The large poster I received in the mail advocating Proposal 2 – an amendment that would put already legal collective bargaining in the constitution – had one startling omission that tells us much about the history of education in America and its challenges today.
The poster -- “What’s on the Line?” -- was well done, high gloss, and as are all such postcards these days, even those from local self-styled “fiscal conservatives,” very costly. The “What’s on the Line” poster featured professional photos of four different union workers: a nurse, a police officer, an autoworker, and a firefighter. Four of the workers were women; one was a man (the cop).
Strikingly absent from this advertisement was the figure of the school teacher. Contrast this with today’s NYTimes lead photograph on the story, a story that calls Michigan’s Proposal 2 the second most important item on the November 6 national stage.
Why wouldn’t the advocates of Proposal 2 (paid for by “Protect Working Families”) feature a teacher given that the teachers’ union is strongly promoting a yes vote on this amendment and, frankly, many, many people associate the proposal with the teachers’ union in that Proposal 2 originates, in part, as a response to educational “reforms” – both delivered and promised -- by Governor Snyder?
Governor Snyder, in fact, calls Proposal 2 a “back in time” proposal as it threatens his reform agenda tout court.
Quite simply, teachers, their unions, and sympathetic activists know the profession is demonized by huge segments of the population and a number of elected officials. Placing an image of a teacher on an advertisement designed to advocate for their interests, then, might actually damage the teachers’ own cause!
Teachers and their unions have to rely on pubic workers who usually get more sympathy (police, firefighters, etc.). They have to rely, too, on the experienced political muscle of the UAW, weakened perhaps, but still formidable in a way, say, your child’s second grade teacher is not.
How, a parent or a good young energetic teacher might be tempted to ask, did we get to this point where the profession was so vilified that it can’t even be featured on a collective bargaining poster?
My answer: we have been working at it a long time.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love to blame just the tea-party folks who seized the bursting of the housing bubble to emerge on the political stage and start identifying scapegoats.
But the fact of the matter is this nation, historically speaking, has never developed a healthy respect for its K-12 professionals to match the respect accorded the profession in other comparable cultures. And that is in part because in America K-12 teaching always has been primarily a female profession. Attacks are flaring up now because of real financial issues; but also because this historical trend is continuing unabated: something like 80% of K-12 educators are women.
Simply put, the hostility and animosity towards teachers we see today has a long American tradition.
Our public education evolved from the one room stone or wood frame schoolhouse usually staffed by the person the town characterized as the “spinster” or “old maid” who, the community thought, needed some form of financial support, something to do.
It is, of course, hard for most of us in 2012 to grasp the ugliness of this kind of thinking.
Nonetheless, these “spinsters” and “maids” had something to offer. The system reached its apex, perhaps, when, post war, large city public schools like New York literally produced miracles – as did its city colleges, infused by intellectual immigrants forced out of the disaster that was Europe. Detroit Public Schools was among the best systems in the country. One reason for this success was that, postwar, public schools found themselves with a labor pool most companies now can only fantasize about. In the 1950s and 1960s most women who made it to college or university had two career paths open to them: teaching or nursing.
Try this thought experiment for historical perspective, particularly if you are a small business owner or someone with hiring responsibilities in a corporation pulling your hair out trying to find and keep competent employees. Think of every talented female professional you know today – professor, engineer, attorney, CEO, accountant, physician. In the 50s and 60s their generational analogues were hoping to get jobs teaching elementary school. If you wanted to teach in a good district and make decent money you went to Detroit, not the suburbs. The vetting process was extensive: to teach in an elementary school you had at least five different interviews in front of fully staffed panels before a principal could consider you.
But even during these glory days K-12 teachers weren’t honored professionals. Quite the opposite. People may have had more respect for institutions, then, not teachers.
The attacks we hear today (overpaid for 9 months work that stops at 3PM, not strict enough, not able to teach the “basics” and so on, not competent in math and science) are the same attacks I heard from neighbors and family members, mostly male, mostly fantastically undereducated but with an extraordinary sense of their own value, against my mother who taught in Detroit for over 35 years.
The attacks we hear today I have been hearing all my life – and so has my mother even back in the 1950s and 1960s when public education supposedly worked so well. In other words, even when the system supposedly “worked” teachers endured constant criticisms and micromanagement from those outside the profession that no other profession (except maybe nursing) would tolerate. Nurses from the same era may recall the perversity of having to stand at military attention when the “Doctor” strode majestically into the charting area on the hospital unit.
Today’s simply crazy demands from the state for constant evaluation and assessment remind me of nothing but the strict 1950s and 1960s dress codes that my mother now laughs about. Female teachers were constantly scrutinized and monitored: no sweaters, no pants, and, get this, no bangs dragging on your forehead.
Improve public education? Absolutely. All hands on deck, especially folks capable of building solid long term financial systems. Please join us. Figure out finally how to fire bad or incompetent teachers? All in, believe me. A year of my daughter’s educational life was utterly wasted by a terrible teacher in a top rated district.
But “reform” education by having those steely eyed businessmen tell the little ladies what life is really like and how it should be done because their math isn’t good enough? I heard that kind of "stuff" playing with hotwheels on the kitchen floor in 1970. That’s not looking forward for change; that’s not even “back in time” pace Governor Snyder.
That is standing still in time.