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The War on Teachers

Posted By: Doug Monroe · 7/20/2011 2:29:00 PM
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal is the culture of fear created under former Superintendent Beverly Hall in her quest to produce higher test scores from poor children. According to the Huffington Post:

Administrators—pressured to maintain high scores under the federal No Child Left Behind law—punished or fired those who reported anything amiss and created a culture of "fear, intimidation and retaliation," according to the [state] report released earlier this month, two years after officials noticed a suspicious spike in some scores.  . . .  One teacher told investigators the district was "run like the mob."  "Everybody was in fear," another teacher said in the report. "It is not that the teachers are bad people and want to do it. It is that they are scared."
Equally disturbing is the treatment educators received from the state investigators looking into the scandal. Some teachers are claiming the state report about the cheating scandal was riddled with errors

Atlanta teacher Sharona Thomas-Wilson told the AJC that state investigators falsely accused her of wrongdoing:

Investigators interrogated Thomas-Wilson for more than three hours, she said, and became frustrated when she wouldn't admit to cheating or repeat rumors about others. They screamed at her and told her when she declined to take immunity in exchange for a confession that she would "regret this day for the rest of my life."
None of this is surprising if you have followed the way American society has declared war on teachers. Schools are failing. Corporations are trying to mold schools in their image. The easiest thing for reformers and politicians to do is to find a scapegoat. Tag. Teachers are it.  Americans, who are sharply divided on so many issues, join hands when it comes to hating on teachers, according to Dissent Magazine:

Democrats from various wings of the party, virtually all Republicans, most think tanks that deal with education, progressive and conservative foundations, a proliferation of nonprofit advocacy organizations, right-wing anti-union groups, hedge fund managers, writers from right leftward, and editorialists in most mainstream media—all concur that teachers, protected by their unions, deserve primary blame for the failure of 15.6 million poor children to excel academically. They also bear much responsibility for the decline of K–12 education overall (about 85 percent of all children attend public schools), to the point that the United States is floundering in the global economy.
In New York City, where we have a strong union, everybody complains that it’s virtually impossible to get rid of "bad" teachers. Maybe so, but it’s not hard to make their lives a living hell.

A friend of mine is being driven out of a Brooklyn High School. He’s an older guy, like me. He’s brilliant. But he has a hard time handling the students. Any day, a steely-eyed assistant principal can walk into his classroom, observe, take notes, and write him up with a "U"—for  unsatisfactory. At some schools, the APs wait until the last period on a hot Friday afternoon, when the kids are itching to get out of class, so the teacher can be given a “U” for poor classroom management. An unsatisfactory rating at the end of the year makes it extremely difficult for teachers to change schools. They can be "excessed" from their schools and enter a limbo as a permanent substitute, which is more like hell because many students view the presence of a sub as party time. Older teachers hold on tenaciously for the pay and benefits because they know there are no jobs for them in today’s America.

Increasingly, teachers are rated by the test scores of their students. This is great for the teachers who have ambitious children in their classes. It’s not so great for teachers whose students have disabilities or have simply given up.

One important issue that remains unspoken in the War on Teachers is the shocking behavior of many students. Two years ago, a student whacked me in the back with a bag that contained his cell phone and keys as he was running down the hall. His brother brought a pellet gun to my classroom in his backpack. Both of them got suspended but later returned to the classroom. 

A new report out of Texas found that 31 percent of the state's students were suspended off campus or expelled at least once during their years in middle and high school—at an average of almost four times apiece. A professor of school psychology told the New York Times that the Texas findings reflect a national trend.

Minority students were more likely to get harsher punishments for first offenses, the study showed. The professor said, "We don’t really know enough about the reasons for African-American and Latino over-representation in school discipline. We have enough data to show that it’s more than just poverty and any greater misbehavior. My guess is it’s very subtle interactional effects between some teachers and students."

Boom. There it is. Sounds like this is going to be the teachers' fault once again.

One of my students last year was a fourteen-year-old girl who was breathtakingly disrespectful and disruptive in class. When I would say, "Please stop talking," she would respond, "You stop talking." She cursed. She sulked. She threw things when my back was turned. I called her mother, who said she had no idea how to deal with the girl. I also met with the mother on parent-teacher night. We discussed the girl’s behavior and some approaches we might try to change it. The next day, I mentioned the conversation to the girl, who laughed and said, "Did you think my mother is hot?"

The day after eighth-grade graduation, the girl came to school to pick up her report card. She started running toward me, gave me a big hug, and then ran off with her friends. I still haven’t quite figured that out.

The enemies of teachers should take heart. They’re winning. In New York City, 42 percent of new teachers leave after five years. The big question for the teacher-blamers is this: are you only driving out the bad teachers or are you also getting rid of talented, passionate people who are capable of finding another job in which they’re not demonized?

Doug Monroe was a senior editor, columnist, and blogger for
Atlanta magazine. He moved to Brooklyn in 2007 as a New York City Teaching Fellow and earned a master’s degree in education from Long Island University.  
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