Can this marriage be saved?

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

With all the attention on marriages these days (the Royal Wedding, Newt Gingrich and wife No. 3, Mitch Daniels and his happy remarriage to his ex, and so on) shouldn’t we be paying more attention to one very troubled marriage: the one between the American public and our teachers?

No doubt it’s troubled, but can this marriage be saved?

Like any long-married couple, teachers and the public have been fighting off and on for years–in their case for more than 150 years! To me, that’s a good sign. After all, fights are evidence of passion, and there’s no way this particular marriage will ‘drown in still water.’ But just because the two still care for each other, and for their 50 million children, that’s not enough to keep them together.

Because it’s the 50 million children who are being hurt by the vicious fighting.

I don’t believe in ‘staying together for the sake of the children’ if the marriage is toxic, so let’s examine the facts.

Teachers are acutely sensitive to any perceived slight, which is, for me, strong evidence of just how delicate the situation is. Last week we reported on PBS NewsHour on “Last In, First Out,” focusing on Hartford, Connecticut:

It’s a nuanced piece of reporting by my colleague John Tulenko and producer Audrey Baker, but judging by the reaction of some teachers, you’d think we worked for Fox and were being paid by the Koch Brothers. For example a teacher in Wisconsin wrote, “Well, once again the Newshour uses biased reporting to slant educational woes into the lap of teachers’ unions. Are you truly paying attention to what you are saying?”

And from Maine: “I feel you gave a very anti-union program concerning teacher’s unions, and thus supported the “use and throw away” culture that treats people and things like trash.”

This, from Washington state: ” You have oversimplified the issue, and performed some sort of “slight of mind” trick. … your reporter’s lack of objectivity and condescending tone toward experienced teachers stunned and disillusioned me. I never knew PBS had so little regard for people like me who have devoted their whole working life to public service.”

I urge you to take a look for yourself, and note how the piece twist and turns, ‘unpeeling the onion’ the way any good reporting should. For example, the Hartford superintendent is very upset about having to follow LIFO, but test scores in Hartford have risen dramatically, which contradicts his dire predictions of disaster. But our critics, those teachers, don’t deal in nuance. Apparently ANY criticism amounts to ‘teacher bashing.’

That’s evidence of a troubled marriage. One party, in this case the teachers, is so used to being dumped on that it has lost perspective. And the public, the other party in the marriage, has also lost perspective and gives voice only to negativity. All teachers ever hear from their ‘spouse,’ the public, is that they are the sole reason our children are being outperformed by children in other nations. ‘It’s all your fault,’ teachers are told, over and over. No wonder they are in a hair-trigger state.

How does this constant bickering affect the children?

I recall interviewing teachers in Washington, DC, where under Michelle Rhee the criticism of teachers was rampant. Teachers told me that some of their students said to them, “We don’t have to listen to you or do what you say, because you are going to be fired.” When one spouse is actively disrespecting and undermining the other, children learn a lot of bad lessons.

Can this marriage be saved? Yes, of course, but we need a cooling off period. We need some serious listening, by both sides.

And maybe both parties in this marriage need to talk about what they want for the children. The public, it seems to me, has been sold a bill of goods about test scores, as if that’s the only measure of how well they have raised their children. Teachers want to do their part in child-rearing, but that’s hard to do well when they are told that it’s all about test scores and that the results — if bad — are entirely their fault. They are afraid to try new things but instead are driven to teach to the test. (And they don’t get credit when scores are good, which adds salt to the wounds.)

I’m only being slightly facetious here, because all this heat is actually quite dangerous. We need to sit down with ourselves to talk about the purposes of public education. What do we want our children to grow up to be able to do? Pass tests? Or how about this list: “Work productively, raise families, vote, pay taxes, think critically, support their communities, and adapt to change” for starters? Is passing tests the appropriate marker and legitimate predictor for all this?

Not for me. For my children, and now for my grandchildren, I want adults to look at them and wonder “How are you smart?”, not “How smart are you?”

We need to save this marriage. What would you do?

30 thoughts on “Can this marriage be saved?

