In April, an appeals court in California upheld the state’s laws regarding teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs by overturning a lower court’s earlier decision to scrap job-protection statutes in the highly publicized Vergara v. California case. The plaintiffs in Vergara were public school students backed by a school reform advocacy group called Students Matter, and they claimed that job protection laws for teachers are the reason that poor and minority children wind up with more ineffective teachers who are hard to fire. The court found that “the evidence did not show that the challenged statutes inevitably cause” the impact the plaintiffs claimed. Reform and anti-union activists have promised to continue the legal fight against teacher job protection laws that they say work against students.

Such legal challenges are just part of what many teachers consider to be a war on their profession by school reformers and policymakers who have attempted to “disrupt” public education with systems and programs that educators think rob them of their professionalism and hurt the learning process.

Teachers unions again made national news this week when the Supreme Court denied a petition from plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association to rehear the case. A group of California teachers had challenged a law that they said violates their First Amendment rights by requiring them to pay dues to the state’s teachers union. California is one of about 20 states in which public employees are required to either join the union or pay a fee to support the union’s collective-bargaining activities — which support all workers, whether or not they are union members.

With this decision, it seems to be a good time to look again at how teachers are faring. Here’s a post about how and why teachers have become scapegoats for problems in public education and what should be done to change the dynamic. It was written by Alexander W. Wiseman, associate professor and director of the Comparative and International Education (CIE) program at Lehigh University’s College of Education. He has more than 20 years of professional experience working with government education departments, university-based teacher education programs, community-based professional development for teachers and as a classroom teacher in both the United States and East Asia.

By Alexander W. Wiseman

Recent U.S. education reform efforts — such as the Vergara vs. California lawsuit filed on behalf of nine students and similar suits in Minnesota and New York — point to teacher job protections negotiated by unions as a root cause of a troubling reality: unequal access to high-quality education. But this is at the least a distraction and at the most a purposeful misdirection of attention from the real problem.

Critics argue that the rules governing the hiring and firing of teachers, such as tenure, have the unintended consequence of burdening the most economically disadvantaged schools with the least effective or prepared teachers, thereby providing a sub-par education to the very students who need public education the most.

It does not take an expert to spot the absurdity of blaming the unequal distribution of highly effective teachers for the fundamental inequalities that pervade American society. Unequal access — to education, to jobs, to bathrooms, for goodness sake — because of one’s race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, geography or nationality pervades our society. The damage inflicted on our young people as a result of these inequities vastly outweighs the ill effects of a handful of bad teachers.

Teachers are such easy scapegoats. Having worked in and with education systems in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, South Africa, and Germany, I can confidently declare teacher shaming to be a worldwide phenomenon. In this country, myths depicting teachers as either lazy clock-punchers or rousing saviors — chronicled recently in a New York Times article,  “Why teachers on TV have to be either incompetent or inspiring” — only serve to perpetuate the idea that if a kid fails to learn, his teacher is wholly to blame.

The high-profile lawsuits in California, Minnesota and New York have raised two important questions:

One, how much responsibility for unequal education can be reasonably laid at the feet of public schools and teachers — and how much belongs to the broader community for failing to dismantle persistent and durable barriers to equal opportunity such as poverty, systemic racism and income inequality?

Two, is the way we currently measure teacher quality helpful, or even accurate?

Given pursuits such as the Vergara trial, it seems clear that the balance between a school’s responsibility and the community’s is currently too heavily weighted in the school’s direction. When it comes to addressing the challenges we face as a nation, access to high quality education must be a part of the solution — but it cannot be the whole package.

For example, access to a good education is not going to make up for the fact that mom and dad lack jobs or that their full-time jobs do not pay enough to keep the family clothed, housed, healthy, and fed. The highest-quality teachers in the world do not have the power to lift an individual student out of poverty if the country’s system of wealth distribution is rigged against her. Teachers and public schools are not equipped to end the systemic racism that underlies the fact that five times more young black men are shot dead by U.S. police than young white men and that one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. There are some problems in the community that cannot be surmounted by education alone, yet education and teachers are persistently portrayed as a panacea for all of society’s ills.

Collectively, we are failing to accurately measure teacher quality and, thus, failing to help teachers succeed. The current discourse on teacher quality focuses disproportionately on teachers’ influence on students’ test scores. Test scores are only one piece of the larger picture of teacher and student success. Positive changes in a student’s attitude toward a subject, as well as increased confidence, is linked with improved academic success and must be included in any assessment of teaching quality.

Context also plays an important role in a teacher’s craft and is rarely considered. What are teachers doing in the classroom? How are they teaching? Are they simply babysitting or are they helping their students to engage the curriculum? And, are they modifying it for the students depending on their needs?

In addition, a teacher’s background — socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, race, level of education, whether they are teaching in the field in which they are trained — as well as the backgrounds of his or her students come into play. Incorporating some of these factors into teacher evaluations would not only allow for a more complete assessment of a teacher’s quality than test scores alone, it would also provide a professional development road map by which to help teachers training and improvement.

If we want highly effective teachers in every classroom, we must re-balance the scales, admit that teachers and schools can bear only so much of the responsibility for unequal access to education, and accept that some of the fault is in our collective failure to provide equal opportunity.

For U.S. education to live up to its promise as “the greater equalizer,” we must abolish outdated ideas that teachers are either incompetent or Jaime Escalante. Developing an evaluation system focused on helping teachers succeed is one way to start.