Understand the anti-teacher narratives
If you listen to the advocates for increased standardized testing and decreased rights for teachers, you will hear a series of narratives or stories that underlie all their arguments. These stories are a powerful means of persuasion, even though they are false. The discussion below is not our normal "use these words in debate," which you can find here. Instead it is for you to understand that the other side's arguments are a pile of myths.
First, they insist there is a crisis in education.
The sky is falling! Our schools are failing, they assert, based on the "evidence" of average scores on standardized tests, both domestic and international. This "crisis" in education is used to justify their extreme tactics: closing schools, firing teachers, narrowing curriculum, greatly expanding the use of standardized tests, teaching to the test, opening charters willy-nilly, handing “failing” schools to for-profit “turnaround” specialists, and on and on. There is absolutely no evidence that any of these tactics improve children's lives.
The truth is, there is no education crisis. As Diane Ravitch has fully documented, on domestic standardized tests, and by other measures, student achievement has been rising steadily for decades. And when we look at international standardized tests, if you control for poverty—comparing on an apples-to-apples basis—our students rank as the best in the world. The only reason U.S. test scores look mediocre compared to other countries is that low-income students everywhere score very poorly and we have the highest rate of child poverty among the leading western nations. In short, we don’t have a crisis in education; we have a crisis in child poverty. It's poverty we need to address.
Second, they claim that market-based tactics are the solution.
School choice is like setting up a free market, they say. Vouchers and charters allow parents to “vote with their feet” and the competition will (somehow) cause regular public schools to get better. There is no evidence for this claim, just ideological blather. Similarly, they insist that for-profit consultants, charters, testing companies, outsourced curriculum, outsourced tutoring, and outsourced afterschool programs are (somehow) more effective than experienced professional principals and teachers. Again, this is not an evidence-based argument; it is an excuse for corporations to divert tax dollars from classrooms to their own pockets.
The truth is, the purpose of public education is to offer each and every child a reasonably equal opportunity to learn. School choice unabashedly promotes inequality, it is the opposite of equal opportunity. Its primary purpose is to encourage parents, teachers and administrators to battle each other instead of the corporate profit-takers. As the privatized education companies siphon money out of the system, public schools are denied the resources needed to offer children a legitimate opportunity to learn.
Third, they assert that the only measure of a good or bad school or teacher is standardized test scores.
It's all they talk about! But have you noticed that whenever the test scores go up, the Duncan/Rhee/Gates types say it is proof that their strategies are working and when they go down they say it’s proof that we need to double down on the same strategies? Even though the test scores can be phony as a three dollar bill, or the result of outright cheating, testing promoters will never admit the truth.
And the truth is, standardized tests are a terrible way to measure how well students are doing in school. Children are not standardized; every one of them has different strengths and weaknesses, and every one learns differently. Teachers know the whole student and they know better than anyone how well each child is learning. When teachers are evaluated based on the standardized test scores they are compelled to teach to the test. They have to focus on test taking strategies (e.g. “chunking” and ruling out wrong answers) which do not help the children at all in later life. Teachers can’t go off-topic with projects that used to be the highlight of anyone’s school year. Don’t you remember your favorite teachers from grade school? Those were the ones who did things differently—but because of the tests, that’s no longer allowed.
Fourth, they insist that teaching does not require a professional, it requires instead enthusiasm and high expectations—or a computer program.
Learning does not require the student’s active interest, they believe, it requires more and more time and repetition. This idea is central to their strategies, including replacing professional teachers with amateurs and/or computers. It is the reason why they insist on increasing the number of hours spent on reading and math, and lengthening the school day and the school year. Visualize it this way—they think that learning happens when teachers pour knowledge into the heads of students.
The truth is, as the best educators have known for centuries, “the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” Real learning requires the engagement of the student. One might pour in answers to multiple choice questions to some extent—but that’s not learning, it is short-term memorization, quickly forgotten. No matter how many extra hours you force a student to sit in class or how many for-profit programs and computer devices you force upon a student, s/he will not retain the kind of knowledge that is valuable in life. Again, don’t you remember your own grade school experience? If it got repetitious, if it was drudgery, if you were not engaged, you didn’t really learn anything. Engaging 25 or 30 students simultaneously is hard. It is especially hard because every child is different. If we want children to actually learn, professional teachers are irreplaceable, the more experienced the better.
What we have to do in order to change the debate:
- Whenever possible, focus on how the corporate takeover of education hurts the listener’s own children and neighborhood schools rather than education in the abstract.
- Push back against the overuse of standardized tests and teaching-to-the-test by explicitly pointing out something that parents know—every child is different and requires individualized attention.
- Change the narrative about school quality from average test scores to how well our schools provide each and every student the opportunity to learn and excel.
- Insist that only professional teachers, rather than amateurs or computer programs, have the knowledge and skills to do the job right.
- Never repeat their narratives. Instead, tell the truth about our schools in a way that persuadable listeners can understand.
For more detail about how to talk about these policies, see the education chapter of Voicing Our Values.