Trump placed himself squarely into the debate among parents, administrators, doctors and state and local politicians about what the best course for America’s children is amid the continuing covid-19 pandemic. But one voice has been largely missing from this debate: America’s teachers.
The disregard of teachers’ shared professional expertise and practical knowledge is no accident. It reflects the way that, instead of treating teachers like other American professionals, society has long blamed them for the failings of schools and worked to constrain them through bureaucracy and regulations.
As municipal public school systems developed and expanded during the second half of the 19th century, politicians, policymakers and taxpayers looked upon schools with mixed emotions. Americans optimistically imagined public schools as powerful social institutions that would safeguard and encourage national goals. Characterizing this sentiment, Caroline LeRow explained to readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1890, “all civilization is but the outgrowth of education.”
Yet, tempering that hopefulness, members of the public from parents to pundits also expressed frustration, arguing that public schools had fallen short of their lofty mission. Taxpayers and local politicians expected that their investment in public schools and the education of children would quickly yield dividends across society but instead they saw a faltering economy and soaring illiteracy rates. In 1891, one group of New York school leaders dejectedly reported that the local school “system is drifting the wrong way, and, instead of improving, really losing what little life and upward tendency there was in it.”
America’s public school teachers sat at the intersection of this history of hope and exasperation. In 1870, Commissioner of Education John Eaton made an observation that has shaped the course education policy in this country over the past century and a half: “Teachers make the nation.” As such, Eaton explained, “all educational improvements” ought to “concentrate themselves upon the work of the teacher.”
Informed by deep-seated gendered stereotypes of women as nurturing, submissive and intellectually inferior to men, education leaders and policymakers ignored the problems that plagued schools — organizational chaos, a lack of funding, adequate school sites and curricular materials and rising social inequality. Instead, they blamed teachers for the schools’ shortcomings. According to one early critic, the legions of women standing at the front of public school classrooms were the “anchor … that drags on the bottom,” impeding the promise of education.
In 1892, noting the “professional incompetency” of the nation’s teachers, renowned education leader Joseph Mayer Rice, observed, “As a rule our teachers are too weak to stand alone, and need consequently to be propped up by the supervisory staff.” He called for reforms that would teacher-proof the schools.
This framing of teachers as the source of school woes sparked calls for professionalization. But professionalization for teachers bore no resemblance to the processes that helped turn male-dominated occupations like law and medicine into higher status, higher-paying jobs.
Rather than bolster teachers’ expertise, autonomy and authority, the reforms subverted teachers’ professional legitimacy by limiting their voice and placing teachers on the lowest rungs of a growing educational bureaucracy. In practice, teacher professionalization bolstered the bureaucratic order of schools — dominated by men — and hamstrung teachers.
Standardized curriculums, high-stakes tests and teacher evaluation practices all emerged thanks to this warped conception of professionalization.
Teachers did not sit idly by, accepting blame for schools’ ills. But faced with a steadily growing school bureaucracy, teachers had little recourse but to walk out, either by leaving the profession or striking. In 1946, Lois MacFarland explained to readers of the Saturday Evening Post why she quit teaching: “The teacher is considered community property. Everyone has a right to speak sharply to her, criticize her and tell her wherein she is not doing her job right.”
The rise of collective bargaining in the 1960s and the ascendancy of the modern teachers’ unions aimed to correct this problem and give teachers a collective voice about education. The notorious labor leader Albert Shanker pushed back against the history of professionalization reforms when he described the word “professional” as a “weapon” administrators used against teachers, “as a sort of ‘naughty-naughty,’ a scolding” intended to demean and keep them in their place.
However, as teacher union power grew over the second half of the 20th century, so too did the school accountability movement that saw student performance on standardized tests as the means for assessing teacher quality. Teachers had more leverage to bargain for bread-and-butter matters but less professional authority to shape education.
As the spate of recent school walkouts reveals, policymakers and education leaders resist heeding teachers’ concerns and carving out a space for them in the decision-making process until they are absolutely forced to do so. This tendency reflects the entwined nature of the disregard of teachers’ professional wisdom and the desire for bureaucratic efficiency.
Even as they are given a minimal say in the operation of schools, teachers continue to shoulder the blame for the flaws in our educational system. From Donald Trump, Jr. who howled about “loser teachers” to excite his father’s base to former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who fretted that many “bright, young people don’t even consider teaching,” the discourse of blame transcends partisan divisions.
But the teacher blame game hurts us all. The revolving door of teaching has increased as teachers find that they have better options elsewhere — higher-paying jobs that afford them more respect and autonomy. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend. A recent survey revealed that a fifth of teacher-respondents are “somewhat more” or “much more” likely than not to leave classroom teaching as opposed to 9 percent before the coronavirus outbreak.
Ironically, covid-19 has brought a newfound appreciation for teachers from parents. Those quarantined at home with their children have come to understand intimately what teachers have been saying all along: their work is hard, they deserve more pay and they need more resources.
Yet, even as we say we value teachers for their creativity, patience and skill, education policy continues to tie their hands. Teachers are free to innovate only so long as they do so in lockstep and their students show mastery of knowledge someone else deemed important on a test created by others.
History shows that blaming teachers does nothing to help students. Fulfilling the promise of teacher professionalization from a century ago would mean actually increasing teachers’ expertise, autonomy and authority.
More than anyone, teachers understand the feasibility of bringing children back to the nation’s schools, of teaching and learning at a social distance or behind masks and the resources that will be required. Reopening schools won’t succeed without teachers leading the conversations about what is workable and what isn’t. Their professional expertise and experience is crucial for creating a viable plan — one that safeguards the lives, health and educational needs of students.
No plan for the fall can be trusted unless teachers helped create it.