America’s War on Teachers

striking teachersThe War on Teachers: Why America’s Shrinking Middle Class and Battered Working Class Is Eating Its Own and What Can Be Done About It.

All over the nation, teachers are under attack. Politicians of both parties, in every state in the union, have blamed teachers and teachers unions for the nation’s low standing in international tests, and our nation’s inability to create the educated labor force our economy needs.

Mass firing of teachers in so-called failing schools has taken place in municipalities throughout the nation and some states have made a public ritual of teacher’s humiliation.

In Los Angeles and New York, wildly inaccurate teacher ratings based on student test scores have been published by the press, leading to some of those cities’ best teachers being attacked as incompetent, resulting in resignations, and one actual suicide among those defamed by this campaign.

Big-budget films such as “Bad Teacher” and the documentary “Waiting For Superman” popularize the idea that public school teachers prevent poor children of color from getting a good education, while corporate-funded organizations such as “Children First” and “Stand For Children” put forth the idea that teachers must work in fear of firing or loss of pay if children are to excel.

It is no accident that teachers all over the country are thinking of leaving their jobs. A recent student showed that teacher morale in the country is the lowest it has been in the last twenty years

Why the Attack, Why the Lack of Response?

One question we must ask is why this campaign has acquired such strong bipartisan support and why the public has not spoken out more against it.

It is true that attacks on teachers have occurred in the midst of a broad-based attack on the bargaining rights and benefits of all public workers, but even by that standard, teachers have been singled out.

In New York State, where teacher evaluations were just released to the press, the State Legislature just passed, and the Governor signed a bill, which exempted police and firefighters from having their evaluations released to the public. Nothing better symbolizes the way teachers have become “fair game” for public demonization in ways that will make talented people think once, twice and three times, not only about entering teaching, but about remaining in the field.

Needless to say, it also fosters an atmosphere of skepticism, disrespect and hostility on the part of parents and students that will not contribute to a good learning atmosphere in what will remains of the public schools

I can understand why corporate America would want to make teachers scapegoats for an attack on public education and teachers unions; there are huge profits to be made in the testing industry, in educational technologies which replace teachers, and in constructing and managing charter schools

But why are so many parents and the general public buying into this campaign and cheering it on! After all, politicians wouldn’t be bashing teachers if they didn’t think it would get votes, no matter how much money they were getting from the testing companies!

Shrinking Middle Class, Battered Working Class

And here we have to take a hard look at the way America’s shrinking middle class and battered working class looks at the teachers in their midst. While large numbers of people are losing their jobs, getting foreclosed on their homes, making wages that can’t pay their mortgages or basic expenses, finding themselves with children living at home who have school loan debt they will never be able to pay off, here is a group of people, 80 percent of them women, who make better salaries than they do, have better health plans and pensions, and to boot get two months off in the summer!!

“Damn,” many say to themselves, “who do teachers think they are? Why should they live so well on my tax dollars while I can barely keep my head above water? At the very least, they should feel some of the insecurity I feel every day and face the kind of performance assessments workers in the private sector deal with all the time. Yeah! If it helps my kids learn, rate them and fire them. I don’t want my tax dollars wasted!”

Given what has happened in the American economy in the last four years, or, for that matter, the last thirty years, that is a very difficult argument to counter. It is exactly the kind of sentiment that America’s unionized blue collar workers faced in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s when big corporations started closing factories and ruthlessly cut wages and benefits.

mark naisonThe non-unionized workforce in big industrial states refused to rally to the defense of their unionized counterparts and so, almost without exception, industrial unions lost battles to maintain their wage and benefit levels that allowed them to live a middle class lifestyle or prevent plants from relocating.

Rather than looking on unionized workers as people whose work conditions and lifestyle they should aspire to, possibly by organizing unions themselves, most people allowed envy, resentment, or indifference to prevent them from speaking up or organizing in their behalf.

Now, most people who have children in the nation’s public schools are standing by while teachers are attacked and their job security and working conditions are being savagely undermined. Some are cheering the process on.

That posture is short-sighted for two reasons:

  • First, the same policies that create an insecure, deeply resentful teaching force will do grave damage to children. Not only will excessive testing make children hate their classroom experience, but they will be sorely missing the love and extra care that the best teachers gave their students. Beaten, angry teachers will produce beaten, angry students, hardened by a daily dose of rigid, punitive discipline and test prep, deprived of opportunities for creativity, play, community building and self expression. Parents will discover soon enough, not only that their children are unhappy, but they are not well prepared for higher education or challenging careers. Their hopes that school will be a path to a better life for their children will be cruelly dashed.
  • But there is another more insidious consequence of the attack on teaching. Every time you undermine the job security, working conditions, and wages of one group of workers, it makes it easier for employers to undermine them for all workers. This is why, during the Great Depression, many unemployed people organized in support of workers on strike, even though anybody with a job, in that era, was relatively privileged. They believed in the concept of Solidarity — the idea that working people could only progress if they progressed together, and if one group of workers improved their conditions, it would ultimately improve conditions for all.

