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Why America Demonizes Its Teachers

05/29/2015 10:30 am ET | Updated May 29, 2016
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Evaluating teachers on their students' performance is an issue that has elicited much comment of late. In essence, this view assumes that if students aren't learning, the fault lies squarely with their teachers alone. Well, perhaps, but not necessarily.

While the logic of this view seems compelling at first, a moment's reflection shows that it ignores several factors over which teachers have no control. These factors include: the home life of children, the poverty and segregation of the inner cities, America's Gospel of Instant Gratification, commercial TV, school sports, the restlessness of American society itself and its ingrained anti-intellectualism and ambivalence toward knowledge, youth's distrust of the adult world and the school, youth culture and its rejection of tradition, the Millennial Generation and its outlook on life, technology's negative impact on learning, Facebook, the eclipse of reading, youth's literal-mindedness, its lack of intellectual curiosity, its inability to ask significant questions, and its disinclination to develop a critical mind. To repeat, these are factors over which teachers have no control, but which have an enormous impact upon student learning.

The issue of teacher responsibility for student performance must be placed within this broader social context of what has been happening outside the American classroom for the last 30 years. Only in this way will the discussion about student learning become more realistic, and honest, and why singling out teachers alone distorts the true nature of both the problem and its solution.

When there are too few teachers in a school, and those few are overwhelmed by large classes and have no time to provide individualized attention for students -- many of whom come to school deeply troubled and alienated with all sorts of problems having nothing to do with the school -- is it any wonder that students find it hard to focus and learn?

The emotional, familial, and social problems of many inner-city students are often so deeply embedded and, in many cases, treatable only by professional help that the paltry resources of the school cannot begin to address them. These underfunded schools often lack even the essential services of counselors, social workers, and nurses because of draconian budget cuts.

What makes matters still worse is that these same schools are now set up for additional failure by being annually denied billions in vitally needed tax revenues diverted to charter schools, with no accountability, as part of a right-wing political agenda.

This is nothing less than the nationwide destruction of public schools by privatizing them for personal gain and rewarding charter-friendly legislators and governors with campaign contributions taken from that same taxpayer funding that should be going to support public schools.

And if that weren't enough, insult is added to injury when these cash-strapped schools are then routinely accused of "failing their students," when they should rather be praised for carrying on in the face of impossible odds.

Rather than blaming these woefully underfunded public schools for "failing" their children, one should consider the war zone within which these schools are located: decaying neighborhoods, virtual armed camps where students must live amidst gang wars, homicide, drugs, alcoholism, unemployment, homelessness, hunger, sickness, lack of health care, poverty, despair and hopelessness.

How can one realistically expect children to be motivated to learn amidst such conditions? These students are defeated even before setting foot in the school.

The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names. There is no "failed schools" problem in America, but only government's failed policy of "benign neglect" that has blighted inner cities and their schools for generations. One has only to consider the historical reason that caused this urban blight: the decades-old urban planning of sustained and systemic neglect that simply wrote off the inner cities to die on the vine, as state and federal funding was diverted to facilitate "white flight" to the suburbs.

It is for this reason that blaming the "failure of schools," as suggested by the film Waiting for Superman, is a willful distortion of what inner-city schools are up against thanks to an entrenched policy of government neglect, which the mainstream media refuse to acknowledge, let alone examine.

This polemic against America's inner-city public schools is a bare-faced lie that conceals the real reason for the "failure" of these schools: the deep and ingrained class and racial divisions in our nation's history as borne out by city riots over the past 50 years, with the latest in Ferguson and Baltimore. What is happening in the seething cauldron of our inner cities is hardly conducive to students learning.

How much easier to wax moralistic and blame public schools as the villains, the helpless victims of these racist policies of social injustice, rather than these policies themselves -- or even to change them!

But what politician would dare take this on! That would mean real moral leadership and honest reform, not the crowd-pleasing posturing of pseudo-reform that demonizes teachers and blames them for the responsibility that government abdicated decades ago.

It is the systemic culture of poverty and segregation that accounts for the lack of student progress within our inner cities, not teachers who can do only so much given government's intransigence.

The solution to these appalling conditions of inner-city poverty is not moral exhortation to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps, but one that has always been an open secret in Washington -- a new Marshall Plan. Those who sit at the Table of the Mighty have always known that this is the answer to the seemingly intractable problem of our inner cities. What is wanting, as always, is the political will of ridding our nation of social injustice.

