Teachers: Education's Scapegoats

Article excerpt

Byline: Gabriel Frayne Jr. For The Register-Guard

Earlier this month, Oregon Public Radio devoted four minutes of air time to a report detailing how the National Education Association, the union representing most Oregon public school teachers, had arrived at the position that the time has come to incorporate student testing data into annual teacher evaluations.

Whether the NEA's about-face is a change for the better was not really the point of the story. Like the vast majority of reporting on education in recent years, the OPB story is predicated on a single assumption - namely, that improving the woeful state of American education is all about teachers and their many inadequacies.

That assumption is now so commonplace that it may strike some as frivolous or even disingenuous to consider that factors other than teaching may help explain why American students fare poorly when compared to students in other industrialized nations.

The fact that a marginally progressive media outlet has joined the attack indicates just how far the conservative critique of American public education has succeeded: The image of the public school teacher as lazy, sinecured paper- pushers who are more concerned about their pensions than student performance now marks the starting point of any debate on education reform.

But the right's war on teachers is as misdirected as it is ideologically driven. As education historian Diane Ravitch put it in a recent Newsweek magazine article, "Teachers rightly feel scapegoated for conditions that are often beyond their control. They know that if students don't come to school regularly, if they are chronically ill, if they are homeless or hungry, their test scores will suffer. But teachers alone are accountable."

Let me suggest a few reasons why this is so. First and foremost, America's decade-long embrace of standardized testing - and the ancillary debate over whether to reward or punish teachers based on testing data - mainly has concerned schools in communities where incomes are low or English is spoken as a second language.

The beginning of standardized testing and teacher-centered interventions roughly dates to the end of an epoch in which there was broad support for federal programs that aimed to eradicate poverty. Anti-poverty programs did achieve a certain measure of success: according to Census Bureau data, between 1959 and 1973, the U.S. poverty rate declined to about 12 percent from 22.4 percent.

But thereafter, the poverty rate hit a long plateau, never falling below 12 percent, even in the boom years of the late 1990s. Where programs such as welfare, Medicaid, public housing and Head Start had failed to break the grip of entrenched, generational poverty, improved public education was now expected to change the equation.

Like our Calvinist forefathers, 21st century Americans tend to see poverty as a moral failing, and great wealth as the destiny of a chosen few - a notion that is particularly comforting to the few who are chosen. But in order to make this paradigm coalesce with the egalitarian principles of a democratic nation, there needs to be a sense that self-improvement is possible, and that sense is provided by the great American ideal of equal opportunity.

Given the dismal record of government anti-poverty programs in recent decades, along with the rapidly increasing income gap between haves and have-nots, it should not be surprising that Americans today associate equal opportunity almost exclusively with education. …