  1. All this time, I though you worked for PBS and were being paid by George Soros. 🙂 LIFO is a ridiculous policy. Why aren’t we insisting on the best and the brightest? Teachers should be paid better, and they should get much more respect. If that is accepted, then teachers should demand that the best and most effective teachers should be kept–whether they started teaching nine months ago or twenty years ago.

    A union mentality is doing for American education just what it has done to American auto manufacturing.


  2. Test scores correlate with income. Sure, kids can be drilled and killed to artificially push up their scores, but real learning takes time and money. Poor kids need to get the same educations middleclass kids get at school AND AT HOME. It will obviously take more time to go on those sailing, skiing, and camping trips, zoo and museum visits, music and art lessons, etc. that are part of middleclass life. It’s not that poor kids can’t read; rather, they don’t have the background knowledge to make sense of what they’re reading. What they need is progressive education in the kind of schools Obama’s children go to. He know what quality education looks like: small classes, individual attention, experiments and projects, and very few tests. But he mandates the opposite for the rest of our children: test prep masquerading as curriculum.
    Stop testing and let teachers teach!


  3. Your voice, your reporting, and your illuminating interpretations like this blog, are crucial contributions. No one else is doing this, certainly not as well
    or as influentially. Thanks for providing these regular doses of sanity and courage.


  4. Americans were sold a bill of goods about how equity could be achieved by standardized testing. Poverty and learning disabilities could be cured via new standards and more testing. Nearly one trillion dollars and a decade later what we have is a fractured marriage, more segregated schools than ever, and a growing gap of haves and have not schools.
    Add this to we study after study indicating little or no effect for any of these reforms coming out of the Department Of Education own Impact Studies.
    At this point we have preponderance of evidence that the current reform models are failing, or at the very least not delivering any large-scale results. Not even a hiccup from the media questioning any of it. Instead the media jumps on whatever the next DC bandwagon that comes along, Reading Frist Schools, magnet schools, charters, new standards round 1 and now round 2, and finally it’s the big bad unions. Keep your eye on the prize a system where equity comes first. Equity will not be found in lotteries, false choices, and top down reforms. Superman will not fly it in, and save the world. We should begin with a level playing field at the very least.
    Children are more than test scores, and so are teachers,
    I am walking to DC,


  5. To fix this marriage we need collaboration not divide and conquer tactics. Politicians and billionaires need to realize that privatization, overtesting and closing schools will not fix anything. We need mutual respect, proper funding, teacher, parent and student cooperation and responsibility! As a parent I do not believe that our teachers become teachers so they can be union members and have cushy jobs with summers off?? Their jobs have become increasing difficult with less and less respect from students parents etc….Unions do their thing which is look out for their members so that teachers can do what they do best which is teach. Unfortunately, teachers have been pushed into drilling and testing so much so that our kids have become a nation of professional test takers!! In Florida in particular most of our teachers are not union members, it is not mandatory that they join either. Our teachers make less than 40,000 a year if they make that much here . Merit pay is another unfunded mandate and accounts for 50 % of a teachers salary and is based on a very flawed test (FCAT). Basically, you have too many people(billionaires and politicians, testing companies etc…) in this marriage which is killing it!


  6. A journalist colleague suggested that this piece needs a paragraph about how one spouse has been cheating, entering into affairs with vouchers, et cetera, and that’s just added to the tension in the ‘marriage.’ Wish I had thought of that….because it has the twin virtues of being both clever and accurate…


    • I would agree with you on this except you bash Fox News and the Koch Brothers which only shows your bias, how disappointing. I have seen things on Fox that have totally supported teachers and I’ve seen things on MSNBC that have slammed teachers. You only mentioned republicans in marriage thoughts but John Edwards might have been a better example.

      You want cooperation but you show no respect for the other side of the argument. So I see you not as a marriage counselor but as the best friend who is biased to one side of the argument. And makes excuses to make that friend feel better.

      You will not get us to a better point with this type of rhetoric.


      • My comments about Mitch Daniels were positive, but your point is well taken. I should have mentioned John Edwards. Not sure if there’s anyone on the left like the Koch Brothers to use as a powerful example, and MSNBC is a pale imitation of Fox.


    • Re affairs, cheating and vouchers. I’m person who has strongly opposed public fund going to k-12 religious schools for many years.