Instead of hectoring teachers to do more and more with less and less, genuine reform will only begin when government redirects its resources to rebuild our nation's inner cities and support the public schools within them. After all, if we can find billions to bail out big banks and billions more for dubious military adventures abroad, we certainly can find billions to invest in our own people and children!

If we really cared about our children and their chances for a good education, we would move heaven and earth to insure that this happens. Children are our immortality, and if we don't care about them, who do we care for? Who are we as a people? What are we about as a nation?

But, then, it's always more profitable to Haliburtonize the cities abroad we destroy in war only to later rebuild them than to turn our own cities into environments worthy of the dignity of the human beings who live there, and where schools and schoolchildren can flourish.

Until that happens, talk of reform will be dismissed by teachers as empty, self-serving political bombast, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing but sound bites for the six o'clock news, launching pads for those with aspirations to higher office or the White House.

Short-term, what is needed is a massive infusion of funding into these inner-city schools to hire more teachers to teach children in smaller classes, and offer rich and diversified programs that will challenge and help them to grow as students and persons. Preaching self-help rhetoric of feel-good uplift to spin golden tomorrows from the straw of today smacks of imposing guilt trips on these victims of government inaction.

Until those in power dare to show true leadership by helping the poor rather than protecting the rich, until they live up to their oath of office by caring for all of our citizens and not just the few, until they use their power to effect positive change rather than undermining teachers who work against hopeless odds to do the impossible, until this happens, we won't be Waiting for Superman, but Waiting for Godot.

The silence of public officials about these decades of government unconcern and neglect -- the true cause of the plight of our inner cities and their public schools -- is only too understandable, because they would be indicting the very system they represent. Instead, they condemn the first responders -- teachers -- who daily must pick their way through the smoldering debris of past inaction.

In their attempt to appease a public clamoring for quick-fix solutions to longstanding problems, politicians cast about for scapegoats, a measure always more convenient, and popular, and cheaper than addressing root causes, which would mean real reform.

It is the perennial stock-in-trade tactic of those who would rather demagogue the burning issues of the day by deflecting public attention from underlying structural causes, because they lack the courage of facing the truth, the mark of true statesmen and women.

It is a strange sort of paradox that a nation which demands improved public schools is unwilling to pay for them. Indeed, indeed, it even remains silent when governors and legislators annually cut billions from public-school budgets and give this funding to charter schools, which refuse to have their books audited, as well as to accept every child who applies to them.

For too long, the teaching profession in America has been dismissed as an intellectual proletarian class, much as the Romans viewed their educated Greek prisoners of war, whom they enslaved and brought back to Rome as tutors for their children.

Teachers are routinely reviled for the important work they perform as unworthy of a professional salary, despite years of experience and advanced degrees.

And, yet, teachers continue to educate on behalf of a country that begrudges what it pays them. No wonder students doubt the value of learning, when they see that many in the trades earn more than their teachers. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson students learn in our schools.

Teachers continue to educate while politicians break down their authority with sustained public criticism and then wonder why teachers command little respect. Nowhere in the world are teachers held in such low esteem as in America, an eloquent testimony to our national character.

Teachers continue to educate those whom past centuries never dreamt capable of being educated -- everyone, and then these teachers, beset on all sides by misunderstanding, budget cuts, public vilification, and lack of parental support, are routinely condemned when they don't succeed!

And, finally, teachers must now endure the crowning indignity of a punitive evaluation, a weapon wielded by politicians who have the temerity to claim, after decades of government inaction, that teachers themselves are the problem, and, depending on their students' test scores, they'll be one step closer to losing their jobs!

Children should be tested by their teachers on material taught by their teachers, and teachers should be evaluated by their school administers as they always have been. To do otherwise is sheer lunacy since standardized testing, as is well known, doesn't measure teacher effectiveness, but the parental income and home environment of students.

The school is the proverbial Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, heroically trying to hold back the sea. Teachers alone are expected to overcome the effects of poverty and segregation upon students who live within the demoralized world of the inner cities.

In desperate holding actions, hoping against hope for government to come to the rescue, teachers never imagined that they, too, would be abandoned by government, which, rather than thanking them for their efforts against impossible odds, now turns on them for "failing their students."

(This piece is based on two revised articles published in the Times of Trenton in 2013 and 2014.)