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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 03/22/2011

Praising teachers while bashing them

This was written by Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book is “As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin.” This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

Joel Klein, ex-Chancellor of New York City Schools, wrote about teachers in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post:

“Teaching is incredibly hard, especially when dealing with children in high-poverty communities who come to school with enormous challenges. Many teachers work long hours, staying at school past 6 p.m., and then working at home grading papers and preparing lessons. Some teachers get outstanding results, even with our most challenged students. These are America’s heroes, and they should be recognized as such. Sadly, they aren’t.

“On the other hand, there are also many teachers who work by the clock – they show up a minute before 8:30 and leave a minute after 3; when in school, they do the barest minimum. They get dreadful results with students and, if you spend time in their classrooms, as I have over the past eight years, it’s painfully obvious that they belong in another line of work.”

Praising and bashing in two paragraphs.

Stripping away collective bargaining from Wisconsin teachers and continued attacks in cities and states upon contractual provisions that protect due process come at a time when teachers are viewed as the single most important factor in student learning.

For those who find irony delicious, this is the moment. For others like parents, veteran teachers, and wannabe teachers appalled at the venom poured out by legislators, media reports, and pundits on teachers and their unions, the barrage damages further the already weak position that teachers hold professionally in the United States compared to the respect their European and Asian counterparts receive.

Finland, for example, is often held up as the exemplar for the United States in achieving effective schools. Look at the respect for, and trust in, teachers that Finns have.

A rebuttal from critics: Hey, Larry, we respect teachers but their unions and contracts are strangling efforts to improve schools. We need to sort out effective from ineffective teachers. All teachers are not good. Also look at Last In, First Out (LIFO) rules in contracts or how few teachers are ever evaluated as poor and fired. Look at Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and others who wanted to pay stellar teachers top dollars. Nothing happened. So get rid of collectively bargained contracts and good teachers will get paid well. Poor teachers will exit.

Sure.

I know from teaching for nearly 15 years and research that there is much variety among teachers in effectiveness as there is among lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants, and CEOs. I know that figuring out fair and equitable ways of determining success among these professionals goes far beyond looking at numbers. I also know that the anti-union hostility is anchored in error and ideology.

One only has to contrast right-to-work states with those allowing collective bargaining to determine whether the absence of contracts has improved schools and made them more solvent financially, or, better yet, raised teacher salaries and demonstrated more trust in teachers. They have not.

One only has to look at the dominant metrics that command attention from reform-minded policymakers and business-driven coalitions. Standardized test scores come into play constantly in plans to evaluate and pay teachers. No measures of the student-teacher relationship or what students learn exist beyond the narrow band of knowledge and skills captured by multiple-choice test items. Nothing else counts.

One only has to look at zero-tolerance policies on discipline and drugs where automatic penalties strip away principal and teacher judgment when students break school rules.

Contrasting states where bargaining is legal and states where it is not and other evidence add up to a clear-cut case of dissing teachers at a time when teachers are viewed as the primary factor in children learning. Study after study, articles and books from respected commentators, and continuing support from parents on annual polls recognize the centrality of teachers to both student learning and molding character.

Can districts differentiate among teachers insofar as how well they teach and succeed with students? The answer is, of course, yes. Denver’s ProComp, Chattanooga (TN), and other districts have worked closely with their teacher unions to come up with fair ways of assessing classroom effectiveness that include test scores but go far beyond these limited numbers. Such sane efforts, however, get forgotten in the wake of wave after wave of anti-teacher union tirades.

Anti-union policies are hardly new in the history of schooling but they have been pumped up by both the Bush and Obama administrations and fellow traveling foundations and national business organizations as ways of improving schools through management controlling teaching. This naked bipartisan effort to exert power over teachers comes at a time when rhetoric praises teachers and recognizes their crucial role in the lives of children yet actual policies end up smearing all teachers with the tar-brush of selfishness and self-interest in this unrelenting attack upon teacher unions.

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By  |  05:00 AM ET, 03/22/2011

 
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