The cover of Newsweek this week features an article that apparently has “the key to saving American Education” inside. I almost bought it, until I read what was written on the blackboard behind the article title:
We Must Fire Bad Teachers
This was written over and over again in a Bart Simpson style punishment, a practice that in my eight years in teacher education I have never come across as endorsed or recommended by anyone as an effective (or constructive) approach to student behavior. This is important, I think, because the image chosen for this article is completely indicative of its contents. That is, if Newsweek is using a trivial pop-culture image of schooling to sell magazines we shouldn’t be surprised that the contents of that article will feature the Rightist bent embraced by so many in our country now. “Be afraid, the schools are failing!” Bull shit.
I need to make clear, I do not wish to pretend that there are no lousy teachers. We’ve all had them in our lives, some more than others, and those of us who work and study pedagogy I believe can make fairly accurate statements about teacher efficacy. Still, what is a bad teacher?
The reason I couldn’t bring myself to buy the magazine (aside from not wanting to advertise teacher-bashing falsehoods all over the airport) was that its construction of what makes a teacher bad has almost nothing to do with actual teaching, but instead with test scores. While I’ve written about the inaccuracy of test scores elsewhere it is worth restating briefly: test scores do not accurately predict student achievement and test scores are rarely comparable to past generations but the few that are show that children today know more than any generation in US history.
What’s more, schools are falsely held responsible for poverty and the “achievement gap,” the concept that there is a gap in school achievement between white students and students of color. This “achievement” can be understood literally as capital. What we have in the United States is a poverty problem, not a school problem. You can read more about this here, Berliner on the Achievement Gap.
Schools can not control who attends them. By law, in fact, public PK-12 schools must enroll all children in their district who wish to attend under the age of 21. The thing about students these days, though, they don’t look like they used to. While teachers are still overwhelmingly white (85% in 2005) students of color make up the majority of students in 70 of the 130 largest districts nation wide (Gay & Howard, 2000). As we live in a white supremacist capitalist society (hooks, 2003) we ought not be surprised that student test scores and school wide averages are shifting based on the makeup of the students enrolled.
To sum up the above, it is not a teacher’s fault that their students didn’t get enough to eat this morning. It is not a teacher’s fault that people of color are held at a structural disadvantage in this country. Bad teachers, in my mind, are the ones who forget these factors, or who want to pretend that we do not live in a backwards and oppressive society. What all teachers must remember, however, is that education has the potential to transform lives. Our classrooms can be transformative spaces, but we will never get there if we keep blaming teachers for wall street’s greed and the legacy of white supremacy.