I attended an education reform conference last week as part of a panel on the "new media landscape" before a group of advocates and funders. I had the chance to sit in on a few other sessions, and some of what I heard got me thinking about the phenomenon of so-called "teacher-bashing."
Like many phrases tossed about in the current education debate, "teacher-bashing" is overused to the point of abuse. Up to now, I've tended to side with education advocates who scorn the phrase because it's trotted out by teachers' union spokespeople and their allies whenever someone criticizes a contract provision, or tenure, or speaks in favor of using standardized test scores as part of a teacher's evaluation.
But the more I listen to the way some "reform" advocates talk about teachers, the more I hear an underlying disdain that helps me understand why some educators are quick to trot out the "teacher-bashing" canard.
Here's the crux of the problem as I see it. People who denigrate some teachers for not being good enough to meet society's current educational demands are aiming their disdain at the wrong target.
Rotate your perception about 90 degrees and you'll see it differently. Yes, there are ample studies and reports that find a large percentage of today's teachers come from the lower third of their college graduating class. There are also compelling new studies that show schools of education are guilty of rampant grade inflation. To top it all off, teacher licensing exams in most states are calibrated so low that few people fail them.
Add those factors together and what you get in the aggregate is a teaching force that consists of people who have not had to demonstrate a great deal of skill, knowledge or capability to land a teaching job. Within the teaching force are many people who, despite not having had to demonstrate it, are in fact skilled, knowledgeable and highly capable.
But there are others who aren't particularly skilled, knowledgeable or capable (or some combination of the three). And because there are 3.2 million teaching jobs in U.S. public schools and our quality-control systems are dysfunctional or non-existent, some of those people get teaching jobs and spend their careers teaching.
Are they to blame for this? Of course not. Yet this is where the "teacher-bashers" enter, and where those who criticize the bashers have a legitimate point. It's absurd to blame someone for landing a stable job with decent pay and great benefits for which they perhaps aren't qualified. We're blaming the wrong people. If we want in the aggregate to have a higher-quality teaching force then we need to do a couple of basic things.
First, we need to make schools of education less academic and more geared to realities of modern classrooms. Then we need to make those ed schools more selective.
Next, we must make teaching jobs more desirable by offering teaching candidates a relevant, high-quality training regimen (teacher residency programs, for example), before they enter the field and throughout their teaching careers. And then we need to trust teachers and give them the kind of autonomy and authority that creative people need to feel fulfilled in their jobs.
Finally, we need to pay teachers what they're worth. Among other things, this means doing away with the traditional salary schedule.
Look, I'm not saying anything original here about how to make teaching a more desirable field.
But in the rhetorical wars that have broken out in recent years, some well-intentioned people have started blaming teachers for not being good enough when they should be blaming the institutions that have made teaching jobs in public schools both too easy to get and too often exercises in bureaucratic frustration.