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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Attacking Teachers as Conservative Policy Strategy

December 03, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Can anyone teach? It’s a fair question, meriting honest consideration. It’s also a hot-button issue that makes Frodo Baggins’ ring quest to Mordor look like a Sunday park stroll.

Recently, I wrote a Minnesota 2020 Hindsight blogpost criticizing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for declaring that teachers’ advanced degrees “aren’t worth it.” Reader comments have been off the charts. Clearly, this subject engages people.

Debate continues to address the teacher advanced degree question –most readers are outraged by the Secretary’s suggestion- but observations lead, in due course, to contemplating the role that teachers play in Minnesota education. That’s a great starting point in any educational discussion.

Minnesota values education. In some early settlements, schools were built before churches. In others, at least initially, a town’s school and congregation shared building space. Immigrants built schools and colleges as fast as they could, rooted in the determination that their children would have better options than striking out blindly for a new land just to escape the old country’s promised lifetime of poverty.

Learning, we believe, enriches and improves every life. Knowledge is power. A healthy democracy requires a well-educated citizenry. Consequently, Minnesotans created high quality schools with the anticipation that better educated children create successful, stable and prosperous families and communities. And, they have.

Succeeding generations improved public education, building schools that were better than the ones they knew. The eighth-grade education standard yielded to the post-World War II high school graduation achievement. Now, additional post-secondary education is considered essential to career skill acquisition. It’s happened because Minnesotans worked together for a stronger future, unsatisfied with the prospect of coasting on an early generation’s work.

Until now.

For the past eight years, the State of Minnesota has reduced school spending by nearly 15 percent. Local schools have had to cut budgets, eliminate programs and raise property taxes to off-set lost revenue. No school has been immune; some schools have been hit modestly but most have been hit hard.

This leads to two good questions. First, who loses? Kids, families, communities, and Minnesota as a whole as work force quality degrades and high-wage jobs leave for other states and nations. Second, who gains? The ladder pullers.

Ladder pullers are conservatives who, despite realizing considerable success from public investments, seek, as a matter of public policy, to limit those same opportunities for succeeding generations. Having climbed the ladder of success, in other words, they want to pull the ladder up behind them rather than contribute to building a better, stronger, taller ladder.

Minnesota spends better than one-third of its state budget on K12 education. Given Minnesota’s traditional support of education, cutting education spending is a politically difficult undertaking. So, rather than declare “I don’t want to share,” the ladder pullers have devised an ingenious alternative. They blame teachers for education’s shortcomings.

Low student test scores? Teachers’ fault. Achievement gap? Teachers’ fault. Too many or too few instructional hours? Teachers’ fault. Lengthy school bus ride? Teachers’ fault. Decreased individual student attention due to growing class size? Teachers’ fault. Every issue creates the opportunity to blame teachers. The questions, past a certain point, don’t matter because they command the same response.

In the communications world, this is called “message discipline.” It’s the idea that frequently repeating something creates an accepted truth. Perception, true or false, is reality. Repeating the “blame teachers” mantra, given time and the absence of an alternative narrative, builds public conviction that teachers must be to blame.

Since education’s costs are overwhelmingly labor costs, reducing school spending requires cutting wages and benefits. It’s much easier to cut teacher salaries once teachers’ social weight and community authority has been undermined.

Conservative public policy’s goal isn’t improved educational outcomes. Rather, it’s reducing the tax burden on the wealthiest Minnesotans. School costs get in the way of that goal. Reducing those costs requires convincing the public that teachers merit less compensation. The demonized teacher is the discardable teacher, creating the perception that anyone can teach.

Now, it is true that anyone can teach. We routinely teach each other all sorts of things. Teaching school, however, is simultaneously a highly structured and impossibly flexible activity. We ask teachers to shoulder multiple missions yet we propose evaluating teachers based on a single, student test performance metric. And, when students fail to meet that rising, impossible performance standard, teachers are blamed.

