THIS IS NATIONAL Teachers Appreciation Week. According to the leaders of the nation’s teachers unions, it’s come none too soon. In their telling, teachers are being unfairly faulted as never before — even demonized — for the problems in today’s schools.

We agree that teachers should be applauded and that society often doesn’t reward them sufficiently. But much of the buzz about demonization is coming from the unions themselves, which confuse criticism of union policies with criticism of teachers. We worry that they’re setting up a straw man that distracts attention from discussion about what’s needed to improve learning.

A radio ad timed to this week’s celebration, featuring National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, laments how teachers are being scapegoated. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, penned a column for the Wall Street Journal last week that hailed how other countries “revere and respect their teachers; they don’t demonize them.”

To be sure, there has been criticism of unions and a reexamination of collective bargaining agreements seen as overly generous; Wisconsin and Ohio were engulfed by debate over labor rights featuring some overheated and unfortunate rhetoric. But most people — including harsh critics of public schools — recognize the importance of teaching and the hard work done each day in countless classrooms.

What the unions seem to see as blaming teachers is the suggestion that teachers should be retained or not, promoted or not, rewarded more or less, based in part on whether their students learn. The NEA has bitterly fought performance pay tied to student test scores, and Ms. Weingarten, generally more supportive of new ideas about teacher compensation, seemed to be sounding a bit of a retreat in her Journal column, citing a study that shows “rewarding teachers with bonus pay does not raise student test scores.” Ms. Weingarten disputed to us any suggestion that she’s backtracking on reforms, explaining that she is guided by empirical data on what works.

Union leaders are right that many factors go into successful learning. There is a need for more and better-quality preschool programs; a better job must be done in recruiting and retaining top college students as teachers; and the poverty that afflicts many of America’s children cannot be ignored. It’s also true that everyone in a school — music teachers, custodians, principals — plays a role, and reading and math tests alone can’t provide a full picture of that.

But if some fourth-grade teachers consistently help their students advance in math and reading more than other teachers, why wouldn’t we want to reward the successful ones and encourage them to stay in the profession? The current lock-step system of pay provides little incentive to the brightest and most creative people who might be thinking of entering or staying in the profession.

Teacher evaluations should be fair and transparent, conditions that have not always been present in past systems. But if anyone is demonizing teachers, it’s those who won’t treat them as professionals — who believe all teachers should earn the same pay, and get the same raise, no matter how much harder they work or how much more some of them accomplish. We think teachers deserve a different sort of appreciation and respect.