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John Merrow Headshot

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

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TEACHERS BASHING
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With all the attention on marriages these days (the Royal Wedding, Newt Gingrich and wife No. 3, Mitch Daniels and his happy remarriage to his ex, and so on) shouldn't we be paying more attention to one very troubled marriage: the one between the American public and our teachers?

No doubt it's troubled, but can this marriage be saved?

Like any long-married couple, teachers and the public have been fighting off and on for years -- in their case for more than 150 years! To me, that's a good sign. After all, fights are evidence of passion, and there's no way this particular marriage will "drown in still water." But just because the two still care for each other, and for their 50 million children, that's not enough to keep them together.

Because it's the 50 million children who are being hurt by the vicious fighting.

I don't believe in "staying together for the sake of the children" if the marriage is toxic, so let's examine the facts.

Teachers are acutely sensitive to any perceived slight, which is, for me, strong evidence of just how delicate the situation is. Last week we reported on PBS NewsHour on "Last In, First Out," focusing on Hartford, Connecticut:

It's a nuanced piece of reporting by my colleague John Tulenko and producer Audrey Baker, but judging by the reaction of some teachers, you'd think we worked for Fox and were being paid by the Koch Brothers. For example a teacher in Wisconsin wrote, "Well, once again the Newshour uses biased reporting to slant educational woes into the lap of teachers unions. Are you truly paying attention to what you are saying?"

And from Maine: "I feel you gave a very anti-union program concerning teachers unions, and thus supported the 'use and throw away' culture that treats people and things like trash."

This, from Washington state: "You have oversimplified the issue, and performed some sort of 'slight of mind' trick. ... your reporter's lack of objectivity and condescending tone toward experienced teachers stunned and disillusioned me. I never knew PBS had so little regard for people like me who have devoted their whole working life to public service."

I urge you to take a look for yourself, and note how the piece twist and turns, "unpeeling the onion" the way any good reporting should. For example, the Hartford superintendent is very upset about having to follow LIFO, but test scores in Hartford have risen dramatically, which contradicts his dire predictions of disaster. But our critics, those teachers, don't deal in nuance. Apparently ANY criticism amounts to "teacher bashing."

That's evidence of a troubled marriage. One party, in this case the teachers, is so used to being dumped on that it has lost perspective. And the public, the other party in the marriage, has also lost perspective and gives voice only to negativity. All teachers ever hear from their "spouse," the public, is that they are the sole reason our children are being outperformed by children in other nations. "It's all your fault," teachers are told, over and over. No wonder they are in a hair-trigger state.

How does this constant bickering affect the children?

I recall interviewing teachers in Washington, D.C., where under Michelle Rhee, the criticism of teachers was rampant. Teachers told me that some of their students said to them, "We don't have to listen to you or do what you say, because you are going to be fired." When one spouse is actively disrespecting and undermining the other, children learn a lot of bad lessons.

Can this marriage be saved? Yes, of course, but we need a cooling off period. We need some serious listening, by both sides.

And maybe both parties in this marriage need to talk about what they want for the children. The public, it seems to me, has been sold a bill of goods about test scores, as if that's the only measure of how well they have raised their children. Teachers want to do their part in child-rearing, but that's hard to do well when they are told that it's all about test scores and that the results -- if bad -- are entirely their fault. They are afraid to try new things but instead are driven to teach to the test. (And they don't get credit when scores are good, which adds salt to the wounds.)

I'm only being slightly facetious here, because all this heat is actually quite dangerous. We need to sit down with ourselves to talk about the purposes of public education. What do we want our children to grow up to be able to do? Pass tests? Or how about this list: "Work productively, raise families, vote, pay taxes, think critically, support their communities, and adapt to change" for starters? Is passing tests the appropriate marker and legitimate predictor for all this?

Not for me. For my children, and now for my grandchildren, I want adults to look at them and wonder "How are you smart?", not "How smart are you?"

We need to save this marriage. What would you do?