What's the matter with teachers today?
Teaching is one of the most criticized jobs in America. What's up with that?
GIVEN ALL the talk about the importance of education these days, you'd think teaching would be the most revered job in America.
Forget what our CEOs with the seven- and eight-figure salaries do or don't do. When it comes to economic success, our fate seems to rest on our five-figure teachers. If they fail to impart the intricacies of algebra and physics and C++, we'll be overtaken by all those ambitious nations coming up behind us, fast.
It's enough to think we'd have fat bonus checks all written out and ready to shower on the teaching corps' best and brightest. And yet . . .
Teaching is one of the most criticized jobs in America. Our economic malaise? We lay a big chunk of blame on teachers. Our slide in the international test rankings? Ditto. State budget woes? Ditto again.
As comedian Jon Stewart might say: Whaaat?
How can teachers be the cause of our troubles . . . (Stewart pause here) . . . AND the solution?
YES, IT'S A little crazy. But it's not new.
From the days of the one-room schoolhouse on the prairie, our relationship with teachers has been, well, complicated.
We idolize them, but second-guess their judgment. Love the ones we know, but disparage the ones we don't.
We tell them, again and again, that they do the most important work in the world, but rarely ask them what we need to do to improve schools.
Granted, some teachers need their desks shaken. At least that's what a number of policy people argue — and some young teachers, too. They want their colleagues to stop complaining about what they can't do and start doing as much as they can, even if that requires superhuman hours.
Some of those same policy people also say many teachers are being too touchy. The average teacher isn't the problem, they insist, just union rules and other barriers that keep bad teachers in the classroom.
"Teachers can't expect to be respected for the tremendous good they do and also expect the community to hum the mantra, 'All teachers are good,' " says Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell.
Still, you can't blame teachers for being a little defensive. And confused about just where they stand.
So let's review, because this all started back at the dawn of our free, public-school system.
"From the beginning," says Nancy Beadie, a UW professor and historian of education, "there has been this constant worry that teachers aren't good enough and we need to do more to make them better."
The beginning she's referring to was in the mid-1800s. At the time, national and state leaders were more worried about imparting the rules of morality and good citizenship than job skills.
And to build a universal system of free public schools, they needed to hire a lot of new teachers.
Which brings us to our first theme: Ambitious but frugal, we built that school system by turning to women, mainly because they'd work cheap.
School boards were up front about that. They didn't want to pay the prevailing wage for men when they could hire women for much less.
And women stepped up. Even at a fraction of what men made, teaching offered more pay and independence than the few other alternatives at the time — mostly factory work or staying home. People like Catherine Beecher, sister of abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe, promoted teaching as an extension of what then was believed to be women's innate strength — and duty — as nurturers.
Many of the newly minted women teachers traveled West, where they not only taught every grade but also chopped the frontier schoolhouse wood and stoked the fire — all with little job security.
AS PROFESSIONS go, it wasn't an auspicious beginning.
Which leads to theme No. 2: Even after all these years, we're still not sure teaching is a profession.
It certainly wasn't at the start. Some women made a career of teaching, but many taught only until they married, when they were expected — or forced — to quit. Local school boards — and parents — often told them what to teach, and even what to wear. In many cities in the 1880s and '90s, teachers even had to pay for their own substitutes when they were ill.
A lot obviously has changed since then. Some school boards began to require more training, which many teachers received at "normal" schools, where young women learned teaching "norms." And eventually, teachers were expected to graduate from education programs based at universities. (Although, like today, there have always been a number of ways to become a teacher, some with fewer requirements than others.)
The one-room schoolhouse morphed into school districts, with professional administrators (mostly men) in charge. Women, fed up with being paid less than the few male teachers, organized unions, which fought for benefits such as the now-pilloried single-salary schedule, which bases pay on experience and education. All this played out over decades. In Washington state, for example, the teachers union didn't have the statutory right to bargain until 1965.
Teaching became a job with benefits and a pension. Not a path to riches, but a career with a lot of security — and summers off.
Yet even after all that, a couple of things remain the same:
Teaching largely remains a women's field, even though women have many more career choices. More than three-quarters of the 3.4 million public-school teachers in America are women.
And it still lacks many features of a true profession. There is no bar-like exam. No highly competitive admission to most education schools.
As women started flooding into other fields, it's clear that teaching stopped attracting as many top-scoring college graduates, judging by SAT scores — although there's evidence that may be changing.
And many of us still think just about anybody with a college degree can teach.
"To the average person . . . it's hard to really pin down what the core skill is and how it's hard to acquire," says Michael Katz, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania.
"We think it's easier than it actually is," says Barnett Berry, head of the Center for Teaching Quality, an organization devoted to getting teachers' voices heard.
Efforts to raise the entrance requirements also run up against the need to fill classrooms.
Come August each year, districts aren't very picky about who they hire for any remaining open positions, says Jeanne Harmon, executive director of Washington state's Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession. Rather than send administrators who've previously worked as teachers to do those jobs — or find some other creative solution, she says districts hire people who, ideally, they'd rather not. "We're perfectly happy to settle for OK. That's a societal decision we've made."
BUT HERE'S the latest, and theme No. 3: More than ever, teachers are in the hot seat.
Since the late 1990s, a number of research studies, mostly done by economists, concluded that a good teacher appears to trump just about everything else inside a school when it comes to raising student test scores.
