In 2008, Time magazine published a cover showing Michelle Rhee, then the District’s schools chancellor, standing in a classroom holding a broom. The headline was, “How To Fix America’s Schools,” and the blurb for the piece said: “Michelle Rhee is the head of Washington, D.C., schools. Her battle against bad teachers has earned her admirers and enemies — and could transform public education.”
As it turned out, the standardized-test reform movement that Rhee helped lead has been anything but the success that its leaders had promised, and she left the job in a bit of a huff when her mentor, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), was defeated in a primary election in 2010.
But her attack on teachers — many of whom she fired, and who she insisted should be evaluated by student standardized test scores, despite the advice of assessment experts — had legs for years. The Obama administration and state legislatures jumped on the bandwagon, even when only English and math were tested. Sometimes, educators wound up being evaluated based on test results from students they didn’t have or subjects they didn’t teach.
Part of this movement involved attacks on the two major teachers unions, which were accused of finagling contracts that protected horrible teachers and, sometimes, sexual predators. The unions said the criticism was unfair and that they were attempting to provide due process for all teachers. Besides, there was evidence that non-unionized states didn’t fire bad teachers any more frequently than unionized states, and one study found that “highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.”
In any case, the attacks on teachers led to plummeting morale in the profession, as seen by opinion surveys. They also prompted a drop in the number of students in education schools and growing teacher shortages across the country. The anti-teacher sentiment was captured in this 2014 Time cover:
But things seem to be changing, as noted in this Education Week story, “From ‘Rotten Apples’ to Martyrs: America Has Changed Its Tune on Teachers."
Today, teachers are no longer being demonized with the same vigor, and in some places, they are being seen as what most are: hard-working, underpaid professionals who are underappreciated by a good percentage of the country. When teacher strikes erupted earlier this year in a handful of states — most of them non-unionized — sentiment was in favor of the teachers.
Was that because the strikes were in Republican-dominated states such as West Virginia (where public students are overwhelmingly white) and Oklahoma (where nonwhite students now constitute a majority in public schools)? It was part of it.
But so was this: Teachers weren’t asking only for raises for themselves. They also wanted more money for schools, where most teachers wind up spending hundreds of dollars a year on basic supplies. (Incidentally, earlier strikes authorized by unions often sought more than just pay raises. They pleaded for better conditions for students and more resources for schools, but those demands never got much attention.)
The 2018 strikes sparked stories about teachers who don’t make a living wage, who have to take second and third jobs, and who are being asked to educate high-risk children with few resources and sometimes in freezing or sizzling classrooms.
And that is what helped lead us to this recent Time cover, one of three published by the magazine on the same day with stories of struggling teachers: