Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014: The Year Teachers became Public Enemy #1

MOST TEACHERS WERE probably too busy working with kids to notice. But in 2014 we were declared “Public Enemy #1.”

Who so declared? A group of arrogant fools with no idea what it is like to spend a life in the classroom.

Luckily, as the chart below indicates, the general public still has faith in teachers. When it comes to ethics and honesty, elementary teachers rated higher in a 2013 Gallup survey than almost any other profession. (We were not included in a more recent survey in December 2014.) True, we lost to nurses. But we nosed out doctors and military officers.

Members of Congress, state officeholders and lobbyists (who have a stranglehold on education policy) ranked at rock bottom.

The only profession they beat out was witches.

(In 2014 nurses finished first again at 80%. Members of Congress dropped a point and came in dead last.)

WELL, THEN, WHO DECIDED teachers were the Great Satan? Glenn Beck was one. Campbell Brown was another. Frank Bruni, education writer for the New York Times, was a third.

There were plenty of others.

Beck weighed in with his book: Conform: Exposing the Truth about Common Core and Public Education. It wasn’t just Common Core that left Beck fuming. He also railed against extending the school day in hopes of raising test scores. What really made teachers wince, however, was his reasoning:
There’s also the issue of what our kids would learn with even more hours at school. Many of these educators would relish the opportunity to spend more time feeding students a steady stream of radical, anti-American political ideas, encouraging teen sexual activity, and deemphasizing the importance of traditional values and religion.

Former CNN anchor Brown also had a bee-filled bonnet. Leading the charge against teacher tenure, she left listeners with the impression that this was the gravest problem our nation faced, with the possible exception of Ebola.

Again, her “reasoning” was what shocked: 
In New York City, home to the largest public school system in America, the four-year graduation rate hovers at a dismal 60.4 percent. More distressing: Less than 22 percent of the city’s students graduate college and emerge career ready, and the number drops to 12.2 percent for Hispanics and 11.1 percent for African-Americans.
Despite those statistics, a new teachers’ contract celebrated by political and union leaders offers more frustration. The deal will weaken evaluations of teachers, reduce instructional time, send teachers with disciplinary records back to the classroom, and make it harder to fire a teacher who engages in sexual misconduct with kids.

In August the California Supreme Court rendered a decision which may end tenure in the state. First, the judge in Vergara vs. California ruled that students from low income families often had less-qualified teachers and attended schools which were less safe than schools attended by students from high income families. Therefore, the judge added, a more equitable method of assigning good teachers and a quicker way to fire bad ones was essential.

SECRETARY OF EDUCATION Arne Duncan was thrilled. After all, Duncan likes to tell anyone who will listen: “equal opportunities for education must include the equal opportunity to be taught by a great teacher.”

Real teachers, struggling to help real kids attending low income schools, might have pointed out that children from low income families also deserved great neighborhoods to live in....

Great pediatricians to keep them healthy....

That the parents deserved great job opportunities....

And that teachers deserved a great Secretary of Education, one not so utterly and consistently clueless....

Who else decided in the last twelve months that teachers were the root of all evil? Thomas J. Kane, a Harvard economist whose research helped decide the Vergara case, “proved” it with numbers. According to Kane, a poor teacher cost the average child something like sixteen bazillion dollars in lifetime earnings.

So, for god sakes, we had to have excellent teachers in every classroom.

Time piled on, too, with an egregious cover story about bad teachers (“Rotten Apples”). If a reader followed the logic of the article, they came away convinced that millions of feloniously-inclined educators were hiding behind tenure protection. Naturally, Time decided to ask former Washington, D. C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee to comment. Just as naturally, Rhee agreed the Vergara decision would fix a “broken status quo.”

Rhee, for those who don’t recognize her by name, appeared on the cover of Time in 2009. There she stood—looking menacing, broom in hand—indicating she had her own plan to fix a broken status quo. She was going to use that broom to clean up the mess in the schools by sweeping out...of course...all the bad teachers!

During her three years as chancellor, Rhee did indeed fire hundreds of educators when they “failed” to raise test scores. Rhee did reward hundreds who raised scores. She then grabbed her broom and skipped town before news of a huge cheating scandal involving “raised” test scores hit the educational fan.

WHO ELSE WAS LEADING the fight to fix education?

Bill Gates, for one, was hard at work behind the scenes. Unlike Beck, Gates was all for Common Core, even though politicians seemed unable to decide if they were for it—or against it—or for it and then against.

