Teachers Are Rightfully Demanding Better for Themselves, But What Are They Bringing to the Table?

Behold, the Chicago model of educator noisemaking has gone national, and now public school teachers have emerged as an indomitable political force using loud, large, theatrical swarms of red T-shirts at school board meetings and state capitals to demand the only thing that truly unites us as Americans. Money.

Explaining this warlike fight, the National Education Association (NEA) says, “We’re raising our voices together for our students, for our schools and for ourselves as educators,” but the idea that they prioritize students has some moments of truth followed by many hours of discredit.

Putting a high-quality teacher in every American classroom should be the goal of any responsible leader. Yet, if a new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality is any indication, not only is this not the goal, the opposite is likely true.

The report shows that the number of states requiring teachers be evaluated using research-supported objective measures (beyond simply “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”) increased from 15 in 2009 to 43 in 2015. That progress lasted into the zenith of President Obama’s education policy agenda but has receded in the four years between 2015 and 2019. In that time the number of states not requiring “objective measures of student growth” in their teacher evaluation systems more than doubled. 

Today, fewer states require their teachers to be evaluated earnestly. Ten states plus the District of Columbia have retreated on requiring the use of student growth data in evaluations of educators; 18 states have failed to enact or have struck down required improvement plans for struggling teachers and principals; 29 states haven’t enacted or have overturned expectations that teachers and principals be evaluated each year. New Mexico even dropped the use of teacher attendance as part of evaluations. Even the expectation of showing up for work was too much.

With decades of research telling us that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor impacting student achievement, how can we ignore teacher evaluation or fail to pursue improvements in teacher quality even as we negotiate things like better pay and working conditions?

We can’t. There has to be an artful and honest give and take between the public and teachers. That requires us to balance teachers’ concerns with the needs of children, and no, those aims aren’t always aligned. Teachers have unions, money and power. Students have no such army.

Yet, teachers have pushed an agenda that is all gimme and not give. More money, fewer expectations.

The public has been generally supportive of the teachers’ agenda with most people agreeing we pay teachers too little while expecting too much from them. Liberals and conservatives can argue about how we pay educators, how we fund the schools they work in, and how we support them to do their best work, but no sane person should diminish their valid claims of neglect and systemic deficiencies. How many of us would want to do a job with a thousand expectations, in stressful—indeed, almost hostile in some cases—work environments, and for less pay than an early career retail sales manager?

Still, as much as we sympathize with teacher pushback on their salaries, we can’t allow skillful strategists in the national teachers unions to weaponize our goodwill to achieve broader goals including reversing long-standing reforms in everything from student assessments and teacher licensure to charter schools and school choice programs. They want us to focus on supporting teachers, but it can’t be a one-way street. We need them to focus on supporting our kids even when they dislike policies that require public schools to show us, in numbers, the inputs and outputs critical to the success of our kids. 

The national teaching force is among the largest investments taxpayers make into the education of America’s children. We need to see the receipts and returns. 

It’s telling that education unions are always on red alert about perceived policy threats to their business model while being inert or dodgy about the one issue they should be professionally accountable for delivering on: teacher quality. Why are the people most responsible for delivering on the promise of great teaching the biggest foes of making it happen?

Raising these questions predictably draws claims of teacher-bashing, which is a clever deflection, but being pro-teacher must include being pro-teacher quality.

I acknowledge there is no short or long game for better student outcomes without skillful educators. If we care about kids we must care about teachers too. But, we can’t be blind supporters or fail to ask essential questions because we fear social shaming.

If they get to be Badass Teachers, then we get to be Goodass Parents demanding a balance of powers in public policy rooms.

We get to ask how often do teachers unions come to the table as good partners and take the lead on ridding the profession of teachers who just aren't cutting it? How often do unions come to negotiations with anything more than demands and grievances, all the while misrepresenting the aims of management, reformers and families?

As teachers across the country look to Chicago’s overwoke teachers union for cues on how to negotiate through threats, blaming and one-sided demands, I need to remind you about that union’s refusal to even be a good partner in helping their district address a scandalous sexual abuse problem.

Yes, teacher concerns about pay and working conditions are valid. At the same time, our concerns about the quality of teaching and learning are valid too. I see a lot of activity addressing their issues. When will they address ours?

Photo by TMT-Photos, CC-licensed.
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...

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