      However, I think your assertion that To assert that promoting vouchers is comparable to cheating on a spouse is deeply offensive. There are many many people who care a great deal about students from low income youngsters, and have spent decades trying to improve public schools from the inside, as well as outside. Howard Fuller is one of many who have done this and who now support vouchers for low income students. To accuse him something comparable to cheating on a spouse is deeply disturbing and offensive.


      • Ofcourse its cheating John. Privatization ,vouchers and closing public schools only to put charter schools in their place Is cheating Public Education, Teachers and students and most of all cheating Kids out of a great public Education. Politicians claim there is no money for Education(Public) and teachers then turn around in the same breath and say we have no money but lets expand charter schools , lets give vouchers to everyone etc… I agree that we should let students have school choice but to give them a voucher to go to a private or charter school “NO” for the simple reason that vouchers steal money from public Education. Also Private schools as well as privately run charters do not have to play by the same rules as public schools do( ie; state tests)


      • John, please explain in this paragraph where you assert that “teachers think it’s cheating”

        “A journalist colleague suggested that this piece needs a paragraph about how one spouse has been cheating, entering into affairs with vouchers, et cetera, and that’s just added to the tension in the ‘marriage.’ Wish I had thought of that….because it has the twin virtues of being both clever and accurate…

        But even if you think it is implied, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “some public school teachers” or “many public school teachers” think it is cheating? Certainly not all teachers, or all public school teachers, think it is cheating.

        My point is that I think you are adding to the kind of generalizations you criticize. You have a huge national audience. What you write matters a lot.


      • just me & you Posted on I do family hotrisy research. First of all start in the area where she grew up. Start by looking for her Mother Father, siblings. Best friends in school. Then go to your local court house and ask for a marriage license in her name. I also go to face book and enter names.I enter name in the white pages sometime you can find people that way.


  7. Unless the media focuses on how administrators (many who should not have these jobs) have allowed bad teachers to stay on, this issue will always be biased. The only way to remedy the situation is for every school district to have a fair and balanced evaluation system that is NOT based on test scores. Bad teachers stay on for a variety of reasons not having to do with LIFO. For example, the bad teacher is a pal of the principal, the principal is too lazy to follow procedures, etc. The other bias the media refuses to address is simple: No child or teacher should be judged on one high-risk test. Children are not robots. We do not know the factors that effect them during testing. But we do know how to measure their achievement during the year based on how they performed in class. I have had students who tested below my judgment of them and fought to get them into honors programs. I also had students who passed the test and fought to have them placed in Academic Intervention Services only to be told the test score will not allow this to happen. Children grow in a variety of ways and sometimes academic growth should take a bake seat to personal growth. Many children come to school with issues that need to be dealt with. If raising the self-esteem of a student so that he/she becomes a better student is not also measured, we will have an army of teachers being fired.

    The biggest media bias is their love affair with charters. Charters can do something public schools can’t. They can counsel out students not making the grade and therefore their so-called record of success is slanted. I am waiting for PBS to do a story on just how destructive Joel Klein’s tenure really was. Money wasted on consultants. Many good programs tosses. Failure to listen to parents and teachers. He reorganized the system 3 times and as a result, there was a breakdown of communication. He and Bloomberg started small schools and hailed them as successful simply because he kept out the special ed students and English as a second language learners.

    You want to do a story teachers will not call bias….then do a story that’s factual.


  8. Wow – lots of generalizations…”the biggest media bias is their love affair with charters,” writes Carol. There are many, many stories on television and in newspapers about problems with charters. I did a quick Google search, “Newspaper stories re charter school problems” and found how many results? Guess? (answer at the end)

    John writes, “One party, in this case the teachers, is so used to being dumped on that it has lost perspective. And the public, the other party in the marriage, has also lost perspective and gives voice only to negativity. All teachers ever hear from their ‘spouse,’ the public, is that they are the sole reason our children are being outperformed by children in other nations.”

    John – sadly I think you are contributing to the problem with assertions such as “All teachers ever hear from their ‘spouse’ the public is that they are the sole reason…” That is not nuance John. It is the kind of massive over-generalization that you accuse others of.

