Op-Ed: Rage Simmering Among American Teachers

Education historian Diane Ravitch says the teachers on the front lines of labor rallies in Wisconsin reflect growing anger among educators nationwide. Teachers are sick and tired, she says, of being blamed for the ills of America's public schools.

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Now, as teachers started standing up in union protests in Wisconsin, Diane Ravitch sat down and wrote an opinion piece for CNN's website, titled "Why America's Teachers are Enraged." When Diane Ravitch looked at the teachers camping out at Wisconsin's Capitol. she connected their demonstrations to what she says is a simmering rage felt among teachers across the country, an anger among educators who feel they've been unfairly blamed for everything that's wrong with schools today. Within a few days, Ravitch's article was a sensation on social media sites. She got 8,000 comments on Facebook.

We want to hear from teachers and parents, also students out there, about this issue. Do you feel that teachers are unfairly under attack, or do teachers need to rethink the way they do their jobs? Call us. We're at 1-800-989-8255. You can email us. We're at talk@npr.org. And you can go to our website to join the conversation. That's npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, Diane Ravitch is the author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." She's an education historian, and she's on the phone now from her office in Brooklyn. Hi, Diane. Welcome to the program.

Professor DIANE RAVITCH (New York University): Hi. It's great to be with you. I did want to mention, though, that that article got 42,000 links to Facebook, 42,000.

KELLY: 42,000. You've gotten a lot of feedback.

Prof. RAVITCH: ...and 8,000 comments.

KELLY: And what were you hearing from teachers? I assume, among the many teachers who would have written to you in response, what kind of thing did you hear?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I got hundreds of comments from teachers, saying: Thank you; no one stands up for us. And I also got a lot of hate mail from people who don't like teachers and who don't like unions, either, and who blame them for the financial collapse of 2008 - which is absurd.

KELLY: Tick through some of the evidence that you would cite for why, as you see it, teachers feel so enraged at being unfairly blamed, they would say, for a lot of the ills of the nation's school system.

Prof. RAVITCH: There has been a steady growth of a narrative of: The teachers are solely responsible for low performance. And just about a year ago, Newsweek magazine had a cover story, called "The Key to Saving American Education." And all over that cover was the phrase, we must fire bad teachers. And then, last fall came out this horrible movie we -called "Waiting for Superman," that also blamed teachers for everything and said that poverty doesn't matter and resources don't matter, and that what we must do is to open lots of privately managed schools that don't have unions.

And this has been a steady drumbeat over the past year or two. It's been accentuated by the emphasis, first from the No Child Left Behind legislation that President George W. Bush pushed, and then from Secretary Duncan's Race to the Top, that says evaluate teachers by their student test scores. And there are just so many reasons not to do that because the tests - you know, there are a lot of inaccuracies in them; there's a lot of instability. A teacher will get high scores one year and not the next, but most of it depends on which students are in the teacher's class this year or next year.

KELLY: On the flipside of the argument, the film that you cited, "Waiting for Superman," was enormously popular. It seemed to really hit a chord along - among a lot of parents and administrators, who said, you know, there is something wrong with the nation's schools. And obviously, blame can be shared, but we need to do something, that the teaching has got to get better.

Prof. RAVITCH: Actually, it wasn't popular at all. It had a very small box office. It was immensely popular amongst very, very wealthy Wall Street hedge fund managers and the elites of this country. The elites tried to whip it up. NBC gave it a week of programming. Oprah gave it two shows. The president invited the children in the film to the White House. But all this PR - which, by the way, was underwritten by the Gates Foundation - was not enough to make it popular at the box office.

America's teachers just hated that movie because they felt that the movie was very unfair. It stigmatized American public education. We have some great public schools in this country. The public schools that do terribly are the schools where there is high poverty. And we have to address not just the schools, which are - I am totally opposed to the status quo. The status quo was the one that was created 10 years ago by the No Child Left Behind legislation, and this has turned schools into testing factories. And teachers know this is wrong; educators know it's wrong.

I've been traveling the country for the last year and have talked to - oh, I don't know - probably about 80,000 teachers and parents at this point. None of them like the status quo. They want to see much better schools. They don't want to see our public schools taken over by entrepreneurs.

KELLY: The Obama administration policy, which you also cited as being very unpopular among many teachers - this is the Race to the Top program, and as I understand it, the idea is that it links teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests. What's wrong with that notion?

Prof. RAVITCH: What's wrong with it are several things. First of all, the tests are not designed to be measures of teacher quality. They are measures of whether students have learned. Sometimes, that's the fault of the teacher, and sometimes it's the fault of the student, and sometimes, it's the - you can say it's because the student is homeless, the student is hungry, the student has bad eyesight. I mean, there are all kinds of issues that get involved in how students perform on standardized tests.

