Teachers and Their Bitter Harvest

“Teachers wonder, why the heapings of scorn?” is the front page headline over a Trip Gabriel story in today’s New York Times. (The web version headline was shorter, better: “Teachers wonder, Why the scorn?”)  And, indeed, teachers have been taking it on the chin of late.  But as Checker notes, later in the story,

They are reaping a bitter harvest that they didn’t individually plant but their profession has planted over 50 years, going from a respected profession to a mass work force in which everyone is treated as if they are interchangeable, as in the steel mills of yesteryear.

There is a lot to the bitter harvest.  The interchangeability problem is a deep and profound one – it flies in the face of the autonomy that many teachers claim they deserve in their classrooms.  It undermines the argument – rather, calls attention to the contradiction – that making more teachers better or making better teachers will improve the system since the assembly line can operate no better or faster than its slowest worker.

In my district, it is painful to watch: hardworking, dedicated teachers paying dues to union reps to defend the rights of undedicated and ineffective teachers who defeat the value of their hard work and dedication. It is painful to read the comments to the NYT story.  Teachers feel demonized and victimized, without appreciating the fact that it is their unions which have done them ill – and it is their unions which reformers are attempting to turn around.

“This is in no way, shape or form an attack on teachers,” Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction in Indiana, tells Gabriel. “It is a comprehensive effort to reform a system.”

For years the public has been led to believe – thanks, in large part, to union lobbying — that teachers were the most important part of the education process and the public has rewarded them with decent wages and benefits (wages and benefits which would be even greater if not for the assembly line problem).  But the chickens have come home to roost: if teachers are the most important part of the process, and we have been rewarding them nicely, signing on to 100-page employment contracts, dishing out wonderful lifetime benefits, why has our education system gotten so bad?

Why are teachers “expendable”? asks the Times. Teachers would do well to look at their contracts for the answer.

–Peter Meyer

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