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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Teaching as a Service Industry

From the with a Nod to Mike Klonskys Small Talk Blog

by Paul Thomas

Management and labour are hurtling towards an impasse, and a work stoppage looms. Workers are seeking public support by emphasising the importance of benefits for workers, specifically longterm healthcare for conditions caused by the profession that do not appear until later in life.

This may sound for many like the possible scenario for a teachers' strike, backed by a powerful teachers' union. But if this were a teachers' strike, in 2011, we could anticipate little support for those teachers – not least because of the propaganda created by Davis Guggenheim's documentary Waiting for "Superman" and the rise of false prophets of education reform (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee).

However, above, I am speaking about the possible NFL strike that hangs over this coming Super Bowl weekend: a struggle between billionaires and millionaires, which, indirectly, shines an important light on the rise of teacher and teacher union-bashing in the US. Adam Bessie, on Truthout, identifies how the myth of the bad teacher has evolved:

"In this political season of faux anti-establishment anger born of very real economic desperation, public educators have become the villain du jour, their reputations collateral damage in the war against 'big government'. In a remarkable sleight of hand, the super rich who imploded the economy, manufacturing the recession which now enrages the public, have successfully misdirected the public's justifiable anger away from them and toward teachers."

While few people have begun to demonise and criticise either the billionaire owners or the millionaire players (represented by a union) in the NFL, the education reform landscape is built on a false premise – blaming teachers and unions for school failures – that lacks credibility and masks the overwhelming source of education failures: namely, poverty.

Ironically, the new push against teachers' unions, cloaked in discourse about the damage done by "bad" teachers, comes from Democrats. For example, Arne Duncan, speaking on behalf of the Obama administration in Little Rock, Arkansas on 25 August 2010, focused on teacher quality:

"The big game-changer for us, however, in terms of both formula and competitive programmes, revolves around the issue of teacher quality … Nothing is more important and nothing has a greater impact on the quality of education than the quality and skill of the person standing in the front of the class – and there is so much that needs to change in the way that America recruits, trains, supports and manages our teachers."

But the political attacks on teachers and unions, which come from both the left and the right, would likely not resonate as much as they have done, if it were not for the celebrity tour on the back of the documentary Waiting for "Superman", whose message has been perpetuated by celebrity reformers. Two of those, Bill Gates and Geoffrey Canada, share an entrepreneur status that suggests expertise on everything simply because they are wealthy. (Possibly, also, this is what protects NFL owners and players from social ridicule in their fight.)

Both Gates and Canada also use compliant media adroitly to promote their unsupported claims. Canada appeared on the Colbert Report as part of his tour, specifically reinforcing the idea that teacher accountability is central to school reform. "We've got to hold the adults responsible … We've allowed our schools to fail these kids with no consequences," Canada told Colbert's audience.

Gates, again due to his incredible wealth and corporate success, commands media attention – media that rarely question his claims. Take, for example, the Newsweek interview by Daniel Lyons with Gates and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. While the entire interview perpetuates misunderstanding about education reform, the focus on teacher quality and the role of unions exemplifies the claims of the new reformers – even as it exposes those claims' lack of credibility.

In August of 2010, the attack on teacher professionalism was intensified when the Los Angeles Times published teacher quality analyses based on value-added methods (VAM). The charges against teacher quality and teachers' unions elicited several stringent rejections (here, here, and here), but most challenges came from educators themselves – and, of course, received little media coverage when compared to the attention lavished on Gates, Rhee and Canada.

The message has solidified: US public schools are failures because we have too many bad teachers, and we have too many bad teachers because teachers' unions use their excessive power to keep bad teachers in jobs. But it doesn't end there.

By October 2010, the narrative developed further, to take in that our teaching core is weak because "[c]ountries with the best-performing school systems largely recruit teachers from the top third of high school and college graduates, while the United States has difficulty attracting its top students to the profession, a new report finds." The formula was growing complex, but there was a pattern to the proposed solutions: usurp teachers' union control and fire bad teachers; then restock the depleted teacher core with recruits from among top US students.

Ultimately, this PR campaign by corporate and political leaders has been effective, even if it remains inaccurate. Teacher quality represents only a small percentage of achievement, and there is little evidence that teacher quality is the greatest issue, or even one of the main problems, facing student achievement in public schools.

A provable problem with teacher quality, however, is teacher assignment. Peske and Haycock show that students in poverty, students of colour and ELL students are in classrooms with the least experienced teachers, who are often uncertified or underqualified. Of course, teacher quality does matter in terms of what happens once students are within the walls of schools, but we seem blind to the longstanding tradition of assigning the most experienced and best-qualified teachers to the elite students, who already experience major advantages in their lives outside of school.

That the evidence-based inequity of teacher assignment is ignored, while the myth of the bad teacher is perpetuated, is evidence of the motivation behind the new reformers – an unspoken commitment to the status quo of this social inequity that benefits the very people so keen to lay charges against teachers and unions. And the rants against unions are just as suspect as the claims that bad teachers are crippling schools. Two examples expose the flaws in union-bashing.

First, the new reformers hold up Finland as the model for education reform – while failing to identify two crucial facts: that Finland has low childhood poverty (about 3-4%, compared to over 20% in the US) and that Finland's teachers are nearly 100% unionised. Consider, also, South Carolina, a high-poverty state with a reputation for having a weak education system. South Carolina joined the accountability era at the beginning, taking "A Nation at Risk" seriously and creating standards, testing and accountability in 1984. Despite nearly three decades of precisely the process supported by the new reformers, South Carolina finds itself still ranking at the bottom of education in the US. The real dynamic here is that South Carolina remains a high-poverty state – the true cause of low test scores – and also that South Carolina is a non-union state, with no union contracts for teachers and no tenure.

Now, let's step back from all the separate but overlapping claims about teachers, teacher quality and teachers unions. If we look at them together, we discover that two powerful yet contradictory messages exist in the larger public discourse promoted by the new reformers: contradictory messages that allow one message to mask the other. Political and corporate leaders seek to speak about teaching as if it is a profession, while expecting those professionals to function as a service industry. The narratives offered by Obama and Duncan, Waiting for "Superman" and organisations such as Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Teach for America argue for the best and the brightest to implement mandated, common core standards, so that their students can take national tests for which those teachers will be held accountable. And all that while teachers are required to waive their first amendment rights, right to due process, and work for salaries that are less than a regular NFL fine.

Beneath the political and corporate veneer espousing teaching as a profession lurks a simple fact: the corporate and political elite wants teaching to be a service industry. Worse yet, they have their wish, because teaching is now a service industry, ultimately devoted to perpetuating an economic system based on social inequity and a venal consumer culture.

So, let's return to the NFL dispute. Corporate, political and public sentiment is against teachers' unions, framing unions as the source of all that ails public education; this narrative now holds firm. But virtually no one has cried foul when it comes to the unionised labour struggle of millionaire NFL players pitted against billionaire team owners. This may seem contradictory, but I believe it is not.

Corporate America benefits from the NFL thriving and from the de-professionalising of teaching – regardless of the union element. Outcries about bad teachers and corrupt teachers' unions are not about educational reform, but about guaranteeing that teaching will become permanently a service industry in which schools are reduced to the sole purpose of producing compliant workers.

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