Saturday, October 2, 2010

Demonizing Teachers: Simplistic Solutions for Education Reform (or why most policies for reforming K-12 will not make Johnny read gooder)

Barack Obama did it in a recent speech as did Tom Emmer at the Humphrey Institute. Both of them along with scores of other politicians and think tanks heap all of the failures of American education on the backs of the American teacher.

For all of them, the reason why Johnny and Jane cannot learn and why some schools are failing is that there are too many bad teachers. Variations of this argument are that unions protect bad teachers, we do not hold them accountable enough, that we need pay for performance, or that we need other measures to improve the quality of teaching. If only teachers taught better, it seems, our educational problems would be solved. This is a large part of the logic of Bush’s No Child Left Behind, a policy that Obama has largely left in place, of Minnesota’s Governor Tim Pawlenty, and of Tom Emmer who is running for governor.

Were this the cause of our educational failings it would be nice and simplistic and perhaps the solutions would be obvious. Yet educational reform is far more complex than simply seeking to hold more teachers accountable. This approach really demonizes teachers, and it misses the complex reasons for understanding why American K-12 works and fails.

I write about K-12 today for several reasons, First, education reform is front and center in the Minnesota governor’s race. The three candidates offer contrasting views on education reform with Emmer mostly taking the demonizing approach. Second, instead of talking about the horse race and polls, education policy is something worth examining. Third, I am an educator who sees the product of K-12 in my classroom. I first walked in the classroom at age 20, giving me more than 30 years of experience teaching. Unlike most college professors who have never taken education classes, I have. I originally wanted to teach high school history but changed to college. Yet I regularly visit high schools and talk to students. I have some sense and knowledge about teaching and learning.

My first observation is that demonizing teachers solves nothing except to demoralize them and drive away the best. If the focus is on attacking them, nothing will change.

My second observation is one from one of the first education classes I ever took. My teacher drew a triangle on the board and on one corner wrote school, and then home and community on the other two corners. He then said that students are educated in all three places–school, home, and community–with teachers, parents, and others all working to educate. His point was to drive home that schools and teachers at best are responsible for one-third of all the learning that takes place with students. Teachers cannot teach unless parents and other reinforce what they do and what their children learn in school. Clinton may have caught the idea of this years ago when she wrote It Takes a Village.

How can teachers be so responsible for student learning when students go to school only a few hours a day and for barely 180 days? They are being asked to take full responsibility for the success or failure of their students when they see them so little. We are perhaps asking teachers to do the impossible–to do too much–often without parental support.

My third observation is that public K-12 has to take students as it gets them. Teachers receive students at age five, and in all states of preparedness for school. As Jonathan Kozel has demonstrated in Savage Inequalities (a book everyone in America should read), we have a dual educational system in the US. If you are white, middle class, and affluent, the system works well, if you are Black, Hispanic, Indian, another person of color, or poor, the system is a failure. Child poverty is huge, many students come to school ill-clothed, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The crisis of American education is that for too many students they cannot learn because of the poverty they endure.

When in the 60s school lunch programs and Head Start began, it was recognized that kids cannot learn on empty stomachs or when for the first five years of their lives they endured poverty. One cannot compete in an educational 100-yard dash if everyone else begins the race at the starting line and you are ten yards back initially. No one, including Obama, or the major gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota, seems to recognize the real crisis is the context of race and poverty that encompass K-12. Ken Pentel, one of the minor party gubernatorial candidates, talks about this but no one listens.

My fourth observation is that teachers need to teach. They need discretion to use their skills and work with students. Too much of K-12 is prescribed by accountability tests that lead to teaching to the test and hamper the ability of teachers to do what they know to do. I find it ironic that politicians, few who are teachers, are drooling out ideas about education and why students cannot learn when they have no experience or knowledge about teaching and schooling. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous philosophy, once said: “That of which you have no experience you should remain silent about.” Good advise.

Finally, over the years I tell my students that learning is a cooperative venture. I will work hard but they have to do the same. The same is true for K-12. Students have to do their share, requiring parents and the community to provide the resources and encouragement to motivate students.

Thus, where should we start with real education reform?
  • Address the race and poverty issues enveloping schools. Fund quality preschool (as Art Rolnick urges) and quality day care. Fully fund Head Start and address the other social needs of students.
  • Lengthen the school year by considering year round school.
  • Free teachers up to teach.
Finally, get elected officials out of the business of writing curriculum and tests. I grew up in New York with a Board of Regents–experts who did education standards for the schools. I find it nutty that Minnesota legislators write standards. They know little about education and the product of their efforts is a political compromise. Turn education over to those who know something about it–the teachers who you want to demonize instead of wanting to support.