That kind of solidarity, for the most part, is gone now, replaced by envy. But if American workers are ever going to regain their fair share of national income and win back respect on and off the job, it is something they are going to have to relearn. The Occupy Movement has brought back the idea of solidarity with its image of “the 99 percent fighting the 1 Percent,” but this idea has not yet spread fast enough to stop the War on Teachers from gaining traction in every state in the Union.

But there are glimmers of hope. In Chicago and New York, Occupy groups are uniting with teachers, parents and students to fight school closings; in New York, parents groups have rallied to the defense of teachers stigmatized by the publication of outrageously inaccurate teacher ratings; in Florida, a pernicious parent trigger law favoring charter schools was just defeated in the legislature.

Mark NaisonThese actions will hopefully be just the beginning of a transformation of public consciousness inspired by the Occupy Movement that will transform teachers from symbols of national decline to symbols of popular resistance fighting for the rights of all working people as well as the nation’s children

Can we do this? To borrow a slogan from a well known politician. Oh yes. Yes we CAN!!!

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent 


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Apologies for at least one result of imperfect proofing of my prior comment: my weird spelling ‘wierd’. 

  2. JoeWeinstein says

    Unlike private-practice physicians and other like client-service professionals – teachers have been doled – and have accepted – a wierd and often untenable status:  their contractual obligation is to institutions and not to clients.  Almost all teachers work and are hired as mere instruments of schools.  Most schools – almost all public schools and some others – are moreover run with no accountability to the ultimate clients – the students – and they are rather less accountable even to the parents or other guardians of the students than are typical corporations (and in particular medical professionals) to their customers. 

    This scheme is bound to inhibit what might otherwise be far more frequent and closer meaningful student-teacher and parent-teacher relationships and sympathies and solidarities.  Add to this a legal framework for compulsory attendance – for many older students de facto a kind of incarceration.  Are there any professionals who you will truly respect as such if the law compels you – on the basis of age alone – to spend time ‘using’ their services, even if you neither desire those services nor perceive an overriding need for them at your stage in life? 

  3. Walter Brasch says

    This is a good overview. Two personal opinions–and I am a strong union supporter. (1) I was a university professor for many years (far too amny to reveal). In my mass section Intro classes (200-250) I had students of varrious disciplines. Generally, I found a few Ed stdts in top 20%, but most seemed to languish near the bottom. The ed depts. seem to have easy courses, and the grade averages tend to be greater than the university as a whole. This has become more evident in past 5-10 years. I have also seen many MANY ElEd stdts incapable of understanding basic writing and math skills. (I also see same problems w/ some college profs!). We need to increase academic rigor, esp. in college teaching programs. (2) I see a LOT of newspaper editors bash teacher salaries, and their so-called work 6 hours a day for 1/2 a year work ethic. Most of these editors have NO idea how hard a teacher works. What I suspect is that newspapers pay so low that a good way to keep reporters from complaining about low wages is to emphasize how “overpaid” teachers are. Also, editors tend to hate unions. Or at least don’t want them in the newsroom. And, teachers are unionized for the most part. (*) Solutions: increase college academic rigor at all levels; increase teacher salaries (even in a bad economy) to assure that the best and brightest DO go into education; REDUCE class size to a wokable level0–frankly 5 or 6 classes of 30 students each is just plain unmanageable and stupid; REDUCE number of classes so teachers have time to actually work with students–and time to THINK.

  4. go99ers says

    I think this is a very thoughtful, insightful article.  I too am a retired English professor, and I don’t give a damn about spelling or grammar mistakes, which I didn’t even notice.  The ideas are clearly conveyed, and some excellent points are made here.
    Most people don’t have a clue about what a teacher’s job entails.  We need to make many changes in the way public schools provide education, and especially raise the public awareness about how valuable teachers are and can be. Right now, they are undervalued, underpaid, overworked, and highly disrespected by people.
    Privatizing schools will further strip people of the right to an education because they won’t be able to afford it.
    We need to make the necessary reforms, and value our public schools and teachers. Deep changes are needed, and as the author correctly states “a transformation of public consciousness inspired by the Occupy Movement…will transform teachers from symbols of national decline to symbols of popular resistance fighting for the rights of all working people as well as the nation’s children.”

  5. Retired English teacher says

    I have found some grammar errors which do not include those involving commas or lack thereof:
    ~teachers’ unions~cities’ best teachers~misuse of a semi-colon~A recent study [not student] showed that…~subject-verb agreement (first paragraph under “Shrinking Middle Class, Battered Middle Class”)At this point, I quit reading. You may have a strong message to convey, Mr. Naison, but when I am caught up with more than a few blatant infractions of basic language rules, I move on. 

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