There are two things which the PPPs frequently claim...
1. Teachers are wonderful, but their unions are standing in the way of progress. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey even went so far as to call leaders of teachers unions "political thugs."
2. The biggest problem with American public schools is bad teachers.
I've written about unions before. The idea that teachers unions are the cause of school failure is simply false. As proof I offer the fact that there are states in which nearly all teachers are union members which have very high performing schools and states in which nearly all teachers are NOT union members which have very low performing schools. If teachers unions were to blame for failing schools then we would see a correlation between high teachers union membership and low performance. In fact, the exact opposite is the case.
In addition, teachers unions do not have as much power as the PPPs give them credit for. If they did then states would not have weakened or done away with collective bargaining laws and due process laws (mistakenly called "tenure"). Teachers unions, given the power, would not have let that happen.
What about bad teachers? I've often wondered, just how many bad teachers there are...and if there are so many why are there so many successful schools? Let's take a look at some facts.
- American students in schools with low poverty are among the highest achievers in the world.
- David Berliner provides research that teachers are the most important in-school factor in student achievement, but there are a significant number of out-of-school factors which affect achievement as much or more.
- The most experienced teachers teach in schools in high income areas. The least experienced teachers teach in schools in poor neighborhoods. (See Top Teachers Rare in Poor Schools -- the article equates experience with "top teachers")
- Poverty is the most consistent factor associated with low achievement. (See Protecting Students Against the Effects of Poverty: Libraries, Poverty has a Powerful Impact on Educational Attainment, or, Don't Trust Ed Trust and Stephen Krashen Pulls the Rug Out From Under the Standards Movement)
I started this post claiming that the American people trusted American public school teachers. According to the latest PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools nearly 3/4 of Americans (71%) "have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools." It would also be interesting to ask what parents of school age children think about the teachers in their children's schools. We already know that 77% believe that the schools are doing a good job...it would be nice to know how the teachers fared among the people who knew them best.
I was also pleased to read in the poll that more than twice as many people (40%)
described the teacher who had the most positive influence in their lives with words such as caring, compassionate, motivating, and inspiring; while just 17% of Americans thought intelligent, knowledgeable, persistent, hard-working, and demanding were words that describe the teacher who had the strongest influence on them.Of course it's important for teachers to be intelligent, knowledgable, persistent, hardworking and demanding (within reason), but if students are to grow up as life-long learners, and I believe that is what the goal of education should be, teachers who have the ability to motivate and inspire are an absolute necessity.
[During my years as a teacher I worked hard to motivate and inspire my students...to show them that I cared about them. The story of Ryan, one of my former third graders, comes to mind. I got a letter from him 20 years after he left my class. He wrote to thank me for something I had done for him...not for giving him an achievement test, or teaching him how to read or cypher, but something I had done which helped him make contact with his father. Despite his current situation, I was glad that he remembered me for that instead of something more academic.]
So, if teachers unions aren't the cause of low achievement and there aren't too many "bad teachers" teaching in the public schools, then perhaps our focus should be on...
- poverty -- the disparity in our schools and our nation between those who "have" and those who "have not."
- the overuse and misuse of standardized tests (see the link to the petition, below).
- the lack of funding for public education.
- the privatization of public schools and the focus on corporate profit instead of student well being.
If you're interested, here are some articles on the number of bad teachers in the public schools.
- How Many Bad Teachers Are There?
- Just how many ‘bad teachers’ are there?
- Hey Legislators! How Many Bad Teachers ARE There??
- Teacher Hiring, Transfer, and Evaluation in San Francisco Unified School District
Stop the Testing Insanity!