Monday, October 20, 2014

Teachers and Their Detractors

One of the most depressing aspects of K-12 education, along with its massively inequitable nature, is the cynical and contemptuous attacks on public school teachers, part of a destructive and duplicitous agenda not found in other OECD nations. 

Teaching has become an increasingly thankless profession; teachers are expected to solve all the problems of their charges, who often come to them poorly prepared, if they come at all. Teachers in poorly equipped schools can and do help those students, but not as much as is needed, and not as much as in richer districts. Hence, achievement gaps between rich and poor do not lessen, they grow ever wider.

Many college graduates enter teaching, in part, because jobs seem to open up with regularity. This should be a warning flag. The turnover rate among teachers is high; roughly half have moved on to other employment after five years. And that is in a tough economy where there are not many reasonable alternatives. 

So why would a caring and smart recent graduate consider teaching? Society says we need more and better teachers, but unfortunately, that's not all society is saying. The teaching profession has worked for years to upgrade and further professionalize teachers and curricula. There has been, or was, a great deal of pressure on those entering the field to be properly credentialed, meaning, generally, not only that one should have a college degree, but an advanced one as well, in the appropriate field, at least for those teaching beyond elementary level.

Now that's just the subject matter. The push, especially in response to the No Child Left Behind Act, has been for teachers to be knowledgable about pedagogy as well. Thus, a teacher's credential is called for. In some jurisdictions, that has meant successfully completing a course of instruction that might last one year. After passing a few qualifying exams, taking several courses in classroom management, learning theory, curriculum development and more, and after spending a few weeks as a student teacher, you were considered, in most school districts, a certified teacher, though not necessarily a most highly qualified one.

The trend within pedagogy, as with subject matter, was to further ratchet up the requirements. A mere teacher's certificate was not good enough. After NCLB the ambitious teacher, those who aspired to most highly qualified status, would be expected to obtain a master's degree, this one in education. That's in addition to the masters in the subject the teacher intends to teach.

And now, most recently, there are trends in the opposite direction threatening to undo recent gains. Politicians and political operatives, mostly Republican, are pushing far different ideas and outcomes. With little good evidence, they proclaim teachers, at least experienced, tenured, and unionized ones, to be inherently the problem, but nothing that can't be fixed by stripping them of their pensions, tenure, and union membership. A pay cut is also in order; got to balance that budget you know. And that mantra that you have to pay top dollar if you want top talent? It's a truism held up by free-market ideologues as applicable everywhere --except for teachers.

So now, especially in red states, teachers can no longer expect additional pay to match higher qualifications. For Republicans, all public school teachers already earn too much. Nor can teachers expect a decent retirement. Recall that the recent recriminations against teachers, coinciding with the presidency of Barack Obama, are after the NCLB era that demanded that teachers be more highly credentialed. In other words, many thousands of teachers spent huge sums of money to upgrade their credentials and become better qualified. It was a trend that didn't last.

So those smart enough to get advanced degrees in math or science, and might have once considered teaching, now face a hostile environment where teachers are publicly ridiculed by students, parents, the media, and members of congress. They are told they make too much, their retirement plans are too high, and they are thus a drag on state and municipal budgets. In an nauseating display of obtuse thinking, teachers are expected to be social worker, friend, counselor, foster parent, pastor, babysitter, as well as teacher, and then are blamed because they have not solved all the problems that others have created, including pathetic, criminally irresponsible parents.

It is true that some teachers are not performing well. Leave aside for the moment that teacher evaluations are fraught with difficulty; never forget that a major reason you hear diatribes against public schools and, of course the unions, always the unions, is because they are a target of a conservative agenda. The religious right remains hysterical about sex education, secular, and more inclusive, curricula, the teaching of evolution, and, incredibly, critical thinking skills. And Republicans of a broader stripe have long worked to undermine teachers' unions for the same reason they have opposed all unions; doing so undermines the Democratic Party's base, especially when it comes to voter turnout in elections. 

Others have written extensively on the depressingly well-orchestrated and politically-motivated effort to undermine public education and teachers' unions as well as the failure of charter schools to live up to the hype. See, for example, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch. Others argue that public schools are doing better than critics care to admit. I'll come back to these issues another day. But I'll finish here with a point not often made by others.

What is fundamentally different now than in the past is the investor class, which with the help of mostly conservative legislatures, has entered the field and is in the process of monetizing education. Billionaires promising market-based miracles have found receptive politicians always looking to shift education from the public sector to the private. Their favorite Trojan horse has been charter schools, a right winger's wet dream, because they rarely involve unions, or tenure, teacher pay is lower, and in some cases they have been able to reintroduce religious dogma into the classroom on the public dime, as in Bobby Jindal's Louisiana.

And what about the teachers that really are not performing well? Conservatives will overstate the numbers, but surely there are some that don't measure up (as in every other field). First, some context; at the start of every school year, large numbers of young, freshly minted teachers enter the classroom for the first time. 
The same holds for those who, for a variety of reasons, take up teaching later in life. In either case, economic circumstances compel many to enter a field they might not have otherwise considered, not because they don't want to be good teachers, or because they don't care, but because teachers and those considering teaching suffer, like most of us, from a terrible job market, where free trade has stripped away millions of jobs, unions have been crushed, the minimum wage is far lower than in comparable countries, and where overall wages have been flat for decades, even if productivity, corporate profits, 
and the cost of living have not. In other words, many teachers cannot just up and leave for a comparably paying job. They cannot walk out just because certain critics endlessly taunt and complain. If one cares to look, job opportunities for both inexperienced grads and middle-aged workers on their second career are very tight, unless you think big-box retailers and the like are acceptable alternatives. 

All of this is separate from the actual workday. When they enter the classroom most new public school teachers are immediately hit with a hellacious shit storm from every direction. It is not always students specifically, or the endless bureaucratic torments, but rather the totality of the experience that makes public school teaching difficult and stressful. Those who have not taught in an American public school, most especially the most adversely affected ones, cannot truly appreciate how difficult the job is. The pay is unusually low in the United States, commensurate with public opinion of what teachers are worth. What is harder to quantify, and impossible to appreciate for non-teachers, is the way years of teaching in a crowded, hot, underfunded school grinds down all but the most resilient, not to be confused with the best or most talented.

Teaching is not immune to the growing realization among American workers that they have declining employment options and thus feel they must hang on to whatever job they have, regardless of the stress and indignities. Those who do have options either avoid teaching entirely, or leave when they can. Some may be putting in their time until retirement, but most who choose to stay in teaching are talented and devoted, yet the attacks on unions and pensions hurts all teachers. 

The most talented young graduates see and hear the vapid platitudes about the satisfaction and nobility of teaching on the one hand, and the now widespread attacks to lessen pay, degrade the profession, and balance state budgets by firing teachers and shuttering schools. 

Why would our most capable recent graduates enter the field under these circumstances? Why be devoted to a system that treats you as the problem?

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