21st Century Teachers: Easy to Hire, Easy to Fire

Sunday, January 29, 2012 on Schools Matter

Detroit rises to the status of a major character in Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex. About a fifth of the way into the novel, the narrator, Calliope/Cal Stephanides makes this observation about the arrival of the automotive industry in the Motor City:

“Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we’ve all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds.

“But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine.

“…Part of the new production method’s genius was its division of labor into unskilled tasks. That way you could hire anyone. And fire anyone.”

This is a chilling passage about the dawning of the assembly line era of American manufacturing, but equally as chilling is that this passage offers a clue to where we now are heading in U.S. public education and the fate of the American teacher.

 A Teacher Is a Teacher Is a Teacher…
Like Henry Ford, Bill Gates has ushered in a new era in U.S. public education, shifting the already robust accountability era that began in the early 1980s and accelerated in 2001 with the passing of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) from focusing on student accountability for standards and test scores to demanding that teachers be held accountable for student test scores addressing those standards. Gates has been assisted by Michelle Rhee and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the “No Excuses” Reformers have perpetuated narratives conjuring the myth of the “bad” teacher, which Adam Bessie has confronted by suggesting we hire hologram teachers in order to remove the greatest problem facing education: Humans.

Just as the assembly line rendered all workers interchangeable, and thus, easy to hire, and easy to fire, the current education reforms focusing on teacher accountability, value-added methods (VAM) of evaluating teachers, and the growing fascination with Teach for America (TFA) are seeking the same fact for teachers: A de-professionalized workforce ofteaching as a service industry, easy to hire, and easy to fire.

All of the following are both key elements of the “No Excuses” Reformers’ plans and steps to eradicating teaching as a profession in the U.S.:

• Secretary Duncan leads the chorus of “teachers are the most important factor in student achievement” despite ample evidence that teacher influence on measurable student outcomes, tests, is only about 10-20%. This refrain serves two purposes for the “No Excuses” Reformers: (1) Deflect attention from the 60-80% influence that out-of-school factors play in student achievement, and (2) insure that teachers are de-professionalized, thus creating a cheap labor force for a privatized education system.

• The propaganda continues to increase calling for TFA recruits to serve high-poverty schools. The evidence on TFA recruits is sparse, but what exists doesn’t support using uncertified and inexperienced teachers to address the problem faced by many high-poverty schools: A lack of certified, experienced teachers. Thus, TFA recruits can only be attractive because they represent the Ford ideal of workers easy to hire and easy to fire (exceptionally easy to fire, in fact, because they leave of their own accord in a short time).

• From The New York Times to President Obama in his 2012 State of the Union Address, VAM propaganda remains powerful, calling for holding teachers accountable for their students’ test scores. Yet, after careful examinations of the study, any claims that VAM is effective remain unfounded. Again, we must conclude that seeking ways to quickly hire and fire teachers is more important than if any method achieves the claimed goals of seeking higher student achievement. VAM is a terrible tool for identifying and rewarding excellent teaching, but, like the assembly line, it is an effective tool for reducing any worker to a cog.

• While 50 states have implemented accountability, standards, and testing without satisfactory results, “No Excuses” Reformers are committed to national standards, and the expected national tests to follow. While there is no national or international evidence that standards and testing improve education, this call for federalizing standards and testing proves to be an important lever for removing completely teacher autonomy and creating the platform upon which teachers are easily fired.

• And now a long-time mantra coming from self-proclaimed reformers wedded to school choice ideology—”All parents deserve the same choices as the wealthy” (a mask for their real intentions, privatizing schools, and a perverse idealizing of “choice”—is being bolstered by the rise of parent-trigger laws and legislation aimed at giving parents direct oversight of what is being taught: “The trouble with the consumer movement as embodied in the New Hampshire law is that it makes public schools vulnerable to the whims of fringe groups.”The medical profession has already seen what happens when professionals abdicate their expertise to the consumer when the overuse of antibiotics created MRSA and other “superbugs.” [1] But parental oversight, again, is not about doing what is best for students; it’s about using free market rhetoric to create teaching as a service industry.

The ultimate evidence that “No Excuses” Reformers want to de-professionalize teaching, however, is the issue of professional autonomy. Accountability must be preceded by autonomy; otherwise, accountability is tyranny. Instead of creating professional autonomy for teachers, however, every aspect of the “No Excuses” Reform movement is bent on removing autonomy from teachers while reducing further all student achievement to tests so that teacher quality can be easily and quickly quantified as well.

In the wake of Obama’s State of the Union speech and the prospect of where “No Excuses” Reform will go next, I think it isn’t much of a stretch to consider the possibility of this sentence coming to pass:

Historical fact: teachers stopped being professionals in 2013.

It is the path we are on, and it is a path that must be avoided.

[1] DeBellis, R. J., & Zdanawicz, M. (2000, November). Bacteria battle back: Addressing antibiotic resistance. Boston: Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science. Retrieved 13 September 2009 from http://www.tufts.edu/… ; Ong, S., et al. (2007, September). Antibiotic use for emergency department patients with upper respiratory infections: Prescribing practices, patient expectations, and patient satisfaction. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 50(3), 213-220.

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