Teaching is a skill, enhanced by experience and formal, on-going learning. Not everyone can or should teach school. Blaming teachers will not improve educational outcomes. It does, however, discredit teaching and schools, smoothing the path for reduced education budgets, the real public policy objective.

The ladder pullers seek conservative policy that reduces the financial burden on the wealthiest Minnesotans while directing public investment to fewer and fewer people. Conservative public policy advocates are acting on their personal interests. It’s time for the rest of Minnesota to act on ours. Family and community prosperity rest on the smart, flexible, adaptable workforce created through high quality public education. Bashing teachers only undermines Minnesota’s future; it doesn’t build it.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Charlie Quimby says:

    December 3, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Thanks, John. You wrote the second, analytical half to my post from yesterday.
    “Shelter Report: We Need Better Teachers. Yeah, That’s It!”

  • Rob Levine says:

    December 6, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Yes - but it’s not just conservatives. President Obama is a famous teacher basher. He cheered as teachers were fired wholesale in Delaware. Democrats are as much to blame as Republicans.

  • Mike Downing says:

    December 6, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    My wife & I watched Waiting for Superman two weeks ago. I highly recommend this movie.

    These are liberal progressives and not conservatives who are bashing the NEA & the AFT as well as our legislatures & congress. They have found an outcomes focused learning model that dramatically improves student performance & results.

    What are the liberal progressive elites afraid of? Are they afraid that students will learn to be so self reliant and self sufficient that they no longer need gov’t handouts any more?

    This movie and educational approach was not developed by conservatives. Do your homework MN2020!

  • Rob Levine says:

    December 7, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Mike Downing - you don’t know what you are talking about.

    You say, “They have found an outcomes focused learning model that dramatically improves student performance & results.”

    NO THEY HAVEN’T. That is *completely* false. If you had bothered to do any research instead of just responding to a propagandistic and ignorant DRAMATIC MOVIE you would know that.

    Charters do a WORSE job educating than regular public schools. Look at the CREDO study - 17 percent of students nationwide do better at charter schools than regular public schools. 37 percent do WORSE! That is a FACT.

    In the words of our craptacular president, WFSM might get you all “wee weed up,” but it is with emotion not reason.

  • Mike Downing says:

    December 7, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Rob Levin, Go ahead and shoot the messenger that there are better ways to educate our students. The US was #1 in K-12 education and we are now #26. You must be proud of this accomplishment since you are closed minded to reform.

    “Politics is largely the art of deception”. You and Education MN have been good at “politics” in the past but the public has seen through your smokescreen and is demanding education reform.

    Watch the 2011 & 2012 MN Legislative Sessions. I suspect the public will see education reform unless Education MN throws money at Gov. Dayton.

  • Alec says:

    December 7, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Any “reform” that doesn’t get the teacher out of their isolated classroom kingdom is no reform at all. It’s just a reconfiguration of a 100 year old model. Our current reformers don’t really want reform, they want a return to what worked for them 20 years ago, but left so many kids behind.

    There is no magic bullet, but there are foundations that should be a part of any reform. A strong focus on improved teacher training, an unflinching look at student data within teacher teams, and teachers having time each day to work together to look at data and develop interventions for kids.

    There are several public schools doing this. Charter schools that do this are the only ones that work with the most challenging students. We’ve had “choice” and charters in MN for 20 years. Where is the evidence that choice has been the magic bullet.

    If you really want to support students, support good teaching and good structures. Look at every pop culture reform. None of the support good teaching. They just punish what they consider bad teaching. None of them focus on solutions. They focus on problems.

    There are proven foundations that work. It’s malpractice not to start there. Support teachers working in professional learning communities and you support change that works.

  • Bob says:

    December 7, 2010 at 11:43 am

    Professionalism is exactly what teaching needs. There are all kinds of professions that are bludgeoned- social workers, doctors, psychologists, lawyers, software developers. You name it, and someone has had a bad experience with a service professional. They all have situations and circumstances out of their control. All professions have good ones and bad ones, but only teachers have public representatives that whine so loudly as the only voice.

