Teachers as Pawns

It is reported in an exclusive article in the Baltimore Sun that a principal last year in a Baltimore City high school had signed teachers in her school to sell Mary Kay products. As unbelievable as this is, or believable if you know this school system, what makes matters worse is that these exploited teachers were some of the 600 or so Filipino teachers working for this system. In their culture, when asked by a boss to do something, it is expected that a subordinate will comply. In this case, the threat of not renewing a visa could have hung in the balance as well. As of the release of the article, nearly a year later, the principal has remained on the job and receives a paycheck. A ʻfailingʼ Rhode Island high school is firing its staff due to the poor performances of its students. This gets a big thumbs up from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama.

Kansas City, Missouri is closing half of its schools due to similarly poor performing schools.

In all these cases, the teachers are either the scapegoats, or at the mercy, and the financial mercy, of their principals or their school districts. With public sentiment against teachers in general, there is little chance that they can fight this in the public arena. We all hear people say when told that an individual is a teacher, “I give you a lot of credit. I could never do that.” And, oh, by the way, ʻItʼs your fault that the schools are in such poor shape.”

Why are things so bad for teachers and other educational professionals? We have one of the best higher educational system in the world but our K-12 lags far behind others in spending. What is the culture that creates a broken system yet blames its victims or those fighting overwhelming odds against them to change it?

In a large part, itʼs the unions to blame. Not because they are perceived as always coming to the defense of poor teachers or demand too many days off or whatever else the public sees as to why they are an obstruction to their childʼs education. The problem with the unions is that they keep endorsing, and working for, the very legislators that keep their school systems in shambles.

Nearly a trillion dollars has been allocated for two illegal wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly a trillion dollars is allocated for a bloated military budget, without debate, and almost unanimously. And, nearly a trillion dollars is spent bailing out banks and Wall Street investment houses that have only themselves in mind and are not required to be held accountable for how the money is spent. Soon they will be bailing out the health insurance industry to who knows how many billions. Money certainly doesnʼt solve all problems but with the schools we need more teachers for smaller classes, school buildings for the 21st century, (including toilet paper in all the bathrooms); schools with libraries that have books, computers and librarians; computers available for all students; etc. Both parties are complicit in denying the needed funds. They are much to blame for our schoolsʼ demise yet itʼs the teachers who are the first to be blamed.

Nearly $70 billion is allocated to the Department of Education, a trifling number compared to what we throw away on the military and our imperial ambitions abroad. Ten times that much has gone to the banks. This $70 billion isnʼt just for K-12 but for all aspects of federal money to education. We have a Congress, both Democrat and Republican, and presidents, of both parties, that stand behind No Child Left Behind. Sounds good but sees education in simple numbers. What was made up in excessive testing of language and math skills was lost in the skills taught for the humanities; those subjects that truly rounds out an individual in their earliest stages of education. “Because the law demanded progress only in reading and math, schools were incentivized to show gains only on those subjects. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in test-preparation materials. Meanwhile, there was no incentive to teach the arts, science, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages or physical education.”

We see with the politics of education that teachers are easy targets. They are often contractually bound not to fight for real reform. A teachersʼ strike often results in a quick decertification of the union. Our elected officials prefer the slow death of unions, through charter schools.

Our leaders also believe in the creation of a numbers-crunching principal class as a way of reducing the role, and to deny the experience, of a teaching staff. How many principals out there have minimal teaching experience yet stand in ʻprofessionalʼ judgment of teachers experienced enough to have theoretically been their grade school teachers? They come from all fields and not necessarily from the field of education. With foundations like Gatesʼ and others churning out charter school principals with insulting salaries we see the role of the teacher being reduced to peonage status. Teachers need to take over their schools and set the priorities. It is the teachers, and usually those who have been at the same school for years, who know what works and what doesnʼt. Principals come and go with the wind. Their short term investment does not serve the long term goals of the schools. Principals should be there to help manage the resources.

Whatʼs missing is a political will to make a difference. We have weak unions that froth at the mouth every time thereʼs a challenger to the Democratic Party from the outside, and doesnʼt believe an ʻoutsideʼ even exists as a possibility for real change. Would a teachersʼ union ever endorse a candidate from another party that says reverse the budget for education and the military? Regardless of whether that candidate could win, the union is unlikely to back it, if it is not a Democrat.

Lastly, teachers need to be the vanguard of a new political party. Whether it be a Labor Party or something else, it must break away from the established party that has neither the principles or backbone to stand up for whatʼs needed in our schools today. The teachers unions, like many, have been under the thumb of the Democratic Party for so long it thinks itʼs part of the hand.

Myles Hoenig is a teacher activist in Maryland. He can be reached at: myles.hoenig@gmail.com. Read other articles by Myles.

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  1. mary said on March 18th, 2010 at 10:40am #

    A very similar situation exists in the UK. It is difficult to keep up with the changes of policy and ministers ( six alone under Blair and Brown) plus changes in departmental responsibilities.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secretary_of_State_for_Education_and_Employment.

    Now it’s all about cuts – the Universities are having £half a billion taken away from their spending in addition to a £900 million earlier cut. This will result in 6,000 fewer places for students. So much for Bliar’s ‘Education, Education, Education’ slogan.

    PS You refer to the cost of the two wars as $1trillion. Joseph Stiglitz wrote ‘The Three Trillion Dollar War’ and that was the cost of the war on Iraq alone. What an obscene waste of money – and lives.