“Anyone can be a teacher.” “Teachers’ unions are the biggest obstacles to improving education today.” “Teachers need to focus less on the arts, more on STEM.” These are some of the pernicious myths about teachers and public education that persist. Educators William Ayers, Crystal Paul, and Rick Ayers debunk these misperceptions in “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!” And 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers’ Unions, and Public Education. By unpacking these myths, Ayers, Paul, and Ayers challenge readers—be they parents, community members, policy makers, union activists, or educators themselves—to rethink their assumptions about the role of education. In the following excerpt, they provide us with a reality check concerning the misinformation about how teachers are “poorly served by today’s teacher-education programs.”
The journalist Fareed Zakaria notes, “Half of America’s teachers graduated in the bottom third of their college class,” in sharp contrast to countries that have more successful schools, such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, places that consistently draw 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of graduates. Finnish students are dependably at or near the top in international examinations, which makes sense since their teacher corps is drawn from the best and the brightest.
Nancy Gibbs, editor of Time magazine, concludes that this discrepancy explains why “our kids’ performance falls below that of students in Estonia and why one-third of those who make it to college in the US need remedial education.” The well-qualiﬁed are denied access to the schools, and teacher-education programs enlist the halt and the lame. As a result—and is it any wonder?—our students are failing miserably compared to students in the rest of the world.
Traditional teacher-education programs are a joke, an un-rigorous, cobbled-together amalgam of watered-down classes in psychology and philosophy and teaching methods, followed by “student teaching,” a lazy affair consisting of superﬁcial classroom activities supervised by veteran losers who do little more than try to induct new teachers into the cynical culture of teachers’ unions, school failure, and complaint. Researchers Jason Richwine and Andrew Biggs say, “Given the relative lack of rigor of education courses, many teachers have not faced as demanding a college curriculum as other graduates.” And Joel Klein, former New York City Schools chancellor, claimed that poor training is part of the reason most graduates of traditional teacher-education programs don’t think that the experience was worthwhile nor the teaching credential of much value.
When the corporate reformers came into our schools—testing and measuring, judging and sorting students, reducing the concept of an educated person to a single anemic metric on a high-stakes standardized test, all the while compounding the inequalities that have always plagued US public schools—conscientious teachers resisted. But teachers were also in the reformers’ sights, and the corporate reform group worked to reduce the reality of teaching actual children—complex, multidimensional, and challenging—to a simple matter of delivering rote lessons in test preparation to passive and obedient kids.
As Kevin Kumashiro, former dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, points out, “Under current reforms, the more students struggle, the less their schools are allowed to teach, and the less they are made to look like ﬂourishing school systems in this country and to other nations.” Behind each of these moves lurked a deeper, ideologically driven goal: the replacement of the public education system with a private educational business. This is a recipe for inequality inﬂamed and would inscribe even more emphatically the reality of a high-quality education for the privileged and under-resourced schools focused on discipline for poor students and students of color.
Education, no longer a common good nor a universal human right, would be fully transformed into a product to be traded in the marketplace like any other commodity, a hammer and a box of nails, say. The winners would be sorted out and separated from the losers, and signiﬁcant proﬁts would be made. For teacher-education programs, the reforms in the pipeline all pointed toward a resurgence of the privilege of white and male power.
The corporate reform crowd—the marketeers, the banksters, the hedge fund billionaires, and their allies among the political class—have worked to steer the reform efforts and the privatization of public education for three decades. The corporate education agenda sits on a three-legged stool: test scores as a proxy for learning; teaching as little more than clerking; education as a commodity like any other.
One current initiative from the federal government and the corporate sector is called the College Scorecard, a metric that ranks colleges based on post-graduation earnings of students. Surprise: Harvard graduates earn more than Howard graduates! This is social science in the service of the self-evident and the status quo.
The New York Times recently criticized university-based teacher education programs in an editorial ironically titled “Help Teachers Before They Get to Class.” Starting with an obligatory bow to the effective Finnish school system, the editorial hits the central tenets of the corporate reform agenda for schools, including the assertion that US schools of education should, like those of the Finns, raise admissions standards. This is an astoundingly narrow conclusion from the broad evidence of what makes Finnish schools work. In the ﬁrst place, teachers in Finland receive much higher salaries and beneﬁts than their counterparts in the United States, one that places them ﬁrmly in an economically secure position. Many US teachers can’t afford basic housing and living costs on their teaching salaries; a perhaps not unsurprising number moonlight as Uber drivers, bartenders, and clerks. Moreover, the respect and esteem with which teachers are held in Finland is a full 180 degrees from the national teacher-bashing narrative promoted by politicians and conservative pundits in the United States. Finally, Finland does not have nearly the income disparity and the massive poverty that plagues the United States and which stands behind so much school failure in this country.