    # of hits for “newspaper stories re charter school problems.” 1,580,000.


    • Well Joe, did you watch the 2-part Oprah shows dedicated to “Waiting for Superman” or the MSNBC’s Education Nation? After that all the major stations followed suit. They did pieces on the LA Times publishing the names of “ineffective teachers” based on a statistically inaccurate method known as VAM. Of course they never mentioned the problems with it. When will PBS run a segment on the inaccuracies of VAM? Probably never considering that every news outlet is chopping at the chance to follow the LA Times. Editorials are calling for testing to be the major factor in teacher evaluations making the new slogan, “Those who teach, can. Those that can’t, make laws about education” pretty popular.

      When I see all the major stations and print media giving the same about of coverage to people like Diane Ravitch as they do with Rhee, Duncan or Klein, then I will consider journalism today to be fair and balanced. I find it hard to believe that Prof. Ravitch was never a guest on Charlie Rose even though she has written the most comprehensive book on the subject of reform.

      I will gladly make this generalization: The majority of teachers want bad teachers fired!!
      Once a fair and balanced evaluation system is in place, that will happen. But when politicians call using 40% or more of the evaluations based solely on tests, that is wrong.

      As for those stories on charters, they may have been “reported” but hardly make it on to the evening news or front page of The NY Times.


  9. Yes, I agree that Waiting for Superman received extensive coverage. But I’m going to go back to John’s assertions that “All teachers ever hear from their ‘spouse,’ the public, is that they are the sole reason our children are being outperformed by children in other nations.” This is the kind of profoundly inaccurate assertion that creates problems and allows some teachers to feel like victims. Having been an inner city public school teacher for a number of years, having been married to an inner city public school teacher for more than 36 years, and having a daughter who a graduate of an urban public school and is now an urban public school teacher, I see this notion of teacher as victim as a huge problem.

    Yes, we agree, the majority of teachers want bad teachers fired. Yes, many administrators have part of the blame for the current situation. So do some teachers and some teacher unions. But there is a huge problem of teachers seeing themselves as victims when they and their organizations have helped create some of the problems.


    • Whether you want to believe it or not, teachers are being scapegoated.

      Teachers are in fact being victimized when they are losing their jobs based on a score, or having their names published based on a score. Did you happen to read the article in the Times entitled “When the Numbers Lie”.? A new, highly dedicated and good teacher lost her chance at tenure by less than a point of a percent due to VAM. Her own principal couldn’t get the decision reversed. Do you want this to happen to your daughter? And what about schools that are making wonderful progress but are being closed or reorganized due to the VAM guidelines under RTTT. Everything is judge by tests and other factors are deemed less important.

      I can tell you this. When your wife taught, she was able to actually teach and create. This is not happening now. Teachers are being directed to test prep or follow a prescribed curriculum. Teachers are lucky when they can squeeze in art or music or just bring a bit of fun to the lesson. Everything is geared to testing. And these same reformers believe that classes should be overcrowded. Again, these are the stories that are not told by the media.

      Teachers have very little voice within their own unions. The unions should never have agreed to the NCLB and RTTT agenda that is killing public education. I was glad to read that Jerry Brown of California does not believe in the RTTT testing agenda and evaluating teachers based on one high-stakes test. So not only are the teachers being victimized, so are the students (as I mentioned in my first comment). Teachers do not make policy, but must follow it. They have no voice when in fact they are the ones who should be consulted.


  10. Having long advocated for multiple measures in judging schools, students and educators, I certainly agree that using any single measure is a bad idea. Since our organization works with teachers and governors in a number of states, I do not agree that “everything is geared to testing,” as Carol wrote.

    As to the 1,580,000 examples of stories about charter school problems…if you look you’ll see that the NY Times has run a number of stories, some on the front page about charter school problems. A number of the stories are from tv stations that have run similar stories. John says you can’t tell anything about a school’s quality because it is a charter. I agree and so do many who work with or in charter public schools.

    Returning to John’s assertion, “All teachers ever hear from their ‘spouse,’ the public, is that they are the sole reason our children are being outperformed by children in other nation.” That is the kind of over-generalization that is creating problems.