  1. That's the most sensible thing I've seen written about education since, well, Rob Levine.

  2. Very good points. Of course, this will almost certainly never happen. For one thing it would require the GOP to give up on demonizing the teacher's union as the reason why our public schools are failing. Seeing as how that's been a successful wedge issue for them (if for fundraising even when not electorally all that useful), I don't expect them to let it go.

    Lengthening the school year is an idea whose time has probably come, but it will be difficult to implement in the current economic environment. How do we fund it? Where do we find the resources to cover the additional busing transportation costs, building operations, and so forth, not to mention increased personnel costs? Inner-city schools (read: minneapolis public) are in a severe budget crunch due to declining enrollments and there are no funds available. (one of the forgotten issues in school funding is just how severely rising energy prices have crippled school transportation & heating budgets)

    Testing is a real problem. It's used very punitively. It's not particularly responsive or sensitive in what it measures, so we don't learn much from the testing we do actually do. The shift in emphasis to testing reduces the time spent on critical thinking skills and anything else that isn't easily evaluated via a testing mechanic (and usually one that has a funding stream attached to it). About the only thing that testing seems to have achieved is to prove that charter schools and vouchers aren't a magic bullet that will fix public education...

  3. As a high school student I had a math teacher who was superlative and a math teacher who was incompetent. The superlative teacher went on to another district where he was competitive in math bowls with students who were previously considered slow. The other teacher stayed in the district for another 25 years and dropped the math SAT scores for two generations of graduates of that high school.

    You want to argue that eliminating bad teachers is not a solution? You're talking to the wrong guy. No amount of money, community involvement, parental concern can overcome a teacher who can't communicate. Teacher's unions aren't the whole problem with education or the only problem with education but to argue that they are not a critical piece of the problem is a political nonsense that ignores reality.

  4. You're right; demonizing teachers or students or administrators or voters won't work all that well. I'm running for a seat on the local school board this fall and demonizing has been the dominant theme for at least the last 20 years. And you're right, there are three points on the education triangle, soon to be four if the feds continue to involve themselves. So how does a lowly school board member unite the points? I'll pass it on if I find out. Any concrete suggestions would be most appreciated, before November 2nd if possible.

  5. Joel:

    I never said there were not bad teachers. There are. However, the problem of bad teachers is overwhelmed by many other forces such as poverty and racism. I had lots of bad teachers but learned despite them. I did not go to school hungry, had two supportive parents (until my fsther died with I was 16), and I was motivated to learn. All of that rendered bad teaching a minor issue. My broader point is that we are demonzing teachers and making it sound as if thwey are singularly responsible for the failures of American K-12. If teachers are not doing their jobs let us give them better training before seeking to dispose of them.

  6. Most teachers are decent, reasonable people, who try to do their best and aren't any more lazy or stupid than the rest of us. Collectively, however, they stand in the way of reform because of the inexorable logic of the closed shop union. They must join the union to get a job. The union is run by those who have been there the longest without advancing, who of course highly value seniority, conservatism in all matters, and lack of pressure to perform as they get close to their pension. Teachers need to act like professionals, but they're stuck in unions that force them to act collectively like assembly line workers. Teachers do need unions, as they are facing a monopoly employer (the state), and often get caught between parents and the school system in battles over individual children, battles that people rightly take very seriously. But the teachers' unions should be more like professional associations than industrial unions. Allowing teachers to join whichever union or association they wanted, including none at all, would be a big step forward towards reform. When teachers become valued professionals rather than unionized laborers, teaching will once again attract bright and motivated graduates.

    Student success is most highly correlated not with good teachers or good schools, but with good parents. Parents of any income level who drill into their kids' heads the importance of education, who stress written rather than visual media, and who support the actions of their children’s' teachers and schools produce consistently successful students. The generation that survived the Depression and WW2 was able to provide a better life for their children, with lots of food and free time and fun, and few of the deprivations and horrors that had gone before. This indulgent behavior was reinforced and amplified in the generations that followed. We're now way too easy on our kids for their own good. Schools will never really succeed until parents force their kids to take education seriously, and allow hard work and discipline to be the watchwords at their children's schools. Teachers need to ask more of students, and adults need to stand resolutely in the face of their beloved yet lazy children, and force them to deliver. In the end, that will be the real reform.