Bad Teacher? Blaming teachers distracts from what really hurts our schools

De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Robert Mann

Whether we realize it or not, most of us view public policy questions through certain frames or narratives.

For example, if you hate the very idea of taxes, it’s likely that the phrase “tax relief” resonates with you. But could it be that the term “relief,” when associated with taxes (a fairly common phrase in the news media), subtly shapes the way you view the very idea of taxes?

Could it prevent you from appreciating or recognizing the societal good that comes from many of the services those taxes provide (roads, schools, health care, national defense)?

What if instead of talking about taxes as something from which we need “relief,” we talked about them through another frame — such as what they provide and what could be lost if they are slashed?

For example, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and state legislators provided more than $1 billion in “tax relief” for upper-income taxpayers in 2008, the result of which was that the state’s health care system has been decimated and higher education funding slashed by more than $400 million. Scores of other important public services have been eliminated or curtailed, all in the service of “tax relief” for upper-income citizens.

Taxes, defense, abortion — it’s all about the frame through which you view the issue.

And it’s all about who gets to create the frame – or tell the narrative – that sets the stage for our understanding of and the public discussion over any issue.

That’s one premise of an interesting new book, Bad Teacher: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture (Teachers College Press, 94 pp), by a University of Chicago education professor, Kevin K. Kumashiro.

“Certain stories can convince the less powerful to cooperate, to abide by the rules, and to continue playing,” Kumashiro contends. “That is precisely what is happening today with public education.”

The story Kumashiro, a former classroom teacher from Hawaii, explores is that bad teachers are to blame for underperforming schools. The solution, this storyline suggests, is to blow up the way teachers are recruited, trained and evaluated.

But, Kumashiro observes that the story about bad teachers as an impediment to education reform is dependent on another story: that standardized testing of students is “fair, effective, objective.” As Kumashiro demonstrates, standardized testing is not at all fair, effective nor objective.

But the push for testing, he argues, is all in service of the larger narrative: “all of education rests on the shoulders of teachers, hence the frequency of blaming teachers for all that is wrong with some public schools, and of praising reformers—like former chancellor of DC public schools Michelle Rhee—who have the fortitude to fire the lazy and incompetent ones who predominate.”

The villains in this education narrative are teachers, teacher unions and university-based teacher preparation programs. The heroes, by contrast, are governors and education leaders who have the “courage” to fire scores of principals and teachers, legislators who offer bills to weaken teacher unions, and those who promote programs that offer “faster routes to becoming teachers by removing barriers that, for too long, have prevented the best and brightest from becoming teachers.”

Many believe that once unmoored from the liberal training of universities, and free from the influence of teacher unions, teachers will be free to produce students who will excel. Of course, as Kumashiro notes, in the predominant education narrative, to excel means just one thing: producing “high achieving and compliant” students who are skilled at taking standardized tests.

And that definition of a “good” student influences our understanding of a good teacher. “When we narrowly define the good teacher merely in terms of the ability to raise test scores,” Kumashiro writes, “we inevitably are categorizing all others as bad, even those who, in so many other ways, are successful, admirable, valuable, impactful, effective, ethical, and good. There are many possible ways to define the good teacher, but today, we seem to be stuck in a pretty narrow framing.”

“Framing” remains at the center of Kumashiro’s thesis throughout the book, leading to his next compelling argument: the story of an education system in crisis feeds into widespread fear among the public, which makes almost everyone – especially parents and some policymakers – very receptive to the narrative that the United States is a “nation at risk” of failure.

Conservative opponents of public education, Kumashiro observes, employ the fear produced by a “manufactured crisis” to force passage of all kinds of education “reforms.”

It’s all done in the name of producing better teachers and students. It just so happens, Kumashiro writes, that these so-called reforms are producing big profits for private educational institutions.

“The fear over a failing educational system,” he writes, “has helped to advance the standards-and-testing movement, which in turn creates opportunities for profit. Scripted curriculums require textbooks, worksheets, teacher guides, and other materials to be purchased by schools or districts. High-stakes tests require testing sheets, scoring services, tutoring services, study guides, and other materials, also to be purchased by schools or districts. Defining only certain methods to be ‘scientifically proven’ privileges certain kinds of research in competitions for funding, publishing, and other forms of support.”

And does all this testing actually improve under-performing schools and produce better teachers? Kumashiro argues that it does not.

“The consequence of not meeting [average yearly progress goals],” he writes, “is to make schools look even less like their high-performing counterparts, particularly with less time spent on teaching a range of subject matters like the arts and social studies and even more time on only basic reading and mathematics in order to teach to the test and, in more and more instances, follow scripted curriculum.”

In addition to creating a two-tiered education system – the “good” schools get more resources while the “failing” schools are punished with budget cuts and fewer course options – there is another consequence that changes the governance of these schools.

Kumashiro notes that “regular neighborhood schools are increasingly required to become more centralized in their governance, more monitored in their performance on standardized tests, more restricted in their spending and hiring, and even more regulated in their curriculum and instruction.”

By contrast, he writes, “charter schools are receiving comparatively more autonomy and flexibility in how they operate and account for allocated resources. The freedom of charter schools raises questions over whether such regulations were intended to improve public schools or were really intended to encourage the creation of alternatives to public education.”

