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War on teachers escalates

Frustrated at the state of public education, we are scapegoating an entire group.

By Christopher Paslay

Last month's wholesale firing of 74 teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island exemplified America's rising anti-teacher sentiment. Both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised Superintendent Frances Gallo's decision, and Newsweek writers Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert called the firings a "notable breakthrough."

Logic would indicate that, in broad terms, poor test scores suggest poor teachers. However, public education in the 21st century is not always that simple. There are many variables that affect a child's education - parents, communities, school administrators, education policymakers, etc.

The fact that education reformers have chosen to hold teachers primarily responsible for the state of public education isn't what bothers me. I've been teaching high school English in Philadelphia for 13 years, and I know firsthand how important I am to my students. And research shows that the quality of a teacher's instruction is very important in determining student achievement.

Interestingly, though, the mass firing at Central Falls High wasn't about the quality of instruction per se. It stemmed from a labor-management dispute over pay for extra work.

This kind of education "reform" is irresponsible. Clearly, not all 74 Central Falls teachers were poor instructors. In fact, as evidenced by the protests of parents and students, some were quite effective and dedicated.

In a speech in Washington, Obama said of Central Falls, "If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, then there's got to be a sense of accountability."

But Central Falls had improved its reading scores by 21 percent over the past two years. Someone on the teaching staff must have been doing something right. And yet the entire staff was labeled substandard and dismissed.

There's a term for an oversimplified judgment applied to an entire group. It's called a stereotype.

That America's teachers are being dealt with not as individuals but as a massive "failing" group is troubling. Replacing entire teaching staffs is not only counterproductive, but also likely to backfire.

Poorly performing schools, especially those in impoverished neighborhoods, often have trouble recruiting and retaining quality educators. To throw away entire groups of them doesn't make a whole lot of sense in that light.

Not that teachers will get much sympathy from the public. In the media, the phrase "bad teacher" has become boilerplate. A recent issue of Newsweek actually repeats the sentence "We must fire bad teachers" 11 times on its cover.

Celebrities have also boarded the teacher-bashing bandwagon. Last year, personal-finance guru Suze Orman voiced her disregard for America's educators in a New York Times Magazine profile.

"When you are somebody scared to death of your own life, how can you teach kids to be powerful?" she said of schoolteachers. The article went on to explain that Orman "has been reluctant to work on school curricula on personal finance, because she says students can't learn empowerment from people who aren't empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth."

Central Falls High School must continue to improve. So must many of America's public schools. But teachers should be dealt with as individuals, not stereotyped as a big, failing group.