[Note: I wrote this piece at the invitation of a major publication, but they ultimately rejected the submitted draft. After a couple failed attempts to find it a new home, I am publishing it here, mainly out of respect for the time of my interview subjects, but also because I think that — whatever it faults as an op-ed — the basic point I am making is true and important.]
At a time when the pandemic has prompted a new appreciation of the work teachers do, we have also witnessed a sustained conservative attack on teachers and public schools. Beginning with the crusade against so-called “Critical Race Theory” and escalating in the recent attempts to squelch discussion of homosexuality and trans issues, state-level Republicans have increasingly sought to police teacher’s speech and micromanage curriculum.
These measures have been accompanied by a campaign of outright demonization against teachers, accusing them of indoctrinating children, seeking to make white children hate themselves, and even implying that teachers who speak with students about homosexuality or trans issues are pedophiles who are “grooming” our nation’s youth.
These increasingly unhinged and dangerous attacks have been met with virtual silence among Democrats. A recent viral speech by Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow, who forcefully denounced Republican Senator Lana Theis’s attempt to tar her and other Democrats as “groomers,” has only highlighted most elected Democrats’ failure to push back on a campaign of racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
What is going on here? Certainly part of the problem is Democrats’ habitual cowardice in the face of culture war attacks. But I believe the response in this case goes beyond political tactics. There is a deeper dynamic here, an ideological commitment to the view that teachers are not to be trusted. The recent Republican anti-teacher legislation puts a new, distinctively conservative spin on a decades-old effort to undermine the qualitative work of teaching through relentless quantitative assessment. Again and again, Democrats have joined their Republican colleagues in undermining teachers’ ability to function as the caring professionals they are.
In modern society, we have come to recognize that certain occupations have special skills and expertise that makes their own members best qualified to set their own norms and practices. Within boundaries set by state and federal law, qualifications for membership in a profession are determined by professionals in the field itself, and once someone is a member, they can expect to practice their profession with considerable autonomy. This is not to say that becoming a member of a profession means that anything goes. Ongoing assessment and accountability are essential—but the people in the best position to give it are professional peers.
The bipartisan consensus on education reform has sought to de-professionalize teachers by any means necessary and commodify education. Taking up the neoliberal approach made popular by Reagan and subsequently embraced by Clinton, education reformers have attempted to create a “market” in education. Instead of funding high-quality schools for all as a public good, they have focused on allowing parents to choose between competing schools. Central to this effort has been the foundation of charter schools, which is often associated with the political right but has been championed by urban Democratic leaders. Since public and charter schools cannot compete on the basis of price, neoliberal reformers used standardized test scores to replace teachers’ professional judgment with a simple, numerical measure of school quality.
This neoliberal education agenda, embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike long before the anti-CRT and anti-trans campaigns, has undercut teachers’ professional autonomy and made their lives increasingly miserable. As Ambria Taylor, a middle school social studies teacher in Chicago Public Schools, puts it, “The ways that we are evaluated and the workload we are given is impossible to do, and it gets more impossible every year…. It’s surprisingly humiliating.”
This campaign has continued unabated, even in places where the anti-CRT and anti-LGBT smears have had little purchase. To illustrate this, I talked to teachers in two settings that at first glance could not be more different: Chicago and West Virginia. There was never any prospect of anti-CRT measures in Chicago, and the district maintains what Elana Jacobs, who teaches special ed science classes at the high school level in Chicago Public Schools, describes as “amazing, comprehensive sex ed and health training.” In West Virginia, art teacher Sandra Shaw told me that, while controversies over trans bathroom use have resonated with voters, the state’s low minority population has rendered anti-CRT legislation a non-starter. To some degree, then, the fact that these controversies have passed over both Chicago and West Virginia is a coincidence—but the similarity in their stories is anything but. Their experiences provide a window into the effects of the neoliberal reform agenda on public school teachers’ professional autonomy.
The first step in this neoliberal anti-teacher agenda was the introduction of charter schools in the 1990s, which diverted tax dollars from public schools to newly formed institutions whose non-unionized teachers were often exempt from the accreditation standards required of public school educators. Instead of using this newfound freedom to give teachers room to innovate, the philanthropists and entrepreneurs who have mostly funded charter schools have uniformly embraced the “best practices” of controlling teachers. Joanne W. Golann, a Vanderbilt professor who spent a year in a charter school using the popular “No Excuses” approach, reports that administrators actually preferred inexperienced teachers, who would be less likely to resist their highly scripted curriculum, in which nearly every minute of the day was accounted for.
The real watershed for the reform agenda was the passage of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. Co-authored by a bipartisan group that included future House Speaker John Boehner and “liberal lion” Ted Kennedy, the bill passed both the House and Senate by overwhelming margins. Though Democrats balked at then-President George W. Bush’s proposal of a nationwide school voucher program, they did build in elements of school choice. More important was the introduction of nationwide standardized tests. Scores would be regarded as the sole measure of educational quality, but the bipartisan luminaries who authored the bill were not content merely to set a baseline requirement. Instead, schools were expected to actually increase their test scores every year or else face penalties that included the possible closure of the school and its replacement with a charter.