It's also the case that the standardized tests are really very bad measures. And I know that Secretary Duncan's put out a lot of - like $350 million to say we need better tests. But in the meanwhile, we're using the same, crummy test, and we're using them to close schools. There are schools being closed across America based on test scores.

What we should be doing is helping those schools and making them better because public schools are not - they're not shopping malls. They're not shoe stores. They're public facilities. And many of them have long and wonderful histories, and we should do everything possible to make our public schools the best they can be.

KELLY: Let me bring a caller into the conversation. This is Paul(ph) calling from Wilmington, North Carolina. Hi, Paul. You're on the air.

PAUL (Caller): Hello. I just wanted to point out that if a person wants to bash a teacher for not being good enough at teaching students, they should read Amy Chua's book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."

That parent grilled her children for hours and hours every evening to make sure that they were good students. And teachers probably love to have students like that, but parents don't want to be parents like that. And that's all I have to say.

KELLY: All right. Let me let you respond to that, Diane Ravitch. Parents - are they the real problem here?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I don't think that most parents want to be tiger moms and dad. But I do think that parents have a huge responsibility to make sure that their kids are fed - unless, of course, they're not fed themselves. There's a lot of homelessness in this country.

There's - we have 20 percent and more of our children living in poverty, which is, frankly, in the modern world, is a disgrace. The film "Waiting for Superman" compared the U.S. to Finland, which is a great comparison. Finland does no standardized testing at all of its students. They just rely on having the best possible teachers and pay them well, and give them respect. But they don't have poverty. The kids in Finland are -less than 3 percent of them are in poverty.

So yes, families are terribly important, and I think - I don't think, I know. There are many, many studies that show that whereas the teacher's the most important factor within the school, the influence and importance of the family and the student himself or herself dwarfs the influence of the teacher.

KELLY: We mentioned the protests in Wisconsin and teachers, obviously, have played a big role in those. Do you expect to see more of that type thing? Are you hearing from teachers who are prepared to mobilize, to try to get their point of view across?

Prof. RAVITCH: I hear from teachers across the country, and I know that over this past weekend, there were demonstrations in state capitals and in major cities across the country because teachers are feeling fed up.

In fact, I know there is a march that's planned this summer, this July, on Washington. A group of board-certified teachers - our best teachers, not bad teachers but our best teachers - are planning a march. They have a website called saveourschoolsmarch.org, and they're hoping to get thousands and thousands of teachers to turn out to D.C., to show our policy makers that you can't build better schools by constantly attacking the teaching force.

KELLY: Among the emails coming in on this topic, here's one from Russ Mitchell(ph), writing from Berkeley, California. Russ writes: We are looking at public and private schools for our 5-year-old. The teachers at the public schools are mostly great, but there are a sizable minority of obvious turkeys that the unions are hell-bent on protecting.

Public school teachers have no chance of getting the respect they deserve if they keep protecting the worst-performing among them. Teacher unions don't like to hear this, he writes. But among all the parents I know, from a wide range of economic circumstance, this is the element of public education that depresses them most.

Diane Ravitch, what's your response to that, the role of unions in protecting what probably are some turkey teachers out there?

Prof. RAVITCH: We really don't have a lot of bad teachers. I think that everybody forgets that it's not the job of the union to hire teachers or to evaluate teachers or to remove teachers. It's their job to make sure that teachers have due-process rights - that when somebody says they're a bad teacher, that they're entitled to have a hearing. That only seems fair. And if they're bad teachers, then the people who want to get rid of them have to produce the documentation.

Lots of people have been fired. And this is true in right-to-work states. They've been fired because somebody doesn't like them. The person who's the principal just doesn't just like them. If we had wonderful, experienced people as principals, we would not have any bad teachers at all because they would be counseled out.

In fact, I would suggest that what your listener needs to know is that 50 percent of the people who enter teaching leave within five years. We have actually something like a revolving door in teaching because teachers don't get the respect; they don't get the pay; and they don't get the working conditions that make it feel like a good profession.

KELLY: Let's bring a caller in. Jason(ph) is on the line from Beaverton, Oregon. Hi, Jason.

JASON (Caller): Hello.

KELLY: Hi. You're a teacher yourself, I understand?

JASON: Yes. I'm a teacher. My wife is a teacher. And both of my parents were teachers. And one of the things that I have noticed, particularly, is that I had a conversation with my father not too long ago about the fact that we weren't able to make ends meet on the salary that we were given. And he said, well, in his first year, he only made, I think, $7,000.

And then we went back and we figured out how much a brand-new car cost the year my father started teaching, and we did the math. And based on that increase in cost of living, I should be making $75,000 a year.

