Teachers, Perceptions, and Distractions

Originally posted on Open Salon on January 18, 2011:

              First, a word on how the public perceives teachers, particularly since the current economic crisis began to make its effects felt in late 2008.  In my home state of New Jersey, budget cuts at the state level have impacted schools profoundly, and a great debate has been raging over public schools and accountability.  High property taxes and the public perception of government workers have stirred up a lot of resentment of teachers in particular.  An editorial of mine printed in the Courier News in Somerset County, NJ begins to challenge some of the more meanspirited commentary and remind teachers that the high road is the only road for them in the discourse.

               Much of the response to that article included the clarification that it was the teachers’ unions, not necessarily teachers themselves, who had drawn the ire of the public.  While I consider that only partly valid–Internet and radio commentary does not always draw a sharp distinction between teachers and unions–unions have struggled to promote a message that resonates with the public.  Too much union rhetoric comes across as angry and confrontational, and the most astute listeners are keenly aware of the enormous sums of money and influence that the unions wield.  A bit of cynicism and skepticism is to be expected as a result of mission creep, as union membership has expanded to include paraprofessionals like custodians, bus drivers, and support staff.  While paraprofessionals have every right to unionize and enjoy the benefits of representation, each group represents a new set of interests and concerns.  At best, it is a complicated endeavor for a union to advocate effectively for all concerned.  At worst, this arrangement stokes resentment for a powerful special interest group that appears shamelessly to be grasping for yet more money and influence.

               Still, for all of that, teachers’ unions represent professionals who provide one of the most crucial public services: instruction of children.  All sentimental rhetoric aside about our children being our future, teachers do important work.  Never in human history has a generation been born to so much material wealth, media influence, information inundation, cultural diversity, and difficulty in finding one’s true path in life.  Never in the history of American public education have students, generally speaking, been less interested in what goes on inside classrooms and more distracted by what goes on outside.  This is indeed a critical time for our children, our nation, and our society.

                There is a widespread perception that professionalism is in decline in many fields.  This includes teaching.  There is no use in trying to ignore the fact that in any occupation, there are skilled, dedicated people who substaintially outperform their peers, and there is a large majority who cluster somewhere around a norm.  A problem arises, however, with the remaining minority who fall short of the norm and escape detection and rehabilitation.  If this occurs in any profession, it has consequences for everyone in that field and even beyond.

                It is hardly an original idea that members of any field of endeavor have an obligation to set high standards for themselves and their colleagues.  Professional organizations are responsible for precisely this sort of thing.  Indeed, teachers’ unions work assiduously to live up to that responsibility, and yet they have failed to make that clear to the public.  This is something that requires attention.

                Nor is it an original idea that leaders and managers in any field must set high standards and promote a vision of excellence that captures the imagination of workers being managed.  They must assess on both quantitative and qualitative levels, build cohesion between workers, and promote an environment of initiative, professionalism, and enthusiasm for the work that everyone does.  In education, school administrators are responsible for this, and in many schools–certainly not all–they struggle mightily.

                Already, we start to see a more complicated picture than that painted by most media commentators, and yet many people in the general public take the easy bait like the provisions of No Child Left Behind and the establishment of charter schools.  The problems plaguing our schools are essentially reflections of problems in our society at large.  Without many of us noticing, a cultural crisis has overwhelmed us, and illogically, we see higher test scores as a unified solution to our problems.  We might just as easily put a terminal cancer patient on statins to get her cholesterol level below 200.  Somebody might feel better then, but certainly not the patient.

                In another article, this one published a few months ago in the Star Ledger, I responded to some very astute observations made by Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson.  In short, I argue that we ought to hold schools and teachers accountable for their performance.  I point out, however, that while standardized test scores have their uses, they should not be used to rate individual teachers.  I also assert that there are means currently in place that can ensure that only high-quality teachers teach in public school classrooms.  Specifically, I state that for all of the outcry over teacher tenure, administrators should never grant tenure to ineffective teachers.  Furthermore, they should not hire nor rehire teachers who cannot perform their duties well, nor should states issue licenses to candidates who are not properly prepared for the demands of the teaching profession.  These three processes–licensing, hiring, and tenuring–are critical tools for procuring and retaining talent in the classroom, and yet they are poorly administered.

                When we view these matters in this light, calls for accountability begin to look more like attempts to assign or deflect blame than like any meaningful attempt to improve the education of our students.

                There are indeed meaningful and helpful criteria for rating and compensating educators.  That, however, is a topic for another day.

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