Political attacks on teachers seem to be everywhere. Fanatical critics charge that teachers destroy white children’s self esteem by honestly acknowledging racism, and worse, they accuse teachers of “grooming” children. Public schoolteachers are the collateral damage in a widespread political campaign to discredit public schooling and promote privatization. As the new year begins, I have been grateful to prominent news commentators for calling out the scapegoating of schoolteachers.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s retired editorial page director, Brent Larkin devoted a weekly column to exploring what’s been happening in Ohio politics: “A large number of odious types in elected life are so obsessed with demonizing public schoolteachers that it interferes with these legislators’ ability to deal with real problems.” Larkin quotes Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association: “When you have people deliberately fostering distrust, it has a devastating impact on educator morale… There are just so many challenges in terms of inequity of resources, discipline, poverty and culture-war attacks that have been very deliberately orchestrated by people on the right.'” Larkin concludes: “Great teachers are to be treasured. The way they’re treated speaks volumes about where we’re headed.”
The Washington Post‘s culture critic, Robin Givhan wonders: “Who will remain when educators tire of picking their way through a political obstacle course of ginned-up outrage over bathrooms and manufactured controversies about racial justice?… Who will educate children when teachers finally become fed up with dodging bullets—or taking bullets—in service to someone else’s child?… It’s no secret that they’re underpaid for all the duties they perform… The United States has lost 370,000 teachers since the start of the pandemic… Critics have been punishing a them from all sides. The country asks public school teachers to carry this nation’s future on their backs, and then we force them to walk through a field of land mines.”
John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour recently wrote: “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers are about three times as likely as other U.S. workers to moonlight… However, if you factor in part-time jobs within the school system, like coaching, teaching evening classes, or even driving a school bus, then an astonishing 59% of teachers are working part-time to supplement what they earn as full time teachers, according to the Economic Policy Institute… Teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation… and according to Education Week, ‘Teachers are also working under a ‘pay penalty,’ an economic concept meaning they earn lower weekly wages and receive lower overall compensation for their work than similar college-educated peers…'”
Data confirm Merrow’s concerns. In last summer’s most recent report from the Economic Policy Institute on the need to raise teachers’ salaries, Sylvia Allegretto reported the serious and growing disparity in the wages for teachers and other comparably educated college graduates: “Inflation-adjusted average weekly wages of teachers have been relatively flat since 1996. The average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted only for inflation) increased just $29 from 1996 to 2021, from $1,319 to $1,348 (in 2021 dollars). In contrast, inflation-adjusted weekly wages of other college graduates rose from $1,564 to $2,009 over the same period—a $445 increase.”
Bloomberg adds that one consequence of low pay on top of a barrage of controversy about what and how teachers teach is the growing shortage of teachers: “Overall, the U.S. job market ended 2022 at a near record for growth but one area in particular underscores how some parts of the economy still lag far behind pre-pandemic levels… The slow crawl is largely due to one industry—education—making up more than half of the jobs lost… (T)here has been a mass exodus of educators, leaving school districts with mounting vacancies to fill.”
There is clearly a tragic disconnect between the needs of America’s public schools and the resources legislators across the states are providing. Why? Part of the cause, of course, is the ideologically driven campaign the news commentators have noticed. Far right groups like the Bradley Foundation, EdChoice, Americans for Prosperity and the Goldwater Institute are pursuing a lavishly funded lobbying campaign—with model laws written and distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council—to encourage legislators to privatize the whole educational enterprise.
Something else, however, has made our legislators increasingly susceptible to the ideology of the lobbyists and school privatizers. For several hours in December, as I watched a televised hearing of the Ohio House Education Committee, I was struck by so many lawmakers who seemed to define the role of teachers as mechanical producers of standardized test scores—and who conceptualize schools as merely an assembly line turning out workers who will help attract business and manufacturing to Ohio. I listened to a conversation filled with standardized test scores—numbers, percentages, and supposed trends measured by numbers. The only time human beings appeared in the discussion of education was when legislators blamed teachers for the numbers. It is not surprising that the same Ohio legislators are trying to transform the Ohio Department of Education into a new Department of Education and the Workforce.
In Ohio and across every state, aggregate standardized test scores dropped during the school closures and remote learning during COVID-19, but as I watched the televised hearing, the legislators seemed furious that teachers had not quickly come up with a different set of test-score production methods and turned the scores around. They seemed to believe that teachers should have been able to erase students’ emotional struggles during the return to schooling after COVID disruptions. Several declared that putting the governor in charge of education would take care of the problem and make teachers accountable.
As I watched the hearing, I realized again something that I already knew: Many of the people who make public education policy at the state level don’t know what teachers do. Few people on that committee seemed to grasp that teaching school is a complex and difficult job.
Watching the members of the Ohio House of Representatives discuss their concerns about our public schools made me think about David Berliner’s description of teaching. Berliner is Regents’ Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Arizona State University. He has also taught at the Universities of Arizona and Massachusetts, at Teachers College and Stanford University. Berliner comments on the human complexity of teaching as he contrasts the work of teachers and doctors:
“A physician usually works with one patient at a time, while a teacher serves 25, 30 or in places like Los Angeles and other large cities, they may be serving 35 or more youngsters simultaneously. Many of these students don’t speak English well. Typically anywhere from 5-15% will show emotional and/or cognitive disabilities. Most are poor, and many reside in single parent families… Many patients seek out their physicians, choosing to be in their office. On the other hand, many students seek to be out-of-class…. I always wonder how physicians would fare if 30 or so kids… showed up for medical treatment all at once, and then left 50 minutes later, healed or not! And suppose this chaotic scene was immediately followed by thirty or more different kids… also in need of personal attention. And they too stayed about 50 minutes…. Imagine waves of these patients hitting a physicians’ office five or six times a day!”
Berliner continues: “(T)eachers have been found to make about .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching. Another researcher estimated that teachers’ decisions numbered about 1,500 per day. Decision fatigue is among the many reasons teachers are tired after what some critics call a short work day, forgetting or ignoring the enormous amount of time needed for preparation, for grading papers and homework, and for filling out bureaucratic forms and attending school meetings. In fact, it takes about 10 years for teachers to hit their maximum ability….”
Watching our legislators also made me think about the late Mike Rose’s definition of good teaching. Rose taught college students how to teach and he spent a good part of his career visiting classes to observe and document what excellent teachers do. Rose’s very best book, Possible Lives, is the story of his observations of excellent teaching as he spent three years observing public school classrooms across the United States: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities… The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”
I wish the people who make the laws which allocate and distribute state funding for public schools, were required to spend one day every year visiting a public school to watch what teachers do. In fact, I wish every state legislator were required to undertake the challenge of teaching in a public elementary, middle or high school for at least half of one school day every year.
One of the most important jobs of state legislators—and a job most of them have failed to fulfill—is to adequately fund the public schools, which every state constitution promises the state will provide. It is the responsibility of state legislators to support teachers by providing enough resources to pay teachers fairly for their work and to make classes small enough that teachers can know and support each student.