Every time I have a discussion with someone who claims to be passionately committed to improving schools, they bring up the subject of the “bad teacher.” They see public schools as zones of cultural and economic stagnation in an otherwise dynamic society, saddled with a smug and incompetent teaching force that prevents schools from playing their assigned roles of creating a competitive global workforce and elevating people out of poverty.
They feel that the American educational system can only be transformed into an asset in the global marketplace if schools have the power to remove bad teachers, and if that means undermining or circumventing teachers unions, so be it, whether by giving preference to non-union charter schools, or developing teacher and school evaluation systems that are based on hard data derived from student test scores.
There are many problematic features of this analysis. Among them, the irrationality of singling out schools over other institutions (for example banks and financial institutions!) as a cause of the nation’s economic difficulties and of singling out teachers as the cause of poor educational performance in high poverty schools when research shows out-of-school factors are responsible for between 60 and 80 percent of the determinants of student achievement.
But the most damaging of all is how this worldview leads to teachers being excluded from policy discussions at the highest level and being deprived of agency and autonomy in the classroom. When you take two propositions as a given – first, that teachers have enormous power over student performance and the functioning of entire school systems and, second, that our public school system is a dismal failure – the logical response is to do everything you can to take power away from the existing teaching force and put people from other walks of life in charge of schools.
This is what has been done at the national, state and local level. When presidents, or governors, or mayors create educational policy or school reform commissions, they make sure that business leaders and foundation heads have the determining voice, with lifetime educators – especially teachers – often entirely excluded. Not surprisingly, the policy recommendations coming out of these bodies usually involving weakening or eliminating teacher tenure. They involve scripting classroom learning, through continuous testing and observation, to such an extent that teachers have little power to determine what goes on in their classrooms.
I am sure reformers would like to say that these measures have shaken up a stagnant system and led to improved instruction, especially for high-needs students, but there is little evidence of such improvement in terms of graduation rates, or scores on global tests. What these measures have done is reduce teacher morale to its lowest level on record and lead to an exodus of talented people out of the teaching profession.
I see this every day in my communication with teachers, both in the Bronx, where I have developed close ties to many schools, and nationally, where my reputation as a teacher advocate has brought me in contact with both veteran and young teachers. Not only do teachers everywhere feel the sting of being excluded from policy discussions and attacked almost daily in the media by politicians and school reform advocates, their classroom experience has been poisoned by protocols which require them to drill students to pass standardized tests to the exclusion of all else, and by continuous invasion by administrators and evaluators who scrutinize their every move.
It is hard to put in words how difficult it is to work in a profession that is “under suspicion,” where you are regarded as a potential danger to the children you work with, and where everything that goes on in your classroom is being shaped by people far away, be they in the offices of test companies, or the programs developed by management consulting firms hired by the school systems.
From Bill Gates, to Michelle Rhee, to Arne Duncan, education reform advocates constantly emphasize the need to improve the quality of the nation’s teaching force. Ironically, the policies they have pushed for, and that are being implemented in every state and every community, insure that exactly the opposite will happen.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of White Boy: A Memoir (2002, Temple UP). This article originally appeared at L.A. Progressive.