    Finally, John, when you compared support for vouchers with cheating on a spouse, you did not say “that’s what teachers believe.” You said the assertion “has the twin virtues of being both clever and accurate…”
    As a person who has regular access to a national tv network watched by millions of people, John has a huge influence on what people learn and know. The kinds of assertions cited above about messages teachers receive and what vouchers represent seem to be examples of assertions that contribute to major misunderstandings.


  11. It would seem a sensible series of compromises – which is how strikes and lockouts are prevented – to examine the origins of LIFO formulae. They reflect “academic freedom” and the firing of teachers disliked by parents or school boards for their academic and professional independence. Those patterns – with some notable exceptions in places like Texas – are less pervasive today, and so the formula has served its purpose. Yet they are not completely gone. That leaves “some” of that LIFO formula to protect that kind of freedom as both justified and necessary.

    Similarly, “some” of the ascribed value of tests as “independent measures” of student achievement is also worthwhile. Not all, most certainly, and there are many, many other ways to collect achievement data that could be used to assess, document, and even quantify the impacts of teachers and their interaction with students, with other teachers, administrators, and parents, many of which are simply ignored.

    Contract negotiations begin when both sides acknowledge the limits of the reliability of their metrics. It shouldn’t be so very, very hard for both sides to acknowledge that LIFO should count no more than 70% of any “out decision” and that data like attendance, promotion, success in successive years, as well as higher ratings by parents, peers, and students ought to access more money, more options for transfers, more time or curricular flexibility, or more status, or some kind of joint relationships with colleges or other training sites, or access to summer or staff development benefits. If either side could acknowledge the limits of the value of either side of the discussion – costs and benefits – then they ought to be able to make some kind of a deal.

    Finally, the industrial premise that all 8th grades are identical is almost as regressive as FIFO, and that works against both sides. Collective bargaining need not be so blind to be effective, and there ought to be many, many alternatives that it could, should, and must accommodate. Just as most marriages involve compromise, accommodation, growth, and wisdom, as well as passion and productivity, so could teachers and their profession.


    • You bring up some very good points. But your last sentence should also include politicians and businessmen. Many of them are calling for increases in class size, and that does nothing to help students. And you are correct that those teachers who have a voice will be targeted. But, we also need to protect experienced teachers from the budget axe. There salaries should not be held against them.


  12. In terms of media description of public schools, here is a column I wrote about how the Cincinnati Public Schools, featuring outstanding collaboration between teachers, their union the broader community and school leaders, eliminated the graduation gap between white and African American students.

    This is one of about 2000 newspaper columns I have written since 1985. They have appeared in a variety of papers, including the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Atlanta Constitution, Sacramento Bee, (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, etc. etc. If you look at columnists like Maureen Downey at the Atlanta Constitution or Valerie Strauss at Wash Post, or reporters like Sam Dillion at NY Times, you’ll find lots of skepticism about things that some of you assert “the media jumps on” (Jesse Turner) or “the media refuses to “acknowledge” – (Carol)


  13. I don’t think the media has created the conflict in the relationship between the public and the schools. There has always been a tension between the two – in most cases a healthy tension I believe.

    Over this past year for sure, it is the political arena where we have seen the powers that be seem to almost intentionally pit public education against the general public. It reared it’s ugly head in Wisconsin most notably, but has been repeated in many other states (Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, to name a few).

    In an unfortunate confluence of events, this recent spate of demonizing educators and their unions has occurred concurrently with some serious budget issues in states around the country. Perhaps the Wisconsin governor was the first to recognize the benefit of using public education as the whipping boy their budget woes, but many others followed suit soon after.

    The emphasis by the Tea Party movement on balancing budgets at any cost has now been married with efforts to portray educators as selfish, indulgent, and concerned only with keeping the status quo. We have been painted as overly compensated and directly responsible for much of the economic woes affecting our states.

    I point the finger at these governors, and others like them, who have taken advantage of a desire by most in the general public to a) balance budgets, b) reduce the size of a bloated government, c) lower taxes, and d) have public employees suffer like private sector employees. These governors found a particularly useful scapegoat in public education, all the more so because there truly are significant issues needing addressed in education.

    Do teachers feel like everyone is against them? For the most part I think the answer is yes.

    Is most everyone against teachers right now? All you have to do is read the comments on just about any online article regarding education and budgets to get the answer to that one.


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