FAIR: First, Bash the Teachers
Media find a scapegoat for educational failure
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What goes mostly if not entirely unexplained amid these anti-teacher assaults is any coherent explanation of what it is that teachers unions have done or failed to do to promote excellence in schools. A survey by Robert M. Carini of Indiana University (School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence, 2002) of the available research comparing achievement in unionized versus non-unionized schools found that “teacher unionism favorably influences achievement for most students.” Such findings are not the final word, of course. But given corporate media’s relentless message that unions are the enemy of “reform,” it is worth noting that this is based largely on the media’s elevation to scientific truths of a set of mostly unproven strategies for improving schools—from charters to “merit pay”—and their suggestion that the implementation of said truths is made impossible by teachers unions.
Take “merit pay,” which would mostly use test score data to identify effective teachers and pay them more for their success—a “no-brainer,” according to Newsweek (3/15/10). As Diane Ravitch recounts in her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, much research suggests that teachers judged excellent or effective one year often fall out of the category the next, and vice versa. Either the teachers themselves are practicing wildly different methods from year to year, or the attempts to link test scores to teacher performance are not actually a “no-brainer” at all, no matter what the media might think.
And as journalist Barbara Miner pointed out in Rethinking Schools (Fall/09), the idea that unions are opposed to differential pay as a matter of principle is simply wrong: “Although the media promotes the view that teacher unions are inflexibly opposed to modifying the traditional pay structure, both the AFT and NEA [unions] have been involved in local initiatives that differentiate teacher pay.” Miner noted that surveys of teachers find some openness to different pay structures, but that merit-pay schemes in some places saw most of the benefits flowing to teachers in upper-income schools.
The superiority of charter schools, touted by many of the media’s most prominent education “reformers” as an obvious and necessary element of their schools agenda, is likewise more based in faith than in empirical research. One of the most exhaustive studies of charter performance, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found 37 percent of charter schools “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” About half produced similar outcomes to public schools, with just 17 percent outperforming public schools (Extra!, 8/09).
Charters should be controversial for other reasons as well. A report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project (2/4/10) found that they are more racially segregated than traditional public schools. Another long-standing criticism of charters is that they tend to educate lower numbers of English language learners. The UCLA study noted that gaps in data collection make it difficult to offer any definitive national assessments—which is a problem in itself. The data available for California, though, showed the number of English learners attending charter schools was minuscule.