Nicholas Kristof Supports the Decline of American Teaching

The critic and the criticized
Teaching in the United States is really on the decline. By this, I don't mean to say teachers are getting worse at their jobs. Rather, I mean that American teachers are being increasingly bullied, demeaned, disrespected, misunderstood and mistreated. Within the last few years, the national discourse on education has been filled to overflowing with misinformation and myths, (as in Waiting for Superman), as well as huge campaigns for misguided and counterproductive "reforms" in the school system.

An opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof published in the New York Times yesterday is merely another example of how badly off-track policymakers and the media have gotten. Now, Kristof is not a bad guy: My girlfriend and I enjoyed the book Half the Sky, which Kristof co-wrote with his wife, and I've seen pieces of his in the Times before that I entirely agreed with. In this instance, however, Kristof is very much promoting and participating in the decline of American teaching. Let me tell you how.

Kristof actually starts off his article pretty well. Look at the following quotes:
America’s education system has become less a ladder of opportunity than a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next.
 And later -
In fairness, it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. ... The single most important step we could take has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids.
If this is all Kristof had written, or if he had elaborated on these ideas, I couldn't have agreed with him more. It is absolutely true that failing schools in the U.S. fail because of structural problems - most of all because of poverty. Additionally, many kids really don't receive the opportunities from education they deserve because of the inequities and inadequacies in the school system, and more early-childhood education could really help. However, note the use of the phrase "in fairness": That means that even though Kristof admits they aren't the "main reason" for students' struggles, he's going to bash the teachers and their unions anyway.

Essentially, Kristof uses the rest of his article to rattle off unsubstantiated and biased claims against Chicago public school teachers and their union in the context of the strike going on right now. He starts off by saying "Some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be held accountable until poverty is solved." He just admitted poverty is the main reason inner-city schools do poorly, so teachers are not accountable for that. What teacher doesn't believe they should be held accountable for what they do? None. They just don't want to be blamed for things that aren't their fault - which is what the author is doing.

Rahm Emanuel,
also a supporter of
teaching's decline
Kristof then praises Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel for pushing for a longer school day and school year, immediately afterward stating that he might be sympathetic with the teachers union if its efforts "focused solely on higher compensation." Well that's entirely the point, sir - if your employer wants to drastically increase your working hours and doesn't offer matching compensation, then that is the definition of a pay cut.

Weirdly, Kristof then writes "the Chicago union seems to be using its political capital primarily to protect weak performers" - and he links to this article, which makes absolutely zero mention of weak performers! The author then spends the rest of his post talking about this idea of teacher performance, and how there are some - the really bad ones, the "bottom 1 percent" or "bottom 5 percent" of teachers - who will totally mess up a child's year of learning.

This is a big part of these "reform" campaigners' methods - promoting the idea that there are bad teachers everywhere, staying in the job for the money, protected by the unions, and negatively impacting children's lives. My response to this is one part "duh" and one part "shame on you." First of all, everyone knows that some teachers aren't as good at their jobs; anyone who's gone to school for a few years knows that. (As my grandpa says, "everyone deserves one bad teacher.") At the same time, there will always be a "bottom 1 percent" or "bottom 5 percent" in every occupation. That's the nature of percentages! (Duh.)

So here's the shameful part: Kristof and the "reformers" claim to want better teachers in the profession, yet all they do is promote these insane witch-hunts of these "bad" teachers. That's a great idea to attract more people to the job. What's worse is this: How does the "reform" gang plan on finding the witches? With tests! More and more tests! Tests of every style and fashion, provided by ever more wealthy education corporations, whose profits are on the up and up even as teachers are paid less and less. Long story short: Tests are never going to accurately measure the effectiveness of teachers. If you don't understand this, then you clearly don't understand the nature of education.

If you'd like a great piece on what the Chicago teachers actually want, look here. They are "fed up with policies that blame educators," when really the demands for accountability should be on "policy makers at the city, state and federal levels [who] should be held accountable for their failures to create conditions in which all children can learn." I wonder why the policymakers wouldn't hold themselves accountable! And, if you want a great exposé of the type of testing culture that Kristof's opinions knowingly or unknowingly promote, look no further than this. Kristof hosted it on his own blog! - like I said, a nice guy.

However, this nice guy is supporting the decline of American teaching. As long as teachers continue to be bullied and derided, American teaching will not grow. As long as teachers' benefits are attacked, their voice in policy decreased, and their profession subjected to counterproductive top-down dictates from corporations and ignorant politicians, American schools will not improve. If you get nothing else out of this blogpost, listen to this: if want better teachers, listen to them.

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