K-12 education has been consuming a great deal of of our political attention of late. There have been series of articles in most newspapers and national opinion magazines in the past few months and lots of discussion on cable news channels. Schools across the nation are dealing with body-blow budget cuts, the demands of No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, as well as numerous changes in state regulations. Add to this the outright assault --- and there is other way to describe it -- on teachers by many of the nation’s governors and mayors.
Teachers have become, for lack of a better work, the enemy. Teachers are the problem.
Charter schools, high-stakes testing, and alternative teacher training programs are the new normal. Teachers, and especially their unions (both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) are now widely seen as obstacles to reform. The teacher unions are holding back change and hurting our kids -- and teachers are overpaid for a job with summers off, or so the assault goes.
A cover story last year in the Sunday's New York Times Magazine depicts a circle of national reformers who have vilified the teachers’ unions and see collective bargaining as the clear enemy -- previewing what happened in Wisconsin by a few months. How did we get here? When did teachers become the main problem of the K-12 educational system? There have always been problem teachers (we have either had one ourselves or have children who have). But by most evidence, teachers by and large are good, dedicated and caring professionals who work hard at a very difficult job.
It has to stink to be a teacher these days, especially one in an underperforming urban district. Mandated testing, lack of resources and precarious job security are constant. Teachers in many states are waiting for pink slips, watching state budgets and hoping for the best.
Pundits are demanding that tenure be abolished and the workday lengthened. Some are also arguing that we need to privatize the entire system or blow it up completely. I wonder at times, as I watch education students: who would want to be a teacher in all of this mess? As I look at the future teachers at my own institution, my answer is: some of the best and brightest minds of their generation, who have worked hard to master the skills necessary to become great teachers. They want to see improvement and change and they know it will not be easy, as they will sacrifice much in the process. But, for them it will all be worth it if they reach just that one kid.
Isn’t that what we want in teachers? As a parent of school-aged children, I know it is what I want. All the reformers argue they want the best teachers to enter teaching. But the evidence shows most teachers last less than five years, driven out, no doubt, by this unrelenting assault.
What is missing from this conversation is a historically informed understanding of teaching. Teachers were for many, many years underpaid, and the teaching profession anything but professional. In the 20th century, teachers marched to professionalization, raising standards and depoliticizing the schools -- and with that, they improved education and, yes, their own economic situations, too. And it was the nation’s colleges and universities who in many ways spearheaded this effort.
And yet, today, we in higher education are silent as teaching is assaulted.
We stand at a crossroads, and it is time that academics, those of us privileged enough to be based in universities, step up to defend the institution of education and those professionals who have dedicated their lives to it. We cannot remain silent spectators. Speaking up is the right thing to do.
But there is also a selfish reason to do so. In the public mind, there is a seamless educational system. And K-12 budgets and tenure are tied to the attacks on higher education. We cannot selectively enter the fray only when it affects us, as the recent Wisconsin flap involving the esteemed historian William Cronon suggests. We need to see these episodes as interconnected and, more importantly, we need to see a continuum of educators. The nation’s teachers are and were our students. An attack on them is a direct attack on what we do and how we do it.
In addition, most teachers are our former students and alumni. They represent the best of our institutions and are being attacked, and their education is being devalued -- our education is being devalued. As educators who care about our students (both past and present), we need to step into the void both physically and intellectually.
Diane Ravitch, in her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, has traced the decline in education to the push to make teachers mere functionaries (deprofessionalization). Ravitch, as many know, had formally been a cheerleader and active policy wonk pushing for many of these policies as George H.W. Bush’s under secretary of education. In her new book she does a complete about-face.
Ravitch worries rightly about what we lost: We have traded curriculum for testing and lost the joy in learning. She calls for a return to a time when teachers were intellectuals, informed professionals, and where there was a public consensus on the importance of public education. In short, she asks us to return to a time when teachers passionate about their mission and knowledgeable about their subject could transform lives. And here is where we need to help.
As university-based educators, we must see K-12 teachers as allies in education. We need to defend education as both art and science and seek creative solutions to improve learning. We all recognize the issues and problems in the educational system. But rather than continue to complain about the quality of the incoming freshman class, we need to partner with local school districts to help improve the educational system. Now is not the time to watch and wait, but to take bold action. But we will only be successful if we see K-12 teachers as partners, and not just junior partners.
In the end, what is at stake is not just K-12 schools but our nation’s democratic future. Ravitch is right: we have lost faith in education as a social and economic necessity. But as people with a platform -- as professors still are in their communities -- we need to remind the public why education matters. We have access to editorial pages, community newspapers, forums, etc. We need to take advantage of our privilege to reform education and reposition teachers. Without it, we are doomed to continued failing schools, whole-scale disinvestment in education and a permanent underclass.
And what will all this mean for universities? It doesn’t look good: underprepared students; budget cuts; the adjunctification and deprofessionalization of the professoriate, to name a few. So we can either step up and deal with it now, or wait till it knocks on our door next. And I already hear the footsteps.
Richard Greenwald is professor of history and social sciences and dean at St. Joseph’s College, in New York City. He is the author of a forthcoming book entitled The Death of 9-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works (Bloomsbury Press).