Why Don't We Listen to Teachers?

The national debate about education carries on, with politicians, pundits, and business leaders all having their say about what's wrong with America's schools and about how to fix them.  Largely missing are the voices of those who daily teach our children. 

When the cable news networks invite guests to discuss education, for example, only 9% are educators.  When perhaps the most important reform effort of recent years, the Common Core State Standards, was crafted, only a handful of those in the decision-making “work groups” were working K-12 teachers.  Perhaps if more teachers had been meaningfully involved from its inception, the Common Core rollout would have been less fraught with confusion and controversy than it has been.

So why don't we listen to our teachers?

A better question might be why would we—when teachers are so sharply seen as part of the problem, so dimly viewed as part of the solution. In recent decades, teachers have been marked as the problem of education.  Bad teachers are the problem, rather than, or in isolation from, distorted national and state spending priorities, the challenges students face at home or in their neighborhoods, or the insufficient rewards accorded educators.  Enormous resources have been devoted to the data-driven project of identifying and ensuring “teacher quality” and “teacher effectiveness.”    

The stereotype of the bad teacher includes not just incompetence but self-interestedness.  Skepticism about their motives has made it difficult for teachers to speak out against education policies that they see as harmful to students, policies such as excessive standardized testing and tying test scores to teacher evaluations and school funding.  Their views are too easily dismissed as motivated by a desire to avoid change, hard work, or accountability.

Even when they wish to speak out on less contentious education policies and programs, the underwhelming status of their profession hampers teachers’ credibility.  On the national level, teachers are held in lower esteem than they are in many other countries.  And they enjoy significantly lower occupational prestige than do American workers in most other traditional professions, including professors, doctors, and lawyers.

Seeking to explain why teachers don’t have the status they should, some analysts point to unionization—which makes teachers seem more like laborers than like professionals, they argue.  Plenty of pilots, however, belong to unions; this doesn’t stop CNN from calling upon them as experts in aviation when a plane goes down or goes missing.  And of course, fewer than half of American teachers belong to unions; whether unionized or not, whether working in public schools or independent ones, teachers are too infrequently called upon to share their expertise.

Alarmingly, a series of education reforms threaten to de-professionalize teachers, making them even less likely to be seen as experts in their field.  Increasingly standardized and scripted curricula and fast-track teacher test programs are among the trends that are damaging to teaching’s status as a profession.  Austerity, too, is have a devaluing effect.  Cuts to support staff means teachers have taken on work formerly done by paraprofessionals, secretaries, clerks, even crossing guards, important work but work that does not require their advanced degrees and professional knowledge.

However it can be explained, our failure to tap into the expertise of teachers is a tremendous missed opportunity.

Over the past two years, anthropologist Catherine Lutz and I traveled the country to listen to teachers for our forthcoming book, Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change.  We met a wide range of them—in traditional public schools to charters to the homeschool; nearly new to the career and near retirement; in city, town, suburb, and country—on the frontlines of K-12 education.  

 It wasn’t hard to find teachers who are intelligent, skilled, motivated, and thoughtful about their work.  Eager to share their thoughts on the critical issues in teaching and learning today—rising income inequality and child poverty, rapidly changing technology, and increasing curricular standardization just a few of them—they provided valuable insights for anyone interested in education today.  Their goal and ours, in the book and on this blog, is to foster a discussion that values teachers’ perspectives. 

It’s time to listen to teachers.

Anne Lutz Fernandez became a high school English teacher after a career on Wall Street.  She is the co-author of Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change.