Anti-Teacher Upsurge

I’ve seen a rising tide of anger directed against teachers and the teaching profession in the last few weeks, and it’s a little frightening.  Chris Christie’s decision in New Jersey to use the governor’s office as a bully pulpit set off a firestorm on an anti-cuts webpage on facebook, which in turn prompted news stories that drew hateful comments. And, of course, there’s the Newsweek story, and the Central Falls High School story, and … well. I’m sure you have examples to draw on.  There’s this article from Philadelphia that notes the trend, too.  The comment at the end from Suze Orman is telling:

“When you are somebody scared to death of your own life, how can you teach kids to be powerful?” she said of schoolteachers. The article went on to explain that Orman “has been reluctant to work on school curricula on personal finance, because she says students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth.”

One comment by a teacher-hater in New Jersey railed against an upset school-librarian who makes $83,000 a year.  He found out her salary by using an open database in New Jersey’s government that reveals the pay of every state and town employee.  He harped on her for using incorrect grammar, and for not knowing her business, and for complaining about her pension and health care benefits, and not just accepting what the governor gave her. And all this for just 180 days of work a year!

I just recently had a chance to look at a school’s budget, and I learned that the school shells out 60% of its expenses for salaries.  If that’s the case at most schools, and I bet it is, then I understand why attacking the teacher’s unions seems like such a strong and safe bet for top-down school reformers.  “If we can just drive out the bad teachers, the ones just in it for the money,” they reason, “we’ll be able to reform the schools as we like!”

The difficulty, of course, is that none of us are in it for the money.  My oldest professional colleague is in it because he has an active mind in a decaying body — coaching students through the intricacies of mathematics is a saving grace in his life.  He has all the money he wants; what he doesn’t have in the bank accounts, but gets from teaching, is intellectual stimulation.  Another colleague really loves basketball.  Teaching is a path to being a great coach, for him.  Another colleague chose teaching because with kids to raise, he wanted his work to be in line with the values he upheld as important — staying in a defense industry didn’t seem like a good long-range choice.  All of them have a passion and an intellectual drive that makes them intrigued by some fourth thing beyond food, shelter, and sex.  Even the teachers that I regard as the most egregious and misguided teachers I know have a devoted following of students around them, because they mean well, challenge their students even when crabby and difficult, and they try hard.

But there’s been a sea change in the world around us since the end of the cold war.  The jobs have gone overseas. The tax bases of many communities have shrunk.  The federal government’s ability to grant assistance has shrunk, too.  The value of a dollar is more flexible than it used to be.  And with public assistance programs on the ropes, education looks like one more thing that can be scrapped.  Plus, there’s the chance to make oodles of bazillions of dollars from running private, for profit schools.  Provided someone can figure out the model for the schools to work on, of course.  I gather that the only successful profit-based models found so far involve stripping the school of the resources they need to achieve their primary mission — teach.

The cost of information is falling, too.  A classroom teacher started the twentieth century as the most educated person in many a rural town.  Now, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the teachers are likely to be only one among many — and the least likely to be invited to the dinner parties.  And the least likely to attend budget meetings, or run for public office or the school board.  Meanwhile, the cost of the information she hawks is dropping rapidly, and may wither to nil before the fat lady sings.

In short, this anti-teacher surge is just the rising wave.  It began with the school choice movement, grew in the vouchers movement, and carried over into No Child Left Behind.  Now it’s moved into Newsweek and the Race to the Top.  On the other side, there were the murders at Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and other locations, and the voracious need of our media to cover those tragedies live.  There’s no conspiracy here, just a sort of relentless flood surge of resentment against our profession for failing to make our nation’s children into a wonder of the world on a shoe-string budget.

What rising ant-teacher sentiment do you see? Where do you think it’s headed? What will be the result?

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  1. […] Anti-Teacher Upsurge — That year, 2010, saw an incredible upsurge on both the right and the left, of anti-teacher rhetoric.  Most of that anti-teacher rhetoric, alas, drove a lot of good people out of teaching… and left most of the bad methodologies that both sides critiqued, still in play. And American kids are still dying in the classroom from gunfire, and becoming mentally-broken by the teach-to-the-test culture.  It’s bad. […]

  2. I came across your blog while researching a post for my own blog, “Secrets of an English Teacher.” Since my blog is more memoir than commentary (though there is some) I linked yours. I’ve talked about some sociological context for the current rage at teachers–the cultural image of a teacher as poor, learned and not much use in the real world; and also the underlying mistrust of education in the American psyche. Once corporations (with government permission) ditched workers’ pensions, there was a “slowly I turned” moment as suddenly bereft taxpayers saw that public employees still had pensions. Rather than turning on Congress for allowing the outrage, the public adopted the good old American “If I can’t have it, you can’t have it attitude.” Now the hard right has convinced Americans that teachers–not bankers, traders or CEOS–are dragging us into debt. Your thorough and thoughtful examination of the issues is a pleasure to read!

  3. The Educational Derivative Formula looks something like this: No Education = Poor Jobs = More Prisons. As an educator I’m still wondering the implications given the formula and wondering if the cost of education and paying professionals to run schools is still cheaper than the cost of jail? For example, my research shows that the average costs to educate a student for 13 years in the United States is $9,666 per year. The average annual operating cost per state inmate is approximately $27,000 per year for 30 years to life. I guess cutting the educational professional sector now will provide an economic offset with increased prison expenditure. I’ve come to the conclusion that my Teachers Union has not done as good of a job representing me as the Jailers Union. Oh, I forgot to mention my Teachers Union was dissolved. Thanks for this article in your blog.

  4. 60% or more of school budgets are payroll (not just teachers, by the way, but custodians, secretaries, superintendents of schools etc.) because schools are a service business. They do not deal in a hard product such as cars or potatoes. Check the budgets of your doctor’s office, your accountant’s office, your barber shop, your lawn care company, your post office. The budget will primarily be payroll because they are service businesses.

    • I don’t disagree.

      I’m going to comment on Clay Shirky’s recent piece on the collapse of business models, and I hope you’ll see why this is potentially a serious problem for our business model.

  5. Sadly, I’m seeing much of the same. I can’t predict if this is just the outrage of the moment, or if this is just the beginning of something worse, but I don’t see how the angry sentiments are going to result in much improvement. It’s probably dangerous to make such a comparison, but the anti-teacher/school sentiment that some are espousing so loudly is in some ways reminiscent of the anti-soldier/military sentiment held by some during the latter years of the Vietnam war. At what other points in our relatively recent history has such a surge of negativity been directed at a large group of people in public service? I’ll let you, as the history teacher, try to answer that or choose to take the comparison any further. 😉

    • I think you’re on the right track by making the comparison with the anti-military movement at the time of the Vietnam War, but I’m planning on making a different comparison.

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