Using Fear to Attack Teachers and Hold Schools Hostage

This week’s Newsweek magazine included three lead articles entitled Why we can’t get rid of failing teachers?, Schoolyard Brawl, and Blackboard Jungle. The next day, Teacher Magazine featured an online discussion related to these articles entitled Is Firing Bad Teachers the Answer? The discussion on the Teacher Magazine website encouraged readers to share their opinions based on this brief introduction:

The cover story in the current issue of Newsweek proclaims that, in order to improve schools, “we must fire bad teachers.” The story points to research showing that teacher quality is the most important factor in student success, and then argues that, for a variety of reasons – union obstructionism foremost among them – the teaching profession on the whole has languished in recent years, particularly in low-income schools. It cites the recently planned mass firings at Central Falls High in Rhode Island as “a notable breakthrough” in coming to terms with this issue, adding that “if more truly bad teachers were let go,” the good ones would get more respect and a “boost in status that comes with higher standards.”
What’s your view? Is firing bad teachers the key to improving schools? Would it ultimately bolster the teaching profession? Why shouldn’t ineffective teachers be fired – or why aren’t they more often?
Many of the respondents agreed that the question was a loaded one. How do you define “bad teacher” or “good teacher,” and that indeed the articles in Newsweek and the question posed on the Teacher Magazine website dichotomized teachers, and trivialized the issue of improving education. One of the respondents, Mark Philips, focused in on some views that I will explore after his quote:
And through all of this there is a blaming of teachers and principals. Newsweek
has managed to epitomize this with a cover story highlighted by the phrase “we must fire bad teachers.” Apart from the amazingly ill informed editorial-like stories, highlighted by a truly stupid look at classroom management challenges that any halfway capable teacher trainer would pick apart in an instant, the cover and story add to the growing public attack on teachers. This was only exacerbated when Obama and Duncan supported the Rhode Island move. That support from the President is unconscionable.
If we know nothing else from research in social and clinical psychology, we know that attacking does not increase motivation, it increases defensiveness. Teacher organizations do need to take more responsibility for the quality of teaching, but this isn’t the way to get there. And an open war between teacher organizations, teachers, and policy makers will be a lose-lose with the biggest losers being the kids.
The President should call an educational summit meeting. It should include Ravitch, Darling-Hammond, other top educators, and teacher organization leaders. It may be too late to totally revise his announced policies but it is not too late to shape their implementation, providing greater flexibility.
Most importantly, the President should take the initiative in rebuilding bridges with teachers. He has the strength of character to not let pride stand in the way and this must be done.
What is this all about? In the article in Newsweek which prompted the discussion on Teacher Magazine, there is a giant circled letter F located just above the title of the article. The authors (Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert) were giving an F to the fact that schools don’t seem able to “fire bad teachers.” Ro them the “F” was a grade. They go on to provide statistics showing the very small percentage of teachers that are “fired.” Then they suggest that American education will never regain its lost crown until administrators and politicians “step up!” They then applaud the actions of administrators that resulted in the mass-firing of all teachers and administrators at Central Falls High School.
To me the “F” represents “fear” and in this context it is about exploitation and the use of fear to manipulate the American public that their schools are really bad, and that we are unable to compete in the global work place. They cite statistics from international tests which use the sports analogy of ranking the teams based on win-lost records, and of course in this case, they rank order nations based on the average score of student test results. In nearly all of these cases, the averages are compilations, in that students rarely take the entire test. Furthermore, most of the comparisons try and compare U.S. schools to small nations, most of which have a common school curriculum. In the U.S. there are more than 15,000 independent school districts using a variety of curriculum programs and standards.
Using false statistics, and claiming that the sky is falling, these writers, and indeed administrators and politicians are using what Leonard Pitts calls and wrote in an editorial entitled The politics of fear, unmasked and exploited. Although Pitts discusses how one of our political parties has in recent years used fear to motivate the American public, I am using his argument to suggest that fear is being used as a weapon to motivate the public. We see this in the Newsweek articles, the movement to establish a set of common standards designed by out-of-school experts, corporate leaders and politicians, and the NCLB Act, which uses student high-stakes achievement tests to hold parents, teachers and administrators hostage. The central concept that runs through these movements is to strike fear in the American public that their schools are inadequate, and that the sky is falling. If something isn’t done, and done fast, economic ruin will result.
In my own view, the attitude that appears to be emerging in which teachers are attacked in the press, politicians, and corporate leaders is a dangerous trend. The writers of the articles in Newsweek provided its readers with a one-sided argument, and made the simplistic assumption that by simply removing so called bad teachers would solve the problems facing American schools. I don’t know about you, but many of the schools that I’ve worked in for more than 35 years are facing the most serious economic challenges in decades. Districts in the Atlanta area are going to have to eliminate teaching positions, and close schools. The Kansas City school district will have to close half of its schools, and according to the superintendent “the district would be bankrupt in 18 months without the cuts.”

And if you listen to the leaders of the “common standards” movement, American schools will cause economic failure unless drastic action is taken, and that drastic action is the adoption and implementation of common standards.

One of the blogs that I read is Bridging Differences, a give and take between Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier provide a forum for educators to explore education in a democratic society, and take issue with many of the trends that are dominating education today, such as NCLB. Diane Ravitch published earlier this month a new book entitled The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In her book she emphasizes the following ideas—-ideas quite different than those reported in Newsweek Magazine.
Ravitch includes these ideas for improving America’s schools:
  • leave decisions about schools to educators, not politicians or businessmen
  • devise a truly national curriculum that sets out what children in every grade should be learning
  • expect charter schools to educate the kids who need help the most, not to compete with public schools
  • pay teachers a fair wage for their work, not “merit pay” based on deeply flawed and unreliable test scores
  • encourage family involvement in education from an early age
About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University