There is no teacher alive who thinks that standardized test scores are the sole measure of educational success. It is as simplistic and absurd as requiring a legal practice to win an ever-increasing percentage of cases in order to stay in business, or an accountant to continually get larger tax refunds for their clients. As Shaw, who started teaching in 1980, told me, “No Child Left Behind was one of the first devastating things that happened in the education system, because that was when so much pressure started being put on the teachers.” While she was less directly affected as an art teacher, Shaw saw her fellow teachers struggle with the pressure to keep up their test scores or face negative evaluations and eventual firing: “It was more like psychological warfare than anything else.”
This test-centered system not only determined the evaluation of teachers, it also undercut teacher control over the curriculum. In West Virginia as in most states, the public school curriculum is designed by a committee of teachers who adapt national standards to local conditions. As a long-time member of the committee that drew up art education standards, Shaw was very familiar with the process. By contrast, when I asked her who designed the standardized tests, she responded, “I have no clue.” Regardless of their authorship, these tests came to dictate curriculum—the infamous “teaching to the test,” which teachers and students alike viewed as a distraction from genuine learning.
During the Obama administration, the Race to the Top initiative pushed for further standardization of curriculum nationwide through the promotion of the Common Core standards. Developed at the behest of bipartisan political groups and funded by textbook publisher Pearson along the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropic groups—an impressive list of stakeholders from which major teachers organizations or unions are conspicuously absent—these standards mandated a more narrowly focused curriculum. Even worse, the implementation of Common Core standards has led to requirements that teachers adopt uniform pedagogical techniques that often deviate considerably from previous practice. Many parents struggled with these changes when overseeing their children’s online schooling during the pandemic, and according to Shaw, her colleagues felt much the same: “it made them insane, because they had to change their entire mode of teaching—and it was mandated.” Outside forces were not only deciding what teachers had to teach, they were undercutting their professional judgment on how to teach.
Both of the Chicago teachers I spoke are younger and therefore had no direct experience of the initial implementation of NCLB or Common Core. Yet the stories they told about the direction of the curriculum fit with the same trajectory. Both Taylor and Jacobs described standardized curricula that are out of touch with students’ needs and even their reading level. Taylor was concerned that the social studies curriculum she was asked to use includes a clunky online portal, which she sees as a clear bid to lock teachers into a set curriculum with little room to adapt the material to the needs of her students.
At the same time that CPS was implementing online methods to control curriculum and pedagogy, Mayor Lori Lightfoot was refusing calls to maintain online education for the sake of public health. While states like Florida and Texas were implementing anti-CRT and anti-LGBT bills, the Democratic mayor of a solidly liberal city was bullying teachers to return to in-person teaching amid the Omicron wave. This impasse led to a work stoppage in January of this year—the second major conflict between Lightfoot and the teachers union, which also went on strike in October 2019, less than six months into the new mayor’s term in office.
The strike was another parallel between Chicago and West Virginia, where teachers undertook massive wildcat strikes in 2018 and again in 2019. While the first was primarily over benefits and pay, the second was in protest of a Republican bill to finance charter schools—an area where conservative West Virginia is actually far behind liberal Chicago. All three of the teachers I spoke to described the strikes as a political education that made them feel more deeply connected to their communities. Shaw and Jacobs both wound up running for office as a result of their experience. While Shaw’s bid was unsuccessful, Jacobs won a school board seat in Skokie, a Chicago suburb. Already a seasoned activist by the time she became a teacher, Taylor is campaigning to be alderman for the same community where she lives and teaches.
The strikes themselves garnered considerable public support, in part because they were never just about teachers. And that should not be surprising. After all, no one goes into teaching to become wealthy. They teach because they care—about learning, about their communities, and above all about their students. When West Virginia teachers went on strike to fight the erosion of their benefits, their victory secured better health insurance for all state employees. The 2019 Chicago strike called for more support staff and smaller class sizes, measures that would benefit students more than teachers. In both West Virginia and Chicago, teachers organized food pantries and daycare for their students.
Obviously teachers were also advocating for themselves, but they did so in a way that was not purely self-interested. How many other groups in American public life consistently use their power in such a generous and public-spirited way? If we cannot trust teachers, who can we trust?
Defending teachers as caring professionals against the anti-CRT and anti-LGBT smear campaigns is not just a moral necessity, but is likely a political winner as well. But full-throated support of teachers would require the Democratic leadership to do more than stand up against the Republicans’ increasingly obscene attacks—they would need to break with the entire neoliberal anti-teacher agenda, ditching the arbitrary metrics and micromanagement in favor of trusting teachers as public servants who simply want to do their jobs the best way they know how. And if they cannot, then they may well find themselves replaced by the very teachers they have failed to defend.