Stop Blaming Teachers

Those who scapegoat teachers may have much to gain, but students have much more to lose.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines scapegoat as one that bears the blame for others, or one that is the object of irrational hostility. Those of us in the education profession would define scapegoat this way: teacher.

Scapegoating teachers has become so popular with policymakers and politicians, the media, and even members of the public that it has blurred the reality of what’s really happening in education.

What’s more, it’s eroding a noble profession and wreaking havoc on student learning, says Kevin Kumashiro, author of Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture.

In his book, Kumashiro, president of the National Association for Multicultural Education and professor of Asian American Studies and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains how scapegoating public-school teachers, teacher unions, and teacher education masks the real, systemic problems in education. He also demonstrates how trends like market-based reforms and fast-track teacher certification programs create obstacles to an equitable education for all children.

NEA Today Magazine caught up with Kumashiro to ask him about the teacher blame game and what we can do about it, as individuals and together as members of the National Education Association.

NEA TODAY: What’s behind the trend of blaming teachers for the problems in education?

Kumashiro: First, it’s really easy to scapegoat teachers because common sense prompts us to see education on the individual level. For example, a Frameworks Institute study revealed that, when people think about education, they picture a classroom where a teacher stands in front of students. When you then talk about the problems in education, all eyes turn to the teachers – they aren’t working hard enough, or they’re too greedy, or they’re not accountable. Rather than focus on education as a broken system, the debate becomes about fixing individuals teachers – how do we incentivize them, how do we get rid of the lazy ones, how do we weaken their union “bosses.”

Are some teachers ineffective? Surely, just as in any other profession. But the singular focus on teachers prevents us from seeing how the system itself needs repair. Those who lead the so-called “education reform” movement are scapegoating teachers because they want to mask the real problems, the systemic problems that lead to poor performance and problems in education. What we need to do is reframe the debate and remove the mask.

NEA TODAY: What are the systemic problems that are being masked?

Kumashiro: One of those problems is funding. One of those problems is funding. Our neighborhoods are even more segregated by income and race than ever before, and because so much of school funding is based on local property taxes, the historically vast wealth gap in our nation makes it easy to see why funding is not equitable, and therefore neither is the quality of education being provided.

Another problem is the narrowing of the curriculum as we place more emphasis on high-stakes testing. Research consistently shows us not only that tests are neither valid nor reliable for the spectrum of consequences (student graduation, teacher evaluation, school turnarounds) that we tie to them, but also that schools should have a rich curriculum for kids to achieve more academically.

Finally, schools do not operate in a vacuum. An enormous challenge is the massive number of children living in poverty who come to school hungry and without access to health care, and who often live in neighborhoods plagued with violence. You can’t focus when your stomach is growling or you have a toothache or you’re afraid to walk to and from school, and you certainly can’t perform well on tests.

NEA TODAY: What are those who scapegoat teachers hoping to gain?

Kumashiro: Public education is now a $500 to $600 billion enterprise, being outsourced and privatized more and more each day. By pointing to low test scores and blaming teachers for them, there’s a justification for dismantling public school systems and outsourcing education, and a lot of profits to be made by doing so.

One way that “the 1 percent” can stay at the top is by making schools for the 99 percent look vastly different than their own. When a school is failing, they say we need to take more tests, spend more time preparing for those tests, and narrow the curriculum further so students focus solely on the test material to raise their scores. In contrast, the most elite schools with highly successful students have a rich curriculum with far less testing and with a strong teacher voice in developing curriculum and assessment – why would we go in the opposite direction in our struggling schools?

NEA TODAY: What are the consequences of blaming teachers and distorting the bigger picture?

Kumashiro: The most immediate consequence is that we’re harming the teaching profession. A lot of really great teachers are leaving the profession in frustration. For those who stay, it affects how they feel about their jobs. Last year’s Met Life Survey found that the teacher job satisfaction rate dropped 20 percent in one year. How can you feel good about your job when everyone is saying you’re terrible at it because you can’t raise everyone’s test scores?

We’re also creating two different groups of teachers. One group, which is rapidly shrinking, comes from the university-based preparation programs, and teaches in the more elite schools. Many of these programs include years of mentoring, student teaching experiences, and courses designed for managing classrooms full of diverse students, and the many other challenges teachers face.

The other group of teachers, which is rapidly expanding, has the least amount of preparation – they come from programs like Teach for America or Passport to Teaching, and are usually placed in our country’s most challenging schools. These well-intentioned individuals are less prepared for what can feel like overwhelming problems of a troubled school district in an impoverished neighborhood.

A great illustration is New Orleans, where highly prepared, veteran teachers are struggling to find jobs because the charter schools that now dominate the school district are turning to programs like TFA. Some charter schools’ teaching staff is over 90 percent TFA graduates.

NEA TODAY: Why do some groups claim to champion teachers but denigrate their unions

Kumashiro: As reflected in the recent strike of the Chicago Teachers Union, as well as in teacher strikes happening right now around the world, unions stand in the way of these “reformers’” agenda, which is often profit-driven. Not only do unions push back on the agenda of those interested in marketization and privatization, they push for better working and learning conditions and they want to have their members’ voices heard in discussions about reform. This is why states across the country have recently or are now considering legislation to weaken collective bargaining rights, and it’s also why “reformers” push to expand charter schools, which do not often have to contend with unions.

NEA TODAY: What can NEA members do to help clarify the bigger picture?

Kumashiro: Collectivize! Unions have an essential role, and so do communities of learning where expertise is shared that sheds light on what reforms work and what reforms don’t. When they don’t seek out ways to collectivize, teachers often feel isolated. From the beginning, teachers should look for schools with energizing, professional learning communities that can support them in their work. Teaching is collaborative and can’t be best practiced behind a closed classroom door.

We all need to be engaged citizens. Too many educators say, “I’m just a school employee, I’m not a policy maker.” But policy makers can’t change schools on their own either, because policy changes alone aren’t enough. The reality is that we need to build a movement, because movements have the power to change society.

When we think about advocacy, we usually think about actions leading to legislative or court changes. But that’s only part of the strategy. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t defined only by legislative and court victories. What defined it was that it shifted the public consciousness and reframed how we talked about diversity and rights.

So we need to build a similar movement to get us thinking differently about the problems and possibilities of public education. Every one of us can push the conversation. That means testifying at school boards, writing op-eds for newspapers and blogs, talking to family and friends to help them reframe the debate and becoming involved in the community so that everyone sees the role educators play in shaping our kids’ education and the community at large.

So often we think we’re supposed to shut the door and be brilliant in the classroom, and that’s a big part of our jobs. Teachers have a role inside the classroom and the school, but equally important is the role outside the school. Teachers should see it as part of their job description to be a community voice and a community advocate – by acting collectively in the school and in the community, we can build a movement for every child to receive the best education that our nation has to offer.

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