KELLY: Hmm.

JASON: The reason I'm not is that teachers' unions, for the last 30 years, have taken compensation and district pay-ins to pensions and district contributions to health care. And so now that there is this big budget crisis, everyone seems to think that that's fair game, that the teachers should give that back. But no one in any industry is asked to give their pay raises back. I mean, we still have record bonuses being handed out on Wall Street.

So that's, I think, one level of frustration for a lot of teachers like myself - is that we have worked hard, and we fought hard, over 30 years to get these concessions from the district. And now, suddenly, they're fair game? They're back on the table?

The other issue is, teachers are constantly being asked to do more with less. In the last several years that I've been teaching in the public schools, I've seen my class sizes rise exponentially. And I know so many teachers who sit - take up, you know, an additional 20 hours a week grading, on their own time. They do it because they know that it's a noble profession. They do it because they know that they need to help the children. But yet when they do, they're enabling their districts. The districts can then point to the teachers and say, See? They're getting it done. And the problem is that teachers always get it done. And a lot of times, I think, they do it in a disservice to themselves without realizing it.

KELLY: We're talking to teachers, about teachers, and whether they are coming unfairly under attack. We're talking here on TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Diane, let me let you respond to that caller. What do you make of this concern, teachers being asked to do more for less?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, this is true across the nation. We see not only in Wisconsin - where the governor asked for give-backs in pension and health benefits, and the teachers gave it back. And then he said that that isn't really what I really want. What I really want is to get rid of your collective-bargaining rights. And once those collective-bargaining rights are gone, you'll see cutting and cutting and cutting. And you'll see class sizes going up and up, because it's the unions - you know, vilify them if you want, as many do - but they're the ones who are standing in the way of the legislatures cutting the budgets and raising class sizes, and making it even worse for teachers.

You know, the bottom line here is, it doesn't make sense that a nation that's the most powerful, richest nation in the world is unable to provide a good education for all of its children. And that's where we are today.

KELLY: All right. Thanks so much for that call. We're going to take another one. This is Elizabeth(ph), and she is calling from Lawrence, Kansas. Elizabeth, you're on the air.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hello?

KELLY: Hi.

ELIZABETH: Hi. I was just calling to - I am a student-teacher right now. And I did not join the union because I feel, especially where I'm from, that they prohibit innovation in the classroom, and it makes it that much more challenging to become a teacher and address the challenges in a classroom.

KELLY: OK. Thanks very much. Diane, what - advice for student-teachers out there?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I think it's very tough to enter this teaching field right now because everybody's cutting. But it's not the union that's preventing innovation. What's preventing innovation are two things: One is the No Child Left Behind legislation, which says you will be judged by test scores and if your scores don't go up every year, you may have your school penalized and eventually, your school may be closed; all the teachers may be fired; the principal may be fired. And this is causing school districts and teachers to cut the amount of time available for the arts and science and history and geography - everything except standardized testing and reading and math. What we - what I believe firmly is that any school that does this is cutting away good education.

KELLY: So how should we measure teacher performance?

Prof. RAVITCH: You know what? Can I tell you, a good school is a school that has a balanced curriculum, where the teachers are dedicated, where there's strong leadership, where there's an experienced person who's - an experienced teacher who's the principal, who can go into the classroom and give the teachers help if they need it, and make sure that all of the teachers are good teachers, and that they have the support and mentoring that they need to get better.

And all the children have access to the arts and history and science, and everything that we would want in a great school. And the measurement is totally unimportant. I think the measurement is what's driving education into the gutter these days.

High-stakes testing warps everything. It warps - it even warps the test, because we now have districts that are so focused on the testing that they're not teaching children anything other than how to take tests. And we're also seeing cheating.

I was just reading today about a charter chain in California, where they admitted that they were giving children the answers to the tests and yet they just got a renewal of their charter - despite the fact that they had been systematically cheating. This isn't good education.

KELLY: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: Thank you.

KELLY: We appreciate your taking the time. And thanks very much to you, Diane Ravitch. We appreciate it.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, thank you so much. It's been great to talk to you.

KELLY: Diane Ravitch wrote "Why America's Teachers Are Enraged." She did that for cnn.com. You can find a link at our website. And we just reached her on the phone from her office in Brooklyn, New York.

And if you heard our earlier interview with Kay Hymowitz, author of "Manning Up," and you want to learn more, you can read the complaints of some of the women she spoke with about the men available to them. And we should warn you, "Star Wars" figures prominently. There's an excerpt from her book at our website. Go to npr.org.

On tomorrow's show, Academy Award winner Alan Arkin will join us to talk about his memoir, "An Improvised Life." We hope you can join us for that.

You've been listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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