    In the corporate world, plenty of untalented and unqualified professionals go about their day doing mediocre work. When the layoffs come, and they are sent packing there are two responses: one, hey I was doing mediocre work I should find a way to do better work; two, those people are stupid, I am going to pout. Who tends to find another job faster? Now, is the world just? Of course not. Do the people with right attitude and education and skills always get ahead? Of course not.

    However, the ones that feel the need to improve, seek outside help, attempt to build connections within and without the organization have a substantially greater likelihood of doing better. I know there are teachers that exist that do those things, but they are more likely to be seen as a threat-by-contrast by their peers and their energy is actively thwarted.

    I am so sick of having to work and fight for everything I have in my profession- which is not much- to hear how put upon teachers are in theirs. I have been stabbed in the back by a peer. I have lost credit to a boss. I have be let go for reasons beyond my control, but that has all contributed to my success as a professional.

    If the system is broken, work to change it. If you feel alone, find others like you. If you lack the tools to adequately perform your job, look to get them. That is what professionals go or they go unemployed.

    If there are teachers that do not feel the same way as the union heads that seek only to undermine change, speak up. If society were deteriorating at the same pace as educational performance, then fine blame the families, the funding, the whatever. It isn’t. Crime and drug use and abuse and poverty and broken homes are all serious, but they are not so much worse than 50 years ago, that we have lost our social ability to prepare our children for entry into the world.

    If you are truly secure in your knowledge of the value you bring to lives of children, then you should be looking for more solutions not more blame to shift.

  • William Pappas says:

    December 7, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    You nailed this one John.  Conservatives are best at getting ordinary people to work against their own interests to promote the interests of the wealthy.  Somehow they have convinced many middle class Americans that unions are working against them.  This is quite an accomplishment considering the lift they have given to American society as a whole.  Now they have convinced ordinary
    Americans that hard working teachers, earning lower middle class salaries, are slacard, dictatorial, overpaid, uninterested, disengaged union employees somehow focused on their own interests in a way that separates them from every other profession.  That is quite an accomplishment considering the education that is required to teach, the licensure and the ultimate wages that make them one of the best values our society produces.  John, you are right not to loose sight of conservatives ultimate goal which is to put money in the pockets of the rich, while taking it out of the hands of everyone else.  If teacher requirements can be sanitized then they can be paid less.  If licensure can be diluted and made less rigorous then more people can obtain it and the labor market will reduce salaries.  If schools can be defunded, tested as failures and closed then that makes room for more charters.  As usual the conservative message is far out in front of the conversation and directs the focus of reform.  Reduce the education required of teachers, make licensure less dependable on learning how to teach and reduce teaching salaries.  That way the best and the brightest will finally take up the teaching profession.  Yeah, right.

  • Todd says:

    December 10, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Bob, much of your post seems to follow two statements in your first paragraph, yet I think those two are incorrect and I will try to show that here.

    Let me begin by making a claim myself.  There have been thousands of public statements in just the past year, many by prominent public figures, stating that a large proportion of teachers are incompetent.  U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan and President Obama are among them.  They have put into place a school reform policy that identifies schools where the children are doing poorly and gives the school system 4 choices, 3 of which require mass firing: 1) Fire all of that school’s teachers and close the school; 2) Fire half of that school’s teachers; 3) Change the school to a charter (the school’s teachers are likely fired, then some are hired back as at-will employees).

    Similarly, thousands of public figures, again many very prominent, are presently arguing that other professionals should be allowed to become teachers in their professional area with little or no training as a teacher.

    You stated at the top of your post that, “Professionalism is exactly what teaching needs.  There are all kinds of professions that are bludgeoned- social workers, doctors, psychologists, lawyers, software developers.”

    Bob, I challenge you to find common statements by prominent public figures that we address rising health problems by shutting down underperforming medical facilities and/or firing doctors wholesale.  Or, the same for any of the other professions you list.

    I challenge you to find common statements by prominent public figures that other professionals should be allowed to become social workers/doctors/psychologists/lawyers/software developers with little or no training in that profession.

    Thank you,