The current climate in the world of public education is nearing a boiling point, to say the least. In Philadelphia, there is a long-term plan to close or privatize nearly half of the district’s public schools. In Pennsylvania, we have a Governor who seems intent on forcing through unpopular voucher legislation designed to offer students an “alternative” to the public schools that he has systematically under funded and under-resourced. At a national level there is Arne Duncan’s (and President Obama’s) Race for the Top program, which pushes districts to adopt favorable privatization policies, test based accountability, and does little to improve the fundamental inequities in public education.
In the shadows of all of this (and often in broad daylight) are billionaires looking to push their own interests and agendas in the education realm. These so-called philanthropists are particularly troubling as they prey on deeply under-resourced districts, tempting them with massive and desperately needed grants only to threaten to pull funding if districts don’t adhere to strict (and often unresearched and unproven) reform guidelines.
With so much policy work going on, you’d think that few would give lowly teachers a second thought… BUT of course, you’d be wrong.
The recent strike in Chicago has certainly brought teachers to the forefront, but for some time, any discussion of the American education system, particularly the public schools, ultimately found its way to “those teachers”.
At this point, any time I hear someone (be it a friend, family member, news show or random person at the grocery store) talking about schools, I know it’s only a matter of time before they bring up “those [blank] teachers”. What goes in the blank usually depends on the context of the conversation, but rest assured it’s never something positive. Sometimes it’s something pitying and condescending like “those poor teachers”. Other times, the blank is filled with much more anger, “those lazy and ineffective teachers” or “those bad teachers”. (thanks Cameron Diaz, you’re a real help). As in, why won’t the Union let principals fire all “those bad teachers”. More recently, however, the blank has been filled with a new, more troubling adjective - greedy. As in, “those greedy teachers” all they want is more money from us taxpayers.
As I mentioned before, the anger or animosity toward teachers and education in general is nothing new. Schools have been “under attack” for decades now. Look to the work of education historians like Jean Anyon and Diane Ravich and you will find detailed accounts of the public outcries against various facets of the school system over the last hundred years.
However, this new adjective - greedy - strikes me as particularly unsettling. To me it signifies two things, neither of which is terribly heartening: 1) the subtle devaluing of education and 2) a growing ire and jealousy within the middle class, being fueled by the extremely wealthy.
Never has the subtle devaluing of education been so apparent to me than after an interaction with one of my college football coaches. With graduation looming, I ran into him at a baseball game. He asked the usual, “So what’s your plan? Job lined up?”. I replied, “Yea, I’m headed to Philadelphia to teach high school English”. He looked at me with confusion that bordered on anger, “What?!? Why did you come here [highly-selective, private, liberal arts college] just to be a teacher? You should work in finance or something. Come on…”. He shook his head and walked away.
At the time, I laughed this interaction off thinking he just didn’t get it, but over time, I’ve come to realize that his reaction is in many ways the norm rather than the exception, particularly when people find out that I did not use a program like TFA to enter the classroom and that I entered college fully intending to become a teacher.
To me, all of this represents a subtle devaluing of education. While many are quick to suggest that “an education” is essential, they will also suggest that teaching is not, or is somehow less valuable.
The second piece to this focus on the “greedy teachers” argument involves an overarching mentality of jealousy and ire that appears to be creeping into political discourse. These emotions lead people to make arguments about teachers being unwilling to pay their share or looking for “full-time salary for a part-time job” [one of the most bull-headed arguments, but I’m not going to go down that road]. To be clear, the jealousy that I’m suggesting is not the specific type, meaning that people are not envious of teachers’ jobs or their responsibilities, but rather the more basic type of jealousy that stems from the suggestion that something is unfair or that someone is getting more than you.
I believe that this mentality is in large part behind the support of test-based accountability, the attack on collective bargaining, the rise of privatization, and a host of other school “reforms”. Further, it is the basis for much of the “teacher-bashing” that goes on in the public arena today. Want proof? Look at the comments section on any nationally published piece about teachers or education. [Granted, my New Year’s resolution was to stop reading newspaper comments sections, but sometimes I slip up.] You will find the angriest, most hate-filled comments directed not at politicians or administrators, but at teachers.
Of course, this anger and jealousy is not directed singularly at the education realm. It influences a wide variety of public policy debates. Most recently, I noticed it infiltrating the welfare drug tests proposed in a Florida. Again, I’m not suggesting that people are envious of those on welfare, but rather they are allowing feelings of basic jealousy and anger to dictate the discussion. I saw a post on Facebook that said, “If I have to pass a drug test to earn my paycheck, you should have to pass one to take from it”. This post stripped what little bit of my faith in humanity remained. In a perfect world, of course people should be clean to get all types of government assistance, but if they aren’t does that mean they should starve? Does it mean that their children should starve? What problem does that solve?
So, what’s the solution?
How do we make people value education and stop being so angry and jealous?
Who knows? But it certainly starts with directing frustration at the places. That incredibly wealthy business-types are able to fuel and frame the dialogue about social issues in order to further their own agendas is absurd. All of this anger and ire ought to be focused on the inequities and injustices that exist throughout the country.
Rather than focusing on how much teachers make (figures which are almost never accurate) and how many days or hours they work, why not focus on the grossly inequitable funding structure that exists in American education? Instead of forcing drug tests on welfare recipients, why not explore sustainable treatment, housing, and job skills development programs?
It’s clearly time to reframe the dialogue because in the current climate, we’re all going to get burned.