When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, he provoked a firestorm in 2005 with a proposal to replace teacher tenure with merit pay.
“I propose that teacher employment be tied to performance, not to just showing up,” said the governor, who was known to lament that too much attention was being paid to teacher needs, not the needs of students.
Teachers will argue that those two sets of needs are, in reality, the same. But as the school year gets underway across the United States, tension between public school teachers and the districts they serve seems higher than ever, long after “The Terminator” has left the political arena.
Full disclosure: I am a teacher, too, at a parochial middle school. The challenges facing parochial faculty, charter school teachers and their district counterparts overlap in some areas but not in others. I can tell you the challenges I face, personally, are nothing compared to theirs.
Having seen these challenges from both sides of the teacher’s desk, as a writer and a parent and a citizen, I can assure you I do not come to bury teachers. Regardless of my own status, I have always praised them and still do.
That praise does not always embrace their union leadership, which has often acted less as representative of a diverse membership than as a political lobbying group with a single message that not only dismisses charter and private schools, but too often incorporates the guilt card into its negotiations.
Nonetheless, they represent teachers, who are the backbone of an American education system not just at a crossroads, but at an intersection with multiple layers and intersections. Look in any direction, and there are problems.
In Columbus, Ohio, the teachers’ union went on strike just before classes began on Monday, citing miserable conditions in sweltering, unhealthy classrooms. A critical teacher shortage caused rural Texas schools to adopt a four-day week, essentially cutting classroom time by 20%.
In Florida and Arizona, a bachelor’s degree is no longer required for new teachers under certain conditions, among them, in Florida, if the applicant is a veteran. The American Federation of Teachers reports that 79% of those surveyed – 4 in every 5 – are dissatisfied with their jobs.
Teachers have always been torn between the love of working with students and the stress of their jobs. A generation or more ago, the debate was over insufficient pay.
That’s still the case in some regions. Whenever athletes or movie stars report multi-million paychecks, the attention often turns to those doing more important work and receiving a pittance by comparison – with teachers and nurses atop the list.
But most of the debate these days is not about salary, it’s about what is actually going on in the classrooms, and what can be reasonably expected – or demanded.
Wind back the clock 29 months to when the closing of schools for the COVID-19 pandemic caused a widespread appreciation for something we took for granted: open public schools. Thrown into an unexpected world of remote learning, teachers and systems pivoted with varying degrees of success.
But, as anticipated brief closures turned into months and, then, a year, the loss of classroom learning with dedicated, hands-on teachers was felt in profound educational, social and emotional ways.
The pandemic gave us an enormously greater appreciation of nurses and other health professionals, but it also amplified what teachers (and yes, their unions) have always said: Zoom is great, and online education has its place, but nothing replaces a great teacher working with a class in person.
That was then. Whatever bonding effect between teachers and families might have existed was fractured by the culture war of whether to open schools or not.
In Massachusetts, the Baker administration and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education clamored for full openings, albeit with protocols, in the fall of 2020. Many teachers unions said it was too soon and not safe. The pandemic is subsiding, but those bruises haven’t healed.
Elsewhere, to be blunt, the crisis is worse because of issues we don’t face here. In July, Florida reported a shortage of 9,000 teachers.
Some reasons given were specific to that state: fear of gun violence in a state that rejects tighter gun regulations; and political culture wars such as the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law in Tallahassee. Critics say the law will not only force teachers and students to pretend gay people don’t exist, but will keep qualified gay teachers from working there.
We don’t have these problems in Massachusetts. But there are fissures that cannot be denied, even here in this a state highly regarded for education.
On Aug. 15, the state Board of Education raised Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System the standardized test scores required for graduation, beginning with the Class of 2026. While not dramatic, this action provoked protest from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an organization not fond of standardized testing at all.
The MTA has acted like a muscular political organization more than once, but this time, they very well may have a point.
The board’s decision comes as colleges across America devalue their emphasis on standardized scores, or in some cases, eliminate them from consideration altogether. Test critics say the goal of racial and economic equity is hurt by emphasizing standardized test scores.
It also encourages “teaching to the test,” as schools focus on assuring their results pass muster. Critics say that could hurt subjects including the arts or my personal favorite, history – even after Massachusetts passed a bill expanding civics instruction in 2018, and another incorporating subject matter on genocide in 2021.
The pandemic convinced many teachers to retire ahead of schedule. Some worried for their health and safety.
Others realized during isolation that they didn’t need the everyday pressure in an occupation many, many teachers feel is not appreciated.
No examination of the crisis in education would be complete without the elephant in the room of curriculum: Critical Race Theory (CRT), a concept at least 40 years old that contends racism is not just about individual prejudice, but systemic and intertwined with past and present American politics, society and law.
The ferocity of the pushback against CRT often skips a definition of what it is. Convinced that CRT is designed to tear down America’s most treasured principles and tradition, opponents are engaged in a culture war with advocates who say CRT is merely a look at history and society through a lens that has always existed, but has been overlooked for more than 200 years.
The battlefields are the classrooms. The foot soldiers, caught in the crossfire, are the children. This is probably a debate we should have had long ago, but the anger, mistrust and pure hatred is ruining any hope for a reasoned, rational discussion.
So, as America’s schools reopen for another year, where do we go and how do we make it better? If you’ve read this far in hopes of a solution, you will be disappointed.
That is because 50 states approach education not in 50 different ways, but probably 50,000 different ways based on districts, demographics and financial resources. When district officials say they can’t afford more money than they are paying, they are often correct.
When they say money alone will not cure the ills of our schools, they’re correct. When teachers say they expected to work under impossible conditions, and that investing in children should not come with an arbitrary cap that treats our future like a line item, they’re correct, too.
It might help if dissatisfied parents, resentful and unhappy teachers, and impatient administrators could all lower their voices and try to look at these problems from the point of view of the other. Instead, the battle lines are hardening, and the 2020 appreciation we had for the value of teachers in the classroom is being replaced by the same-old, same-old accusations and mistrust of one side for the other.
The pandemic and closings are forcing American schools to play catch-up for the formative months that were compromised or lost. No wonder fewer people are applying to be teachers, and parents wonder if American education – once the envy of the world – can still be trusted with their children.
Ron Chimelis is a staff writer with The Republican. He may be reached by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.