Walt Gardner, writing in his EdWeek blog, concluded recently: “The latest reminder that freedom of speech for teachers in K-12 is an illusion came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati on Oct. 21. In Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District, the court ruled that teachers cannot make their own curricular decisions.”
This significant court case revolved around an English teacher asking her students to choose among often banned books, to read the chosen books, and then to examine why the books were banned. Many would consider this assignment a rich and engaging lesson ideal for high school students.
But this ruling comes amid an unmatched season for examining teachers and teaching.
In Little Rock, AK, on 25 August 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan presented a speech laced with civil rights rhetoric, mentioning teachers over four dozen times (and poverty none). In this speech, which echoed similar talks by President Obama, Duncan placed public school teachers front and center:
“[T]he big game-changer for us, in terms of both formula and competitive programs, revolves around the issue of teacher quality,” adding:
“Nothing is more important and nothing has a greater impact on the quality of education than the quality and skill of the person standing in the front of the class-and there is so much that needs to change in the way that America recruits, trains, supports and manages our teachers.”
Not long after Obama and Duncan began focusing on teachers and teacher quality as the central component of school reform, the media followed with a similar theme. Waiting for Superman premiered with a great deal of fanfare and support, including an episode of Oprah and a week-long focus on education at NBC.
The messages included that the teaching profession is crippled by bad teachers and that teachers unions stood in the way of real reform, since unions protected those bad teachers. Further, Waiting for Superman suggested that charter schools staffed by teachers from alternative programs, such as Teach For America (where applicants need only a college degree and a few weeks of training), could be the saviors the U.S. has been seeking for decades when faced with a failing public school system.
In August of 2010, as well, the teacher assault was raised even higher when the Los Angeles Times published teacher quality analyses based on value-added methods (VAM). The charges against teacher quality and teachers unions initiated several stringent rejections (here, here, and here), but most challenges came from educators themselves—and received little media coverage.
The message was becoming clear: U.S. public schools are failures because we have too many bad teachers, and we have too many bad teachers because of teachers unions. But it didn’t stop there.
By October, the narrative added that our teaching core is weak because “[c]ountries with the best-performing school systems largely recruit teachers from the top third of high school and college graduates, while the United States has difficulty attracting its top students to the profession, a new report finds.”
The formula was growing complex, but there was a pattern: (a) Usurp teacher union control and fire bad teachers, and then (b) restock depleted teacher core with recruits from the top students in the U.S.
Until you consider the great contradictions of all of this and even more recent news. Let’s return to teachers’ autonomy as professionals: “’Teachers are not everyday citizens,’ the panel wrote, adding that the school board had the right to control teachers’ curricular choices and in-class speech.”
And also consider that during the first weeks of the 2010 NFL season, three players were fined for excessively violent hits during several games on the same Sunday. The fines? $75,000 and $50,000—well above the average salaries for teachers across the U.S.
Now let’s step back from all of the separate but overlapping claims about teachers, teacher quality, and teachers unions. If we look at them together we discover that two powerful but contradictory messages are existing simultaneously in the larger public discourse—contradictory messages that allow one message to mask the other.
Political and corporate leaders are seeking to speak about teaching as if it is a profession while expecting those professionals to function as a service industry.
The narratives offered by Obama and Duncan, Waiting for Superman, and organizations such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Teach for America argue for the best and the brightest to implement mandated common core standards so that their students can take national tests for which those teachers will be held accountable—all with those teachers having no first amendment rights, no right to due process, and salaries that are less than a common NFL fine.
Beneath the political and corporate veneer espousing teaching as a profession lurks a simple fact: We want teaching to be a service industry, or worse yet, teaching is a service industry.
Yet, if public education is ever to fulfill its promise as a central element in the pursuit of free and empowered people living in a thriving democracy, we must seek teaching as a profession—a quest that flies in the face of the contradictory messages dominating public discourse today.