Teachers are underpaid and not respected enough. I can agree with David Denby of The New Yorker on that much. But the rest of his screed on teacher bashing is hard to swallow. It reads like a greatest hits of anti-reform talking points, an amalgamation of all the myths spewed forth against education reformers. Let’s tackle the problematic aspects of Denby’s article. Education Reformers Don't Disrespect Teachers and Teacher Pensions Are Bloated. Denby quotes education journalist Dana Goldstein from her book, The Teacher Wars about the lampooning of the tenured teacher as “a vampiric type who sucks tax dollars into her bloated pension and health care plans, without much regard for the children under her care.” What this ignores are the forces immobilizing the teaching profession, which are far beyond the control of education reformers. Here in Illinois, bloated pensions are sucking tax dollars and worse, draining retirement benefits away from teachers. A new report from Bellwether Education Partners found that one out of every four state tax dollars goes to fund pensions yet most of the money pays down pension debt rather than providing teachers with actual retirement benefits. More sobering, 78 percent of new teachers hired in 2014 are expected to leave the profession before serving 26 years, the point at which a teacher will break even on their contributions. Thus, the vast majority of teachers won’t ever see a dime of retirement money. Education reform isn’t destroying the teaching profession—it’s a decades-old system resistant to change and unwilling to take into account major shifts in the way people approach their careers. People don’t necessarily want to stick to one career or location throughout their lives. The days of loyalty to a single organization for 30 years are long gone. And the longevity numbers are only going to get lower when mobile millennials start to dominate the teaching ranks. Facing a broken pension system that renders their retirement contributions worthless if they don’t want to remain as teachers for the totality of their working lives, on top of policies such as “last in, first out,” what incentives are there for teachers? Especially those with nascent careers? One model of education reform is striving to make teaching not only, as Denby writes, “the way to a decent middle-class life,” but as a distinguished profession deserving of high pay—without having to wait until the very end of a career for any pay off. The District of Columbia Public Schools system rewards talented teachers who work with the most disadvantaged children $100,000 annually after four years. Its teacher recruitment efforts are among the most aggressive in the country and led by a former teacher, no less. Elevating teacher pay and benefits as well as the respect awarded to the profession is of paramount importance to education reformers. But to do so without regular evaluations—as opposed to just every five years—or without fiscally sound policies in place doesn’t get us closer to these goals. In what other sector is it permissible to go as many as five years without a performance evaluation? Why would we encourage people to contribute to pensions that net them nothing? Yet these are the problems facing teachers that are going largely unaddressed. Reformers Do Not Blame Teachers for Educational Failures and Poverty Is Not Going Unacknowledged. Denby writes:
Yet if students from poor families persistently fail to score well, if they fail to finish high school in sufficient numbers, and if those who graduate are unable, in many cases, to finish college, teachers alone can hardly be at fault.He also writes, “But, in recent years, teachers have been held responsible for things that may often be beyond their powers to change. They are being assaulted because they can be assaulted. The real problem is persistent poverty.” We can have two problems. One is poverty. The other is the quality of teaching. Just because one of them is a problem, does not mean the other isn’t. Award-winning teacher Nathan Bowling, whose blog is required reading, tweeted: https://twitter.com/nate_bowling/status/685585132669931520 And he is right: poverty increases the difficulty of educating children but it doesn’t negate the valiant efforts of those teachers who will not let poverty deter them from giving all they can to needy students. Bowling offers another rejoinder on this topic: https://twitter.com/nate_bowling/status/694730027980619776 When “poverty is the problem” is chanted like a melody, then all else gets tuned out. We don’t focus on the things that are within our grasp. What is within our control?
- Recruiting more teachers of color to diversify the overwhelmingly white and female teaching workforce across America.
- Training teachers to become aware of racial bias and thus not lessen their expectations of students.
- Pushing students of color to take challenging courses.
- Not seeing poverty as a condition that automatically cripples children, but as another unique set of circumstances for teachers to work with.
- Or, most radical of all, provide the best teachers to schools that need them the most.
In particular, the system as a whole has been described by “reformers” as approaching breakdown. But this is nonsense. There are actually many good schools in the United States—in cities, in suburbs, in rural areas.Sure, there are good schools across the country—if you have the good fortune of living in a state with an equitable funding formula, an area where high property tax rates reign, or you swing admission into an extremely competitive magnet school. Otherwise, your options are limited. Available data disprove Denby’s ludicrous assertion that public education overall is well. The gap between urban and suburban schools remains significant. In New York City, the Yonkers City School District has a high-school graduation rate of 66 percent. In nearby New Jersey, some suburban districts have rates that are at least 30 points higher. They also have far fewer low-income students. As for rural schools, they are not much better than their urban counterparts. Children in rural areas also struggle with poorly funded schools, entrenched poverty, and too few jobs. How can Denby simultaneously assert that public education is okay while mentioning that only 59 percent of African-American boys graduate from high school? What about the alarming news that nearly 50 percent of public high-school students in Los Angeles are not on track to graduate? If it was, why would there be a demand for charter schools (which are public schools, too), which have tens of thousands of parents on waitlists and growing? Blame “corporate reform” all you want, but traditional public schools, with their long histories of segregation and racism and underperformance, are driving away families of color. Highly Unionized Areas Do Not Produce Higher-Achieving Students and Common Core Is Working. Denby claims the Northeast, with its high union presence, produces standardized test scores higher than the national average while the less unionized Deep South yields lower scores. Setting aside that Denby unleashed his vitriol against standardized tests and is now using them as proof, mistakenly, for the success of teachers unions, he fails to understand the old adage of "correlation does not imply causation." Education reformers have never blamed unions alone for all our educational ills, but to credit unions for educational success based on geography stretches credulity. The Northeast is considerably wealthier than the Deep South, where a number of the poorest states in the nation are located, and with the Northeast’s wealth comes a host of well-funded schools. We know that impoverished schools get less funding and fewer quality teachers. To argue the lack of a union presence is the explanation behind lagging test scores is disingenuous. The Common Core, despite the maelstrom of controversy heaped upon it, is succeeding. Forty-five states have markedly raised their standards. On top of that, Common Core-aligned tests are doing a good job measuring substantive content. For a writer at one of America’s premier magazines to parrot political propaganda to pen a flimsy critique of our work—sans data and any kind of reliable evidence for that matter—is surprising. We fight for good teachers because we believe they are the most important factor in improving schools. That’s not humiliating them; that’s anointing them to be, as he put it, the “everyday gods” we want them to be.
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...