At the end of a wise and eloquent article Mike Rose, UCLA professor and expert on teaching, wonders how things would be different if—since the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in 2002 as the culmination of a love affair with testing, data, and business accountability—we had instead invested in supporting teachers, making classes smaller, and hiring staff to ensure that children whose lives are dominated by their economic circumstances can have their needs met adequately so that they can learn:
“What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students? Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high-stakes testing—from test development to the logistics of testing at each school site—if all that money had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development… Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies… My proposals do not address all that ails our schools…. But they do move us away from the current model of reform and closer to the immediate needs of teachers and students.”
One very important thing that might be different is a new trend among college students not to major in education. National Public Radio reported last week: “Several big states have seen alarming drops in enrollment at teacher training programs. The numbers are grim among some of the nation’s largest producers of new teachers: In California, enrollment is down 53 percent over the past five years. It’s down sharply in New York and Texas as well. In North Carolina, enrollment is down nearly 20 percent in three years… Why have the numbers fallen so far, so fast?… The list of potential headaches for new teachers is long, starting with the ongoing, ideological fisticuffs over the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing and efforts to link test results to teacher evaluations. Throw in the erosion of tenure protections and a variety of recession-induced budget cuts, and you’ve got the makings of a crisis.”
The National Education Association reports that teachers’ salaries on average are not growing. “Over the decade from 2002-2003 to 2012-2013, in constant dollars, average salaries for public school teachers changed -3.2 percent… Thirty-four states saw real declines in average teacher salaries over those years, adjusting for inflation. Those with average salaries declining 6 percent or more: North Carolina (-15 %), Indiana (-12.3%), Illinois (-9.5%), Florida (-8.9%), Michigan (-8.8%), Georgia (-8.5%), Washington (-8.5%), Colorado (-8%), West Virginia (-6.9%), and Mississippi (-6.2%).”
You might imagine that the alternative programs like Teach for America’s five-week summer crash course might make up the difference, but you would be wrong. Teach for America (TFA) is a relatively small program with 5,300 teachers placed last school year, compared to the over three million public school teachers across America. But TFA is not growing; it is getting even smaller. TFA expects to miss its recruitment mark for next fall by 25 percent. TFA is closing its training programs in New York and Los Angeles.
These days it is trendy to blame and scapegoat school teachers for disparities in test scores that are more likely correlated with growing economic inequality and segregation of schools along the lines of family income. Mike Rose concludes that all the talk about school reform these days exacerbates the attacks on teachers: “More generally, the qualities of good work—study and experimentation, the accumulation of knowledge, and refinement of skill—are thinly represented in descriptions of teacher quality, overshadowed by the simplified language of testing… These attitudes toward experience are rooted in the technocratic-managerial ideology that drives many kinds of policy, from health care to urban planning to agriculture: the devaluing of local, craft, and experiential knowledge and the elevating of systems thinking, of finding the large economic, social, or organizational levers to pull in order to initiate change. A professor of management tells a University of California class of aspiring principals that the more they know about the particulars of instruction, the less effective they’ll be, for that nitty-gritty knowledge will blur their perception of the problem and the application of universal principles of management—as fitting for a hospital or a manufacturing plant as a school. This dismissal of classroom knowledge fits with the trendy discourse of innovation and creative disruption… asserting that it will take entrepreneurial outsiders to change the system.”
We certainly ought to be alarmed, but why would we be surprised when fewer young people seek careers as school teachers? They are getting the message. Our society now conceptualizes teaching merely as adding value by pouring into each child’s head the big publishers’ canned curriculum that is coordinated with the standardized tests they also publish. Our law makers adopt policies that ignore what teachers do and describe teachers’ work in business-school terms. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invests $45 million to develop teacher evaluation systems based on econometric formulas that are blind to the human part of teachers’ work with children. We pay teachers less, and state governments seek to destroy their unions and thereby undermine due process and career protections. Our lexicon seems even to be losing the words that would value the time and energy and expertise school teachers expend day after day to help our children realize their promise.