All over the nation, teachers are under attack. Politicians of both parties, in every state in the union, have blamed teachers and teachers unions for the nation’s low standing in international tests, and our nation’s inability to create the educated labor force our economy needs. Mass firing of teachers in so called failing schools has taken place in municipalities throughout the nation and some states have made a public ritual of teacher’s humiliation. In Los Angeles and New York, wildly inaccurate teacher ratings based on student test scores have been published by the press, leading to some of those cities best teachers being attacked as incompetent, resulting in resignations, and one actual suicide among those defamed by this campaign. Big budget films such as “Bad Teacher” and the documentary “Waiting For Superman” popularize the idea that public school teachers prevent poor children of color from getting a good education; while corporate funded organizations such as “Children First,” and “Stand For Children” put forth the idea that teachers must work in fear of firing or loss of pay if children are to excel. It is no accident that teachers all over the country are thinking of leaving their jobs. A recent student showed that teacher morale in the country is the lowest it has been in the last twenty years
One question we must ask is why this campaign has acquired such strong bipartisan support and why the public has not spoken out more against it. It is true that attacks on teachers have occurred in the midst of a broad based attack on the bargaining rights and benefits of all public workers, but even by that standard ,teachers have been singled out. In New York State, where teacher evaluations were just released to the press, there is a state law exempting police and firefighters from having their evaluations released to the public. Nothing better symbolizes the way teachers have become “fair game” for public demonization in ways that will make talented people think once, twice and three times, not only about entering teaching, but about remaining in the field. Needless to say, it also fosters an atmosphere of skepticism, disrespect and hostility on the part of parents and students that will not contribute to a good learning atmosphere in what will remains of the public schools
I can understand why corporate America would want to make teachers scapegoats for an attack on public education and teachers unions; there are huge profits to be made in the testing industry, in educational technologies which replace teachers, and in constructing and managing charter schools
But why are so many parents and the general public buying into this campaign and cheering it on! After all, politicians wouldn’t be bashing teachers if they didn’t think it would get votes, no matter how much money they were getting from the testing companies!
And here, we have to take a hard look at the way American’s shrinking middle class and battered working class looks at the teachers in their midst. While large numbers of people are losing their jobs, getting foreclosed on their homes, making wages that can’t pay their mortgages or basic expenses, finding themselves with children living at home who have school loan debt they will never be able to pay off; here is a group of people, 80 percent of them women, who make better salaries than they do, have better health plans and pensions, and to boot get 2 months off in the summer!! “Damn,” many say to themselves, “who do teachers think they are? Why should they live so well on my tax dollars why I can barely keep my head above water? At the very least, they should feel some of the insecurity I feel every day and face the kind of performance assessments workers in the private sector deal with all the time. Yeah! If it helps my kids learn, rate them and fire them. I don’t want my tax dollars wasted!”
Given what has happened in the American economy in the last four years, or for that matter the last thirty years, that is a very difficult argument to counter. It is exactly the kind of sentiment that America’s unionized blue collar workers faced in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s when big corporations started closing factories and ruthlessly cutting wages and benefits. The non unionized work force in big industrial states refused to rally to the defense of their unionized counterparts and so almost without exception, industrial unions lost battles to maintain their wage and benefit levels which allowed them to live a middle class life style or prevent plants from relocating. Rather than looking on unionized workers as people whose work conditions and lifestyle they should aspire to, possibly by organizing unions themselves, most people allowed envy, resentment or indifference to prevent them from speaking up or organizing in their behalf.
Now, most people who have children in the nation’s public schools are standing by while teachers are attacked and their job security and working conditions are being savagely undermined. Some are cheering the process on
That posture is short sighted for two reasons. First the same policies which create an insecure, deeply resentful teaching force will do grave damage to children. Not only will excessive testing make children hate their classroom experience, but they will be sorely missing the love and extra care that the best teachers gave their students. Beaten angry teachers will produce beaten angry students, hardened a daily dose of rigid, punitive discipline and test prep, deprived of opportunities for creativity, play, community building and self expression. Parents will discover soon enough, not only that their children are unhappy, but they are not well prepared for higher education or challenging careers. Their hopes that school will be a path to a better life for their children will be cruelly dashed.
But there is another more insidious consequence of the attack on teaching. Every time you undermine the job security, working conditions, and wages of one group of workers, it makes it easier for employers to undermine them for all workers. This is why, during the depression, many unemployed people organized in support of workers on strike, even though any body with a job, in that era, was relatively privileged. They believed in the concept of Solidarity- the idea that working people could only progress if they progressed together, and if one group of workers improved their conditions, it would ultimately improve conditions for all.
That kind of Solidarity, for the most part, is gone now, replaced by envy. But if American workers are ever going to regain their fair share of national income and win back respect on and off the jobs, it is something they are going to have to relearn. The Occupy Movement has brought back the idea of Solidarity with its image of “the 99 percent fighting the 1 Percent,” but this idea has not yet spread fast enough to stop the War on Teachers from gaining traction in every state in the Union.
But there are glimmers of hope In Chicago and New York, Occupy groups are uniting with teachers, parents and students to fight school closings; in New York, parents groups have rallied to the defense of teachers stigmatized by the publication of outrageously inaccurate teacher ratings; in Florida, a pernicious parent trigger law favoring charter schools was just defeated in the legislature.
These actions will hopefully be just the beginning of a transformation of public consciousness inspired by the Occupy Movement that will transform teachers from symbols of national decline to symbols of popular resistance fighting for the rights of all working people as well as the nation’s children
Can we do this? To borrow a slogan from a well known politician. Oh yes. Yes we CAN!!!