Kumashiro concludes that “simultaneity of decentralization and privatization, alongside increased regulation of traditional neighborhood schools, suggests that the underlying purpose has been to undermine public education all along.”

Kumashiro also writes persuasively on the movement to undermine traditional university teacher training programs in favor of the following philosophy: “Becoming a teacher need not involve much in the way of learning to teach. If you know math, you can teach math. To teach, in others words, a person does not need to invest the time to study research, practice with mentors, or hone the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are specific to teaching.”

More than anything, however, Kumashiro’s critique provides us with a damning commentary on the profit motive behind many of the attacks on public education. In great detail, he explains how “[c]urrent reforms are allowing certain individuals with neither scholarly nor practical expertise in education to exert significant influence over education policy for communities and children other than their own. They, the millionaires and billionaires from the philanthropic and corporate sectors, are experimenting with urban schools with initiatives that lack sound evidence about their viability and usefulness, often with failed results in those schools, and yet their influence is growing.”

If you want to peek into the future of Louisiana education reform under Jindal and his education chief, John White, read Kumashiro’s tale of the so-called “Chicago miracle,” kan initiative born not from a passion to improve the city’s schools, but rather “in conversations about increasing corporate profits in Chicago.”

It’s likely the profits increased, but as Kumashiro writes, Renaissance 2010 – the name of the Chicago program – has not produced the intended results. “Districtwide high-school test scores have not risen,” he writes, “and most of the lowest performing high schools saw scores drop.”

To Kumashiro, the model for a high-performing schools should be the ones to which wealthy Chicago citizens – like then-Senator Barack Obama and current Mayor Rahm Emmanuel – sent their children: “[W]ell resourced with up-to-date curriculum materials, advanced laboratories, safe and healthful facilities, opportunities for extracurricular activities, and small class sizes; staffed with well educated, experienced, supported, and well compensated teachers and administrators. They are also centered on broad, interdisciplinary curriculums that are developed by teachers and grounded in research, as well as complex assessments that support teachers in tailoring their instruction to students’ needs.”

Sadly, he concludes, “these are not the characteristics that current reformers are prioritizing or even acknowledging. The blaming of teachers goes hand-in-hand with the current national obsession with high-stakes testing, turnaround school policy, marketization and privatization of schooling, narrowing of curriculum, lessening of teacher preparation, and experimentation of school reforms by investors, which all are making schools look less and less like the best schools and less and less like what America’s children need and deserve.”

This book is a timely and important examination of the so-called education “reform” movement in America. It’s quick read and a helpful primer for anyone who wants to learn what’s behind the drastic changes Bobby Jindal and John White are forcing on public education in Louisiana.

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5 Responses to Bad Teacher? Blaming teachers distracts from what really hurts our schools

  1. The education system has rarely stimulated me, as I’ve continually been judged on my ability to pass a standardized test. I took the ACT 4 times; started with a 20 and finished with a 28, after paid tutoring and clearly much trial and error. It simply wasn’t fair. I kept a 3.5-4.0 every semester of school, obtained an internship at an art league, was the editor in chief of my high school paper for two years, and wrote a column for the Times-Picyune all before the age of 18. Yet, there wasn’t a single university that would pay my way unless I had a higher ACT score. For some reason, that ridiculous score determined my success- not my work experience or grades.

    Throughout my education, my lack of a high score kept me out of honors classes; the “non-honors” classes had very low expectations and weren’t challenging at all. Because of this, I sought out every work experience I could in hopes of getting ahead.

    I’m never thrilled to wake up and go to class in the morning. Why? Because the education system has never done anything for me; almost all of my knowledge comes from hands-on experience and personal mentors. But I feed into the
    system– get my good grades and get out, just so I can slap it on my resume as some sort of accomplishment.

    Meanwhile, I make connections and get more work experience– the things that will actually help me. For the most part, I see the public education system as a waste of my time and resources.

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  2. Ken Burk says:

    Bob, My wife could talk your ear off about this. She is a board certified teacher and has been teaching in public schools for 30 years. Lucia is an an exceptionally talented teacher working at a school with majority low income students. Last week an apartment complex where a number of her students live was without power or water. A couple of her students just didn’t come to school and a couple came dirty and hungry. After telling me this she asks, “just how well are these kids going to do on the upcoming LEAP tests'”? Fortunately for me it was a rhetorical question, as I was too speechless to reply.
    She has third grade students that have been raped by a pastor, one whose parents were murdered, autistic kids, behavior disorders…the list is endless.
    Jindal and the powers that be are right, though, it’s definitely the teachers at fault.

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    • Robert Mann says:

      Ken, That’s all heartbreaking. So many teachers work so hard to influence the lives of their children — not just cram knowledge into their heads. But none of that matters to Jindal and his crowd. These poor kids are really nothing more than commodities that Jindal and White can trade to the private schools in order to enrich their corporate backers.

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      • Rose says:

        Well stated. Those of us who have dedicated our adult lives to education and the special needs of children have watched with growing horror the destruction of supports and systems that offer a way up and out for many children and families. Louisiana will not rebound from the effects of policies in place that have nothing to do with the good of the general public.

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  3. Pingback: Bobby Jindal’s fictional education “reforms” « Something Like the Truth

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