Illustration: Randall Enos
It’s hard not to take it personally: A few months ago, the cover of Newsweek consisted of 11 sentences in chalk on a blackboard. They all said the same thing: “We must fire bad teachers.” Big yellow text in the center called it “The Key to Saving American Education.”
Teachers have always been devalued in the United States, but in the past months the pace and intensity of the attacks have escalated sharply. Spurred by the June 2 deadline for the second round of Race to the Top, states have raced to fire more teachers, tie pay and evaluation to student test scores, close or reconstitute more schools, and disempower teachers’ unions and teaching as a profession—trampling teachers, students, and communities in the process.
What lies behind this unprecedented assault on teachers? And, even more important, what can we do about it? We believe that these attacks are part of an effort to dismantle public education and that we need an effective, collaborative strategy to combat it.
But let’s start with what isn’t going on. In virtually the same words used to sell No Child Left Behind in the early years of Bush II, the attacks on teachers are phrased in terms of “closing the achievement gap.” In fact, the first paragraph of Newsweek ’s “Why We Can’t Get Rid of Failing Teachers” story concludes: “Within the United States, the achievement gap between white students and poor and minority students stubbornly persists—and as the population of disadvantaged students grows, overall scores continue to sag.” It would be nice if Newsweek were suddenly worried about how race and class affect student success. But these diatribes against teachers are not based in a commitment to equity.
No, if closing the achievement gap were the goal, we would see demands for adequate, equitable resources and funding for every student in every school—demands, for example, for quality early childhood education programs, full-time librarians, robust arts and physical education programs, mandated caps on class size, and enough time for teachers to prepare and collaborate. We would also see a renewed commitment to affirmative action in university admissions; a drive to recruit and nurture teachers of color; a commitment to ensure that students come to school ready to learn because their families have housing, food, medical care, and jobs; and an end to zero tolerance discipline policies that criminalize youth.
But if these attacks on teachers aren’t about ending the systemic racism that continues to undermine our education system, what is the goal?With forces as seemingly disparate as the Obama administration, the Walton Foundation, the late Milton Friedman, and the New York Times all pushing the same ideas, this is a complicated question, but there are at least two major goals: destroy the power of the teachers’ unions, and turn the public school system from a public trust into a new market for corporate development. From the time of Reagan, who used his “welfare queen” stories to scapegoat the poor as a basis on which to destroy the welfare system, this has been a tried-and-true approach to privatization: use visceral anecdotes to whip up hysteria that a system is “broken,” argue that only market competition can fix the situation, and then sell off pieces of the public sector to private corporations. This time, teachers are the scapegoats.
So it’s no accident that a major thrust of the media and political campaign has been the elimination of teacher tenure, which is blamed for making it hard to fire “bad” teachers. Everyone—as student, parent, or colleague—has felt the impact of teachers who should not be in the classroom. But don't blame tenure. Tenure is not a guaranteed job for life; it’s the right, which all employees deserve, not to be fired without due process and without just cause. If the goal were really better teaching, Race to the Top would be promoting union/district peer review and mentoring programs that are effective in helping struggling teachers and removing those who can’t make the grade. Instead, President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan have made linking retention and salaries to test scores a precondition for Race to the Top funds, and encouraged states to break the power of teachers’ unions.
The attacks on tenure are, in fact, essentially attacks on the teachers’ unions. Despite their problems, teachers’ unions are one of the few remaining bulwarks of organized labor. They are the only protection for teachers’ rights and, at their best, facilitate teachers joining forces with parents and students to fight for equitable, forward-thinking schools that meet the needs of communities and the future.
Teacher tenure—at both the K-12 and university level—is enormously important, not just to individual teachers, but also to society as a whole. Tenure is protection against shortsighted or vindictive administrators. Tenure is what enables teachers to collaborate with each other instead of competing, to speak up for the rights of students, and to fight for justice in the classroom, the school community, and the larger community that the school serves.
“Bad teachers” are being used as the excuse to turn schools into one more arena for corporate development. First Hurricane Katrina provided the context in New Orleans for firing all unionized teachers and replacing most of the public education system with market-driven charter schools. Now this phony “crisis of bad teachers,” piled atop the economic crisis, is supposedly the reason to dismantle much of the country’s commitment to public education. Just in the past few months, both Obama and Duncan publicly applauded the firing of every teacher at a Rhode Island high school; Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb announced plans to close another 44 schools in that city and replace them with non-union private and semiprivate charters; and the Florida legislature voted to eliminate teacher tenure entirely and revoke credentials based on standardized test scores.
Teachers, teachers’ unions, and public education itself are under serious threat. It’s vital that we build alliances with everyone who stands to lose from these assaults on public education.
And obviously teachers aren’t the only ones under attack. The most vulnerable to the impact of privatization are students, whose education has become progressively more circumscribed and rigid. Increased reliance on exit exams and zero tolerance discipline policies have led to increasing rates of suspension, expulsion, and dropouts.
Also under attack are parents and communities. African American, Latino, and immigrant communities have always been distinguished by their commitment to education as central to the democratic process and to the success of their children. When mayoral or gubernatorial control of schools eliminates local school boards, parents and community members lose their ability to hold schools accountable.
Teachers can defend themselves from this hailstorm of criticism only if they make common cause with everyone who has a stake in defending—and transforming—public schools. In this struggle, teachers and parents need each other. But building successful coalitions and strategies takes hard work. Many parents, particularly parents of color, are angry and frustrated by long-term dysfunctions in schools that make it difficult for their children to learn and succeed. Anything that brings more accountability—from standardized tests to mayoral control—can seem better than the status quo. Teachers too often see the families and communities from which their students come as obstacles to overcome. But successful teaching and successful organizing are based on recognizing the strengths inherent in families and communities.
The survival of public education depends on our ability to grasp these larger truths. For all their faults, public schools are at the center of building democracy, community by community, from the ground up. It’s going to take all of us working together to save them and turn them into institutions that promote democracy and empower youth—all our youth.
When parents, students, and teachers have worked together, we have been able to protect our schools and begin to transform them. Deluged with “Stop this bill” messages, demonstrations, and walkouts, Florida’s Republican governor vetoed the anti-teacher, anti-education bill passed by the Florida legislature. Student-led community demonstrations for immigrant rights, the successful campaign to fend off mayoral control in Milwaukee, and the grassroots efforts to save teacher jobs and control the charter process in Los Angeles are other recent examples. If there were ever a time to overcome divisions and fight together for strong, equitable schools, this is it.