03/10/2011 01:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

On 30-Hour Weeks and the Public Pummeling of Teachers

It's been awhile since I had a classroom of my own, but my memory of teaching in Chicago bears little resemblance to the picture Mayor Daley painted last week in a talk at Wheaton College.

"Our teachers [in Chicago] work six hours a day," Daley told his suburban audience. "Six hours a day. What do you think of that? Thirty hours a week."

His comments came in reference to a proposal he made in 2007 for the city's teachers to work an extra 15 minutes each day without additional pay. The Chicago Teachers Union wouldn't agree to the added time without a proportional salary increase, and the mayor is apparently still steamed about it.

"I'm not condemning all the teachers," he said, "but you know, there has to be a time and place for everybody to have to give to the less fortunate ... Unions have to understand, that you have a responsibility. It's not just a paycheck."

Adding insult to injury was the fact that Daley went out of his way to congratulate himself on everything he believes he's done to improve Chicago schools during his tenure ("The system was collapsing. I knew I had to take responsibility."). He heaped praise on charter schools. And he applauded the business community for their support of education reform over the years. The only criticism he had of anybody involved in education was reserved for the people who spend their days - well, six hours of their days anyway - in classrooms.

I guess by now teachers are supposed to be accustomed to the public pummeling they've been getting from the likes of Bill Gates, Fox News, Waiting for Superman, and, most recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. In a sense, Daley's just piling on.

But come on. Thirty-hour weeks?

During my years in the classroom, many of my colleagues regularly arrived at school an hour before the official start of the day to make final preparations for lessons, meet with fellow teachers, or work with small groups of students. A number of them also stayed for at least an hour after classes several days each week -- often longer -- to run after-school programs for things like chess and drama, or to work one-on-one with students. Teachers who doubled as coaches often spent evenings and Saturdays at games.

Beyond the additional time at school or with students, most teachers I know -- and I've worked with lots of them over the years in my roles as teacher and teacher educator -- also spend a half dozen or more hours each week outside the classroom doing school work: planning lessons, reviewing student assignments, communicating with parents, doing online research, locating (and purchasing with their own money) quality resources, spending time in the community in which they teach, creating materials for their classes, and more.

I could go on (weekend workshops, evening fundraisers, student performances), but all of this is mostly a distraction from what actually matters. The "new reformers" have been so successful in framing the debate around public education that teachers and their advocates are left spending way too much time on the defensive. And that causes us all to take our eyes off the things that need attention if we really want to work toward equal opportunities and outcomes for all children.

Education historian Diane Ravitch spoke to this during an appearance on The Daily Show last week:

"I think the things that are being done now by Secretary Duncan, by the Gates Foundation, by the Broad Foundation, by all these very wealthy, powerful people are taking us down the wrong track. Because they're focused solely on how do we find the bad teachers. I don't think America is overrun with bad teachers. I think America is overrun by poverty -- too much poverty among children."

As usual, Ravitch is right on target. And remember, the people who are now insisting that the way to improve schools is to bust the unions and fire all the "bad" teachers are, for the most part, the same people who for the past 10 years have been telling us that the answer is more testing. Do we really want to keep marching down the path they're clearing?

Whenever I hear dismissive comments about teachers like the ones made by Mayor Daley, I think about the teachers in my graduate classes on weekday evenings. They are, by and large, thoughtful, skilled, and dedicated educators. Their passion for their work, and for doing right by the kids they teach, is inspiring. But many are discouraged. They feel like they and their profession are under assault.

I also think about the young people in this country -- the undergrads, the high school students -- who might be considering a career in the classroom. In his State of the Union address, President Obama implored them to make a difference by becoming teachers. But how many bright, talented kids want to go into a profession where they will not only have their daily work constricted by misguided policies, but where it seems they're going to be under relentless public attack?

Even the lure of six-hour days and 30-hour weeks may not be able to compete with that.