More on Teacher Bashing -- Getting Proactive

02/04/2011 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Merrow Education Correspondent, PBS NewsHour; Author, 'The Influence of Teachers'

Last week in this space I wondered why the President had singled out for high praise a school in Denver where the teachers had taken on their own union to get work rules relaxed. Was he, I asked, sending a not-very-subtle message to teacher unions, "Put kids' interests first. Stop with the trade union behavior"?

I asked Peter Cunningham, the Department's uber-capable Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, how that particular school was selected. He responded in an email that he had had nothing to do with it.

So if it wasn't the Department of Education, then who? The likely suspects are on the President's White House staff or in the Office of Management and Budget. Perhaps someone is off the reservation.

Or perhaps a speechwriter didn't perform due diligence. That happens.

Or maybe eager staffers who work for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (former Denver Superintendent of Schools) did their job--promoted their boss--effectively. (We saw the Senator and others from Colorado give their own standing ovation at that point in the speech.)

I wish the President had singled out a successful school that also models what many of us would like to see everywhere: teachers and their unions working with management to give kids maximum opportunities to learn. That would have been a great lesson for his audience, and it would have helped tamp down the teacher-bashing and teacher-union bashing. Instead, he added fuel to their fire, which is already hot and getting hotter, as more governors go after tenure and seniority.

But what matters more right now is what the Department and others are actually doing. Lots, it turns out. For instance, later this month the Department will host 150 school districts (in Denver!) for two days about "labor management collaboration." In the press release, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is quoted as saying, "Union leaders and administrators across the country are finding new ways to work together to focus on student success. The leaders from these 150 districts are committed to bold reforms and are showing the country what is possible when adults come together, particularly in tough times, to do the right thing for kids."

This event is sponsored by the two teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators and the Council of the Great City Schools. That is, just about everyone. The Ford Foundation is picking up this tab, according to the press release. Elsewhere, the Gates Foundation is putting serious dollars behind collaborative efforts in Hillsborough, Florida and other districts.

The skeptic in me wonders about two phrases the Secretary uses: "bold reforms' and 'student success." If by the latter he means higher test scores, this meeting won't amount to much. If by "bold reforms," he means "turnaround specialists" and other half-hearted changes, the meeting will probably be a waste of time.

I hope he (and Peter Cunningham) insist that everyone prepare for the meeting by reading or re-reading the two most recent surveys of teachers done by Met Life and Scholastic/Gates Foundation. Use those documents as the foundation, and something great could come out of these two days in February.

Stopping teacher bashing is not enough. Nor is "better communication" between labor and management. What's needed is a proactive effort to make teaching a better job.

NB: "Better Job" does NOT mean shorter hours or higher pay, if you trust what the teachers themselves say. What they want, according to MetLife and Scholastic/Gates, are opportunities to collaborate, involvement in curriculum, trust and respect.

John Merrow blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared. His newest book, The Influence of Teachers, will be released next month.