Teacher Bashing: The Inequality Psychology

Sam Pizzigati

In any society where wealth and income concentrate overwhelmingly at the top, the affluent will almost always come to sneer at public services and the men and women who provide them. In Chicago, those men and women have pushed back.

Last year state lawmakers in Illinois did their best to make a Chicago teacher strike impossible. They passed a new law that required at least 75 percent of the city’s teachers to okay any walkout in advance.

How did Chicago teachers respond? In advance balloting early this June, 92 percent of the city’s teachers voted, and 98 percent of those teachers voted to strike if contract negotiations broke down.

This near-total teacher support for the walkout that began last week shows just how intensely frustrated the city’s teachers have become. They’ve been teaching for years in schools woefully ill-equipped to serve the city’s students.

The vast majority of these students, 87 percent, rate as “low income.” Many have no books in their homes and no quiet place to study. Some — over 15,000 — have no homes at all.

Chicago political officials haven’t done nearly enough to help teachers help these students learn. Over 160 Chicago schools have no library. To help homeless and other children in unstable family situations, the 350,000-student Chicago schools have only 370 social workers.

Teachers have consistently called for more resources. But school officials from Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel on down have totally bought into a “reform” agenda that dismisses concerns about overcrowded classrooms and inadequate student support. Schools don’t need better resources. They need, Chicago’s self-styled reformers argue, better teachers.

This “reform” stance pushes endless standardized testing to identify “low-performing” schools and teachers who can’t seem to raise student test scores. For over a decade now, Chicago officials have been closing down schools they deem as “failing” and replacing them with privately run charter schools.

The Chicago school chief who initially led this charter surge now serves as the U.S. secretary of education, and his test-heavy, charter-leaning approach has become the conventional education reform wisdom within both Republican and Democratic Party elite policy circles — despite a clear absence of evidence that this conventional wisdom actually works for kids.

“If we really wanted to improve schools,” as analyst Melinda Henneberger quipped last week in the Washington Post, “we’d do what education powerhouse Finland does — fund schools equally, value teachers more, and administer standardized testing almost never.”

So why does the conventional education reform wisdom — “get tough” on teachers and the unions that protect them — have such broad support among America’s political elites?

One reason: The conventional wisdom can be unconventionally profitable for the corporate execs who run the rapidly expanding chains of charter schools. At campaign time, these execs love to show their appreciation.

But support for the teacher-bashing conventional wisdom goes well beyond the ranks of those who stand to profit directly from public education’s privatization. In affluent cocktail party circles, as the New Yorker magazine noted last week, “a certain casual demonization of teachers has become sufficiently culturally prevalent that it passes for uncontroversial.”

The well-heeled today, adds the New Yorker analysis, talk about breaking teacher unions “with the same kind of social enthusiasm” usually reserved for recommending “a new Zumba class.”

This teacher bashing has been spreading for several decades now, ever since the United States first began growing much more unequal in the 1980s. This linkage should surprise no one. These two basic phenomena — a rich growing richer and a rich growing more hostile to public services and the people who provide them — have always gone hand in hand.

Wealthy people, after all, don’t typically use much in the way of public services. They don’t partake of public parks or public education. They belong to private country clubs and send their kids to private schools, and they royally resent having to pay taxes to support public services they don’t use.

These well-to-do need rationalizations for this resentment, and teacher bashing makes for an ideal one. We don’t need to “throw money” at troubled schools, the argument goes. We just have to find and fire all those lousy teachers.

Interestingly, back in the much more equal United States of the 1950s, we did “throw money” at schools — and plenty of it.

Sign up for To MuchIn 1958, after the shock of the Soviet Sputnik launch, lawmakers didn’t bash teachers. They appropriated billions, through the National Defense Education Act, to strengthen schools. A half-dozen years later, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act vastly expanded funding for low-income students.

In today’s deeply unequal United States, by contrast, our political elites don’t fund, they bash. That bashing, educationally, makes no sense. “Blaming teachers for the failure of schools,” as the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead puts it, has to be about as absurd as “blaming doctors for the diseases they are seeking to treat.”

But bashing makes sense to the rich. And in a plutocracy, the rich drive the debate — until the rest of us rise up and change the conversation. In Chicago, teachers have now done just that.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up here to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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