Blaming Teachers Is Easy, But Is It Fair?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
In state after state, lawmakers are targeting teacher pay, tenure, seniority, and questioning how teachers are evaluated. Many teachers and their unions say they're getting the blame for just about everything that can go wrong in schools.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Central Falls High, a struggling school in Rhode Island, recently fired all its teachers, in large part because only 7 percent of its 11th graders passed the state's math test. But here's the question: Are the teachers at fault?
Mr. GEORGE MCLAUGHLIN: No. They probably deserve a portion of the blame but now, we're just being stepped on.
SANCHEZ: That's George McLaughlin, one of the 89 faculty members who was fired. He says teachers want students to succeed, but more and more people are convinced...
Mr. MCLAUGHLIN: The problem with education is teachers.
SANCHEZ: Even the president of the United States seems to be saying it, says McLaughlin. Mr. Obama made headlines when he injected himself into the labor dispute at Central Falls High, and condoned the firings after teachers refused to work more hours without pay to raise students' abysmal test scores.
President BARACK OBAMA: If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, but doesn't show any sign of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability.
SANCHEZ: Mr. Obama, of course, is not the first politician to criticize teachers unions for opposing tough measures, ostensibly to approve schools. But firing teachers en masse?
Mr. DENNIS VAN ROEKEL (President, National Education Association): That's not part of the administration policy, and I wish they would speak out and say that.
SANCHEZ: Dennis Van Roekel is president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. He says he's astonished by the hostility towards teachers, and the administration's reluctance to denounce it.
Mr. VAN ROEKEL: I would hate to see this administration labeled as anti-teacher.
SANCHEZ: Van Roekel says teachers are taking the brunt of the most aggressive efforts to turn around failing schools, not just shutting them down or firing principals and teachers, but attacking hard-earned benefits like tenure and seniority.
Van Roekel says the Obama administration's Race to the Top fund is even offering states and local school districts billions of dollars to tie teacher evaluations to students' test scores. An example of how this unprecedented level of scrutiny from Washington is affecting teachers, says Van Roekel, is Guilford County, North Carolina.
A school board there is asking the U.S. Education Department for $2 million to help pay for a complete overhaul of 10 schools. And yes, teachers in at least one school will be dismissed, says Mo Green, the county school superintendent.
Mr. MO GREEN (School Superintendent, Guilford County, North Carolina): Dismissal is maybe too strong a word. It certainly would require that the faculty would have to no longer be at the school. Because if you -obviously, if you close the school then there would not be any faculty at that school.
SANCHEZ: By the way, what would you say to anyone who would say: What they're doing down in Guilford County is nothing more than teacher bashing?
Mr. GREEN: This is not teacher bashing at all. This is what amounts to a fresh start.
SANCHEZ: Teachers in Guilford County say they're demoralized, for a good reason, says Van Roekel.
Mr. VAN ROEKEL: You ignore your own policies of due process, you ignore the rights of employees. I mean, how do you look in the face of a PE teacher, a history teacher or a cafeteria worker and say: The reason you don't have a job is because our fourth graders, compared to last year's fourth graders, didn't do well on a math and reading test?
SANCHEZ: So, if schools are failing and kids aren't learning, the question remains: Do teachers and their unions deserve more of the blame than -let's say, shrinking education budgets, poverty or bad parenting? Maybe not, says Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, but teachers are easy targets.
Mr. RICK HESS (American Enterprise Institute): If the unions in the past 25 years had been more aggressive partners in trying to police their own ranks, in trying to work with reform-minded superintendents, we would be at a very different conversation today.
SANCHEZ: What's clear, says Hess, is that Mr. Obama and the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, are on a collision course with teachers and their unions.
Mr. HESS: I think they understand that to build a bipartisan coalition to drive school reform, they can't be seen as letting teachers off the hook.
SANCHEZ: The risks for the Obama administration are that teachers and their unions will increasingly oppose and block the president's school reform proposals at every turn, and that more teachers, including the best ones, will leave the profession if they think they're not being treated as educators but as punching bags.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.