The result of these conditions is that applications to teacher education programs in the United States are down fifty-three percent from ten years ago. And many teachers are discouraged by what they ﬁnd in the profession, from low pay to constricting regulations and intensive, sometimes obsessive high-stakes standardized testing. By ﬁve years in, fully fifty percent of teacher-education graduates leave the profession. If this kind of hemorrhaging appeared in the medical or legal professions, it would be declared a national crisis. In this context, for the Times to carp about low admissions standards would be laughable, if it weren’t so wrong-headed.
The Times charges teacher education with another sin: preparing teachers for the humanities when there is a much greater shortage in math and science. This is either a cynical charge or an incredibly blinkered observation. Can you imagine teacher education programs not wanting to prepare math and science teachers? Again, the problem is that people with math and science degrees, especially advanced degrees, with the concomitant student debt, are drawn to much more lucrative professions.
The forces of corporate education reform and their media followers who claim to believe so fervently in the market as the way to heal all ills refuse to see the ways that economic incentives and disincentives are driving this crisis. We have a teacher shortage across the country—San Francisco alone this year was looking for over four hundred teachers—and the Times is ﬁddling at the edges.
The corporate reformers suggest that teaching teachers involves nothing more than the transmission of a narrow band of white middle-class attitudes and information into passive students whose mastery will be evaluated through standardized tests. Everything in this formula stands on faulty assumptions, including the erroneous idea that high-stakes standardized tests can measure effectiveness in the classroom or that a teacher’s work can be understood as the easy enactment of lesson plans removed from social or cultural context.
When it’s all boiled down, the vision the reformers put forward is that teachers should be narrowly training students. And when we say schools are failing to teach African American, Latinx, immigrant, and other marginalized students, we must also interrogate the content and the “knowledge” we are supposed to be teaching. We can argue that it is not really education if the history is overwhelmingly European-centered history, if the literature is created by primarily white male authors. We need to examine and refocus what we call valid or important knowledge. This question goes beyond content too. It includes the kinds of discourse used in debate, the approach to science, the exploration of mathematical sense. Simply put, the ﬁnite amount of white middle-class knowledge should not be the gold standard for what is important. And the problem for oppressed communities is compounded when such knowledge is simply imparted by downloading information that will then be evaluated through standardized tests.
We recall a standardized test for tenth graders that asked, “What were the reasons for US expansion in the Paciﬁc after World War II?” The possible answers were a) to consolidate the defeat of Japanese expansionism, b) to counter the spread of communism, c) to expand market opportunities, and d) to spread Western values. What could a student possibly do when confronted with this question but try desperately to guess the perspective and point of view in the mind of the test writer? How would a Hawaiian youth read it? Someone from East Timor? A Vietnamese immigrant? The question and its assumptions drip with white Western positionality. And there was no space to write “all of the above” or “none of the above.”
Everything in the corporate reform approach to education stands on faulty assumptions, such as the following:
- The task of public education is to help America defeat other countries in economic and military competition.
- Strong math and science skills will make the United States win this competition.
- Poor students need to be trained to obey rules and regulations unquestioningly.
- Education alone will end poverty.
- Success for Black and Brown people is measured in how much their knowledge and performance approaches white knowledge and performance.
- We know what skills and capacities will be needed ﬁfty years from now.
- Standardized tests measure these skills and capacities.
- Competition, between students, teachers, schools, states, and countries, is the best way to advance social goals.
The list goes on and on.
Corporate reformers advocate basing teacher education on a utilitarian “competency” scheme rather than requiring students to complete a full university education. In this context, competency can be demonstrated through a series of online tests that allow education students to bypass or skip certain classes. It is an approach that foregrounds a mechanistic training while it eliminates the study of history or philosophy, an understanding of the psychology of learning, or the importance of raising the fundamental curriculum questions: What knowledge and experience is of most value, and how can students gain full and equitable access to that valuable knowledge and experience?
Many of the other practices promoted by corporate reformers are entirely upside down: distance learning, including virtual avatars and virtual classrooms for student-teaching experiences, is not an adequate facsimile of classroom life; competition between students, teachers, schools, states, and countries is not the best way to advance intellectual and social goals; poor students will not be well served in an environment that demands their passivity and compliance; education alone will not end poverty. Corporate reformers display no grasp of teaching and learning, nor have the thinnest understanding of the complexity of teaching teachers, but they hurriedly gloss over their ignorance and cover up their glaring blind spots with mandates and regulations, rankings and bullying, in order to have their way in spite of evidence to the contrary.
About the Authors
Bill Ayers is an author, activist, and educator whose previous books include To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher and Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamAyers and visit his website.
Crystal Laura is an educator and the author of Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
Rick Ayers is an educator and the author of An Empty Seat in Class: Teaching and Learning After the Death of a Student, and, with William Ayers, Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom. Follow him on Twitter at @rick_ayers and visit his website.