Demoralizing Teachers

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Late last night my phone announced the arrival of a text message. We were in the middle of watching Succession, that entertaining paean to everything we hold in contempt – selfishness, greed, cruelty, bigotry – so I waited till the show was over to read the message. It turned out to be the perfect anti-venom to what preceded it. My long-ago student, Stephanie, in Austin, Texas (I think she won’t mind my using her real name) had just received from her mother a collection of her schoolwork, going back to middle school. It included a long note I had written on a story she produced in my English class. After praising the specific strengths of the story – all this in my challenging handwriting which often drew complaints from my students, and rightly so – I said this. “I know how critical you are of your own work, but I hope you can appreciate what a major accomplishment this is. It’s one of the most sophisticated stories anyone has ever written for me. You’ve got to keep on writing…. Never doubt your talent.”

And indeed, Stephanie has had a long career in the publishing industry and with her own writing. We have stayed close through all these years. In an early posting I told the story of the reunion and party Stephanie and two other amazing former students of mine, Katy and Warinda, who all now live in Austin, arranged for me which left their teenage kids bewildered. “Who throws a party for their middle school English teacher?” one of them declared.

I tell this story as a preface to a distressing report about all the negative forces that are weighing the teaching profession down right now, leading many to consider abandoning the field or to abandon more creative, engaging practices that will draw attention to their work and jeopardize their jobs. Above all, the exchange with Stephanie underscores the enduring power of the teacher/student relationship. Rereading that note reminded me of how hard I had worked to stimulate, excite and inspire my students. Reviewing and responding to their work in a thoughtful way that helped them grow their strengths and talents consumed most of my waking hours during the school year, along with all the hours I invested in preparing the units that constituted the backbone of our work together. It was hard work but rewarding in ways that few other professions can match.

This is not intended to be about me. There are thousands of teachers who have invested themselves in the important work of educating the children in their charge, just as I did. In return they are hearing from powerful forces with agendas that have nothing to do with the well-being of children, that their work and the work of the public schools in which they labor is a failure, is in fact corrupting children’s minds.

I rarely borrow wholesale from other blogs, but I will make an exception today. If you don’t read a single other blog and if you have even a passing interest in the state of American education, you need to be reading Diane Ravitch’s daily posting. She is the foremost spokesperson for the preservation and protection of public education as a common good in our society.

In this entry, she has generated a Hall of Shame of all the individuals and actions that have contributed to the demoralization of American teachers. I dedicate her words and mine at the start of the New Year to Stephanie, Katy and Warinda and all my past students who taught me how to be the teacher they deserved.

Who Demoralized the Nation’s Teachers? by dianeravitch Who is responsible for the widespread teaching exodus? Who demoralized America’s teachers, the professionals who work tirelessly for low wages in oftentimes poor working conditions? Who smeared and discouraged an entire profession, one of the noblest of professions? Let’s see: Federal legislation, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. George W. Bush; Margaret Spellings; Rod Paige (who likened the NEA to terrorists); the Congressional enablers of NCLB; Sandy Kress (the mastermind behind the harsh, punitive and ultimately failed NCLB). Erik Hanushek, the economist who has long advocated for firing the teachers whose students get low test scores; the late William Sanders, the agricultural economist who created the methodology to rank teachers by their students’ scores; Raj Chetty, who produced a study with two other economists claiming that “one good teacher” would enhance the lifetime earnings of a class by more than $200,000; the reporters at the Los Angeles Times who dreamed up the scheme of rating teachers by student scores abd publishing their ratings, despite their lack of validity (one LA teacher committed suicide). Davis Guggenheim, director of the deeply flawed “Waiting for Superman”; Bill Gates and his foundation, who funded the myth that the nation’s schools would dramatically improve by systematically firing low-ranking teachers (as judged by their students’ scores), funded “Waiting for Superman,” funded the Common Core, funded NBC’s “Education Nation,” which gave the public school bashers a national platform for a few days every year, until viewers got bored and the program died; and funded anything that was harmful to public schools and their teachers; President Obama and Arne Duncan, whose Race to the Top required states to evaluate teachers by their students’ scores and required states to adopt the Common Core and to increase the number of charter schools; Jeb Bush, for unleashing the Florida “model” of punitive accountability; and many more. We now know that ranking teachers by their students’ test scores does not identify the best and the worst teachers. It is ineffective and profoundly demoralizing. We now know that charter schools do not outperform public schools, as many studies and NAEP data show. We now know that public schools are superior to voucher schools, and that the voucher schools have high attrition rates. We now know that Teach for America is not a good substitute for well-prepared professional teachers. Who did I leave out? We have long known that students need experienced teachers and reasonable class sizes (ideally less than 25) to do their best. Given the vitriolic attacks on teachers and public schools for more than 20 years, it almost seems as though there is a purposeful effort to demoralize teachers and replace them with technology.

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Marv Hoffman

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