Minnesota 2020 Journal: Attacking Teachers as Conservative Policy Strategy
Can anyone teach? It’s a fair question, meriting honest consideration. It’s also a hot-button issue that makes Frodo Baggins’ ring quest to Mordor look like a Sunday park stroll.
Recently, I wrote a Minnesota 2020 Hindsight blogpost criticizing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for declaring that teachers’ advanced degrees “aren’t worth it.” Reader comments have been off the charts. Clearly, this subject engages people.
Debate continues to address the teacher advanced degree question –most readers are outraged by the Secretary’s suggestion- but observations lead, in due course, to contemplating the role that teachers play in Minnesota education. That’s a great starting point in any educational discussion.
Minnesota values education. In some early settlements, schools were built before churches. In others, at least initially, a town’s school and congregation shared building space. Immigrants built schools and colleges as fast as they could, rooted in the determination that their children would have better options than striking out blindly for a new land just to escape the old country’s promised lifetime of poverty.
Learning, we believe, enriches and improves every life. Knowledge is power. A healthy democracy requires a well-educated citizenry. Consequently, Minnesotans created high quality schools with the anticipation that better educated children create successful, stable and prosperous families and communities. And, they have.
Succeeding generations improved public education, building schools that were better than the ones they knew. The eighth-grade education standard yielded to the post-World War II high school graduation achievement. Now, additional post-secondary education is considered essential to career skill acquisition. It’s happened because Minnesotans worked together for a stronger future, unsatisfied with the prospect of coasting on an early generation’s work.
For the past eight years, the State of Minnesota has reduced school spending by nearly 15 percent. Local schools have had to cut budgets, eliminate programs and raise property taxes to off-set lost revenue. No school has been immune; some schools have been hit modestly but most have been hit hard.
This leads to two good questions. First, who loses? Kids, families, communities, and Minnesota as a whole as work force quality degrades and high-wage jobs leave for other states and nations. Second, who gains? The ladder pullers.
Ladder pullers are conservatives who, despite realizing considerable success from public investments, seek, as a matter of public policy, to limit those same opportunities for succeeding generations. Having climbed the ladder of success, in other words, they want to pull the ladder up behind them rather than contribute to building a better, stronger, taller ladder.
Minnesota spends better than one-third of its state budget on K12 education. Given Minnesota’s traditional support of education, cutting education spending is a politically difficult undertaking. So, rather than declare “I don’t want to share,” the ladder pullers have devised an ingenious alternative. They blame teachers for education’s shortcomings.
Low student test scores? Teachers’ fault. Achievement gap? Teachers’ fault. Too many or too few instructional hours? Teachers’ fault. Lengthy school bus ride? Teachers’ fault. Decreased individual student attention due to growing class size? Teachers’ fault. Every issue creates the opportunity to blame teachers. The questions, past a certain point, don’t matter because they command the same response.
In the communications world, this is called “message discipline.” It’s the idea that frequently repeating something creates an accepted truth. Perception, true or false, is reality. Repeating the “blame teachers” mantra, given time and the absence of an alternative narrative, builds public conviction that teachers must be to blame.
Since education’s costs are overwhelmingly labor costs, reducing school spending requires cutting wages and benefits. It’s much easier to cut teacher salaries once teachers’ social weight and community authority has been undermined.
Conservative public policy’s goal isn’t improved educational outcomes. Rather, it’s reducing the tax burden on the wealthiest Minnesotans. School costs get in the way of that goal. Reducing those costs requires convincing the public that teachers merit less compensation. The demonized teacher is the discardable teacher, creating the perception that anyone can teach.
Now, it is true that anyone can teach. We routinely teach each other all sorts of things. Teaching school, however, is simultaneously a highly structured and impossibly flexible activity. We ask teachers to shoulder multiple missions yet we propose evaluating teachers based on a single, student test performance metric. And, when students fail to meet that rising, impossible performance standard, teachers are blamed.
Teaching is a skill, enhanced by experience and formal, on-going learning. Not everyone can or should teach school. Blaming teachers will not improve educational outcomes. It does, however, discredit teaching and schools, smoothing the path for reduced education budgets, the real public policy objective.
The ladder pullers seek conservative policy that reduces the financial burden on the wealthiest Minnesotans while directing public investment to fewer and fewer people. Conservative public policy advocates are acting on their personal interests. It’s time for the rest of Minnesota to act on ours. Family and community prosperity rest on the smart, flexible, adaptable workforce created through high quality public education. Bashing teachers only undermines Minnesota’s future; it doesn’t build it.