The following article appears in the lastword section of this month’s edition of Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Special thanks to Mark Naison who generously read and commented on an early version. All errors, of course, are mine.
While a graduate student at Howard University, I had the good fortune to land a job teaching in a wonderful private school in Washington, DC. Many of my friends and associates taught in the public schools. While our class sizes and access to resources was quite different, what we shared was a commitment to young people and a belief in the transformative power of education. What we also shared at the time, was a degree of respect and influence in the community due to our chosen profession. Back in the mid-1990s, teaching was still celebrated as a noble occupation if not a vocation of service. How things have changed.
Over the past few years, we witnessed a steady assault on teachers’ abilities. They shoulder the blame for the general failure of American education, including lower rates of student performance on high stakes testing and incredibly high dropout rates. At the same time, the narrative of the incompetent teacher, with its concomitant condemnation of the three T’s, tenure, teachers unions, and too much time off, dominates the national discussion on the failure of American education. Equally, a new abiding faith in technology, in the form of the push for online alternatives to traditional schooling has challenged the notion that large numbers of teachers are even necessary.
This troubling one two punch has been relentless and for the most part successful, perpetuated by a cacophony of interests unwilling to commit the resources or institute the reforms necessary to revitalize and transform our schools. In recent battles in New York, Los Angles, and Philadelphia, teachers have been vilified for supporting the idea that education is a civil right beyond compromise. Such demonization points to a Fahrenheit 451esque future. Before you burn the books, you must first do away with the teachers. Perhaps, this is already the case. In many communities from Wisconsin to New Jersey, monies allocated for corrections dwarf the amount spent on education, with little to no discourse about how to correct this. Philadelphia teachers even appealed to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but to no avail.
The press has certainly been complicit. In the last two decades alone, sensationalized stories about improper student teacher relations garnered bigger headlines than shrinking budgets and the demise of music and art in many districts. The vast majority of teachers labor for inadequate pay but are saddled with the tremendous responsibility as vital caretakers of our nation’s most precious commodity, our youth.
Where are the stories about the corporate tax breaks that have helped to compromise the health of our schools, especially in deindustrialized urban centers where the shrinking tax base seriously compromised education along with other basic city services?
This is not a blanket defense of the teaching profession. Long before critics became fixated on the so-called abuses of teachers unions, teachers themselves clamored for greater accountability, more opportunities for professional development, and administrators with practical insight (teaching experience) into the challenges of the field. What they got in exchange was “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” which share an appeal to form over substance, and appearance rather than performance.
Rather than deal with the real issues at the heart of our ailing schools, critics singled out teachers as the primary cause for the decline. All the “smart” people, so the story goes have real jobs in corporate America, leaving education to a mix of the well-intentioned, but incompetent or outright inept. Why would anyone “choose” to be a teacher, they ask unwittingly acknowledging the low pay and hardship associated with the work? The answer, of course, is simple, because we care.
What you may ask does any of this have to do with higher education? Over the past five years, we have also seen the corporatizing influence creeping into higher education with the same narrative applied to the professorate. Employers, we are told have complained that students are graduating from college unprepared for the challenges of 21st century America. They need skills training. Ironically, the response has not been calls for smaller class sizes, or more opportunities for collaboration between college and K-12 educators, but MOOCS massive online classes where the very same students we are told who are unable to read, write, or process information critically can fulfill their core requirements with even less opportunity to address these deficiencies. At the same time such classes, we are told could insure uniformity in instruction and student learning outcomes, contradictory to the evidence coming out of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
In conjunction with the so-called benefits, proponents have been quick to point out the cost cutting elements of such initiatives without acknowledging the importance of universities as important spaces of human interaction that have produced innovation in every arena from science and technology to literature, philosophy, and medicine not to mention as key centers of political discourse and exchange.
The same forces have branded professors as lazy, technophobes, singularly concerned with their own research and unwilling to make changes that might negatively affect their life of comfort. Calls for post tenure review, and now the abolition of tenure altogether are partly a reflection of this narrative. College professors, like teachers, have also led the charge in educational reform with initiatives like preparing future faculty that date back more than a decade.
It is for all these reasons that I recently joined the Badass Teacher Association (BTA). Founded in June of 2013, BTA is a growing network of educators from Kindergarten to College united by a common desire to bring these concerns back into focus. The fight for quality education, along with respect for those who deliver it, is only one of many fronts in the battle against economic, social, and political inequality in this country. It is, however an important one. BTA recognizes this pushing for sensible reform and enlightened administration that will assist not only in the education of future generations, but also in the restoration of sense of community, in which teachers and professors play a vital role. As a parent and professor, as well as a proponent of social justice, I can find no stronger argument than that.