So rather than talking about "teacher-proof" curriculum, we get Bill and Melinda Gates spending hundreds of millions to study effective teaching. And President Obama pledging to rid classrooms of bad teachers. And proposals for merit pay, new kinds of teacher evaluations, and doing away with letting seniority determine layoffs.
Not new ideas, but coming back strong.
Some question the motives of those who are raising them.
"There is no question in my mind that some efforts to encourage a revolving door of teachers is about keeping teachers cheap and, quite frankly, compliant," says Berry.
But add all those proposals to the relatively new expectation that teachers will prepare all kids for college or at least some post-high-school training, and the pressure on teachers has gone up — way up.
"We're not pausing in the education debate to acknowledge what a big shift that really is," says Dana Goldstein, a New York-based writer who's working on a book about the political history of teaching.
In the 1920s and '30s, she said, we were happy preparing 10 percent of students for higher education.
It's enough to make some teachers steer their own kids away from teaching. Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, said that pains her every time she hears it.
Non-teachers often aren't excited about their kids entering the field, either.
Chris Eide, a former Seattle teacher who's now starting a teacher advocacy group, says he had to convince his family to visit his classroom to help them understand why he wanted to teach. His mom had pointed out that his first school, Deady Middle School in Houston, even had the word "dead" in the name.
And teachers sometimes hurt their own case. Nationally and locally, the unions often come off as naysayers — "a collective of no, with some exceptions," says Berry.
Unions have been slow to address some big problems. Like the fact that nearly all teachers are rated "effective," and it can take years to get one out of the classroom.
Still, whatever gets thrown at them — fewer supplies, bigger classes, needy students — many teachers make do.
"If there's a kid who doesn't have a warm coat, teachers are the ones who find them a warm coat," says Harmon. "If students haven't had breakfast, they're the ones that find them a peanut butter sandwich so they can think."
Can you imagine most doctors or fancy-suit lawyers doing something equivalent?
Not their problem.
Curiously, it's a different story in some of the countries that are eating our lunch on international tests. In fact, one of the people who oversees one of those exams recently wrote that if the U.S. wants to improve its educational standing in the world, it needs to respect its teachers more.
In a report he co-authored on what America can learn from top-scoring countries, Andreas Schleicher wrote that while the U.S. may have been the first country to offer young people a free secondary education, which reaped tremendous economic benefits, our lackluster performance today can be traced, in part, to how we treat our teachers. He said, in essence, that the U.S. could improve its education system by giving its teachers good training, then letting them do their jobs like, well, professionals.
Schleicher based this on what he'd observed in the highest-scoring countries like Finland, where he said teachers enjoy the same high social status as doctors and lawyers. In Finland, only one out of every 10 applicants makes it into the teacher training pool. And while students there also take a lot of tests, the government doesn't set goals based on them or punish schools if scores don't go up. Instead, they trust teachers to use them to do their jobs well.
SO JUST what do teachers think about all of this?
Funny we should ask. Because they're not asked all that often.
"We have almost everybody but our best teachers making clear statements to the public about what the profession is and is not," says Berry.
Remember "Waiting for Superman," the documentary aimed at rousing public concern about our public schools? Not a single working teacher featured.
Many teachers don't dwell on the national debate much. And many don't feel personally under attack — at least here, not yet.
They feel respected by those closest to them — the students and parents and citizens who vote for school levies and bonds.
Although they do worry about what they hear from other states.
"I honestly never thought I would see the day when lawmakers would be blaming fiscal problems on cushy teacher salaries," Lynnwood teacher Tom White says about recent events in Wisconsin and Ohio. "It was almost surreal."
Some younger teachers say it's about time someone lit a fire under some of their colleagues. Rather than an attack, they see the national debate as a call to arms.
If some of their colleagues think they're under too much pressure, then maybe it's time for them to find work elsewhere.
"If you can't do the work, then maybe you need to go to another school," says Seattle teacher Gina Wickstead, when asked if the job is too taxing these days.
Other teachers, though, are frustrated. And tired. They love teaching, but they don't think they should have to put in Superteacher hours — at least all the time. They want people to understand that, yes, they get summers off, but they work most nights and weekends during the school year.
Many also are their own worst critics, and say they need support more than PowerPoint presentations that rub in the fact that test scores aren't going up as fast as anyone would like.
"They are aware of where they're succeeding and where they're not succeeding," says Katherine Taylor, a longtime teacher and instructional coach in the Clover Park School District who just finished serving on a panel that advises U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
"If they knew what to do about it, they would be doing it."
And they also hate that, outside of the teachers lounge, they can't raise the problem of poverty without being branded an excuse-maker. They consider poverty the elephant in the room. Not an excuse but a reality that affects test scores much more than the few bad teachers.
Even if we fired all the bad teachers tomorrow, they say, we would still have a big gap in achievement between the rich and the poor.
Even Jay Maebori, Washington State Teacher of the Year this year, says the job has gotten harder.
Don't get him wrong: He loves his work and doesn't feel threatened by the scrutiny teachers are under.
He welcomes anybody into his classroom anytime. It's just like the Mariners, he says. When they're not winning, the public has a right to question why. Yet he sometimes feels helpless, like he's in a lifeboat surrounded by students in the water, too many for him to pull out in time.
"It feels like a losing battle," he says, "and people are expecting us to save everybody."
He knows he has two choices: Throw up his hands, or try like crazy.
He chooses the latter, just like most teachers have always done. And often, we love them for it.
In fact, we rely on them for it.
Linda Shaw is a Seattle Times education reporter.
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