools. There are 16 million American children who do not get enough to eat. Journals of pediatric, childhood, and adolescent health are replete with evidence showing the negative relationship between hunger and school performance. In addition to hunger, there are massive numbers of children who do not get adequate health care or who live in violent neighborhoods where it is unsafe to play outside, let alone walk to or from school. How can children who may be hungry, feeling the pangs of a toothache, or too scared to walk to or from school focus on learning or perform well in school?
In the long term, bullying teachers will do more harm than good to the teaching profession. A 2012 MetLife Survey of Teacher Satisfaction found that teacher job satisfaction fell 15% since 2009, the last time the survey was given, and 29% of teachers in 2012 vs. 17% of teachers in 2009 reported they are likely to leave the profession for another job. Fear about losing your job, constant attacks, and loss of bargaining rights are enough to push many great teachers out of the profession. For the teachers who remain, worrying about job security and constant scrutiny will doubtless take a toll.
Teachers play an important role in classrooms, in schools, and in communities. They can be the voices and critical links advocating for students, representing schools, and strengthening communities. Denigrating teachers undermines the profession, and diminishes the potential to build a movement that provides every child the best education that our nation can offer.