Common Core, as you may recall, was adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia four years ago. But in 2014 lawmakers in Alabama and Ohio were hard at work trying to withdraw from the program. In Mississippi the issue turned out to be “politically radioactive” and the governor called it a “failed program,” even though he once touted it. Georgia dropped out, citing the high costs of all the standardized testing. In Louisiana the governor wanted to rescind approval. The legislature wouldn’t let him. Indiana and Oklahoma pulled out entirely, with lawmakers who voted for it four years before leading the repeal effort.

(Teachers could only shake their heads and wonder if these people had any idea what they were doing.)

The New York Times also kicked teachers in the shins on several occasions. Frank Bruni delivered some of the best blows, agreeing that problems in U. S. education pretty much began and ended with poor teachers. After talking with Mike Johnston, former Teach for America star/turned Colorado lawmaker, Bruni had no doubt the Centennial State had acted wisely in eliminating tenure. Because, with tenure, Johnston told Bruni, there was “no incentive for someone to improve their practice.”

Who else agreed that teachers were the problem? Naturally, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America (who never taught for America or for the Fiji Islands, either), joined in the kicking with gusto. We needed smart people in every classroom, Kopp clamored. We needed people like Rhee and Johnston and everyone else who signed up with Teach for America!

Of course, one problem with this model boiled down to math. Those who signed on agreed to try to save children for two years. (After that: not so much.) Kopp had to admit that of 47,000 men and women enrolled in the last twenty-five years in the program only 11,000 remained in the classroom last September.

AMANDA RIPLEY also weighed in on the subject, delivering a number of speeches in 2014 to august bodies of non-teachers. Ripley specializes in reporting on education, although she has no personal experience in the classroom, except as an avid student. In The Smartest Kids in the World, And How They Got that Way, she first pinpointed the problem in U.S. education in 2013. Finland, she wrote, had smarter teachers. For that reason, Finnish students scored near the very top in international testing assessments.

(See: PISA scores.)

What could we learn by studying the Finnish model? We could learn that American teachers were numbskulls. That’s why American students scored somewhere in the middle on PISA assessments.

Bruni was at it again in the fall, penning a review of another new book on education, this one by Joel I. Klein, former New York City school chancellor. What factor mattered most in “the education equation?” Surprise, surprise: “Teacher quality.” Insisted Klein: “a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle.” 

This is true, of course. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy—and Klein might find that out if he tried teaching.

(Needless to say, he never will.)

Bruni reminded readers that Klein “oversaw the largest public school system in the country and did so for longer than any other New York schools chief in half a century.” “That gives him a vantage point on public education that would be foolish to ignore,” Bruni insisted. Or to put it plainly, anyone interested in education should jump in a car and drive at breakneck speed to the book store and pick up a copy of Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools.

THEN AGAIN: maybe the potential reader should tap the brakes once or twice. Klein devoted eight years to fixing the New York schools and then he decided he’d was finished. (Most of his life he has been a corporate lawyer.) Plus, Campbell Brown said the New York City Schools still sucked, despite all his efforts! So, if you’ve taught nine years, or fifteen, or thirty-one, you can offer valuable insights because you have “a vantage point on public education that would be foolish to ignore.”

Of course, Bruni never bothered to ask veteran teachers what they thought about pretty much anything.

In 2014, that was all too typical.

With the year drawing to a close, Campbell Brown journeyed to Washington to speak at the convention for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Without noticing the irony, the Foundation later reported: “At the nation’s premier annual education forum, lawmakers and policymakers were immersed in two days of in-depth discussions on proven policies and innovative strategies to improve student achievement.”

Two measly days. Two measly days—and they knew everything.

So it was, last year, that teachers were labeled “Public Enemy #1” by those who knew nothing about what it meant to work in a classroom.

THESE FOOLS TALKED and talked and talked about what had to be done to save every child. Meanwhile, they left all the saving to real teachers.


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, I try to defend good teachers whenever I can.

  2. It should be the people who think they know education to be public enemy #1.

  3. one of the many reasons i retired 6/18/14. i was just so damn tired of filling the heads of my moderately cognitively disabled kids (with measurable IQs between 40 and 55) with "radical, anti-American political ideas."

    1. previous comment removed because i misspelled a word. very "teacher" of me, i know.

    2. Yes, according to the experts we real teachers are A) dumb; B) anti-American; C) inclined to molest kids: D) lacking all incentive. I'd love to see someone like Arne Duncan try to do your job, or have Michelle Rhee teach for thirty + years, like both of us did, before she could claim to know half of what she claims now.

  4. Thank you for this. You've got class and style.

    1. Thanks, Dan. I was a pretty good teacher. So I get sick of all the criticism by arrogant, non-teaching types.