As the National Education Association wraps up its annual meeting today in New Orleans, the rift between the Obama administration and the teachers unions is becoming ever more apparent. As the Times reports, this year's meeting included no token speaker from the Department of Education, which has sparked disagreement from the unions over programs like "Race to the Top," a $4.5 billion competitive-grant fund that requires teachers to be judged based on student test scores.
But the administration is just riding the recent "reform" wave that's adopted teachers and teachers' unions as a scapegoat for all the failures of the American education system. Sure, as Steven Brill's much-discussed article in The New Yorker about New York City's "rubber rooms" demonstrates, union-negotiated hiring and retention practices in some districts have shielded bad teachers from being fired. But it's worth noting that, historically, teachers' unions have actually been at the forefront of accountability efforts. As Richard Greenwald at In These Times points out, in the last century they helped professionalize teaching and secured adequate funding for public education. Unfortunately, the latest reform efforts have rolled back many of these accomplishments, funneling money to charter schools that have little government oversight and have led to racial resegregation in some areas.
What makes the blame-the-teacher push in public education so counterproductive is that, after all, it's these same teachers who are largely responsible for educating students. It's difficult to argue that each classroom shouldn't have a qualified teacher in it, or that bad teachers should be kept on. But for all the talk about "improving teacher quality," few of the initiatives aimed at doing this actually focus on making teachers better by encouraging continuing education and mentorship. They're mostly concerned with rooting out the bad ones. As any good teacher will tell you, it's much more effective to incentivize achievement than to stick a dunce cap on someone when they fail.
-- Gabriel Arana