The nation's public schools are opening, and teachers and their profession are being attacked like never before.
Teachers are being fired and laid off in greater numbers than ever because of severe budget cuts. Although their unions are facing decertification and collective bargaining is ending in several states, many teachers say the deepest cut is being scapegoated for just about every failing aspect of the nation's schools.
Rarely is teaching called the noblest profession any more. Now it is seen as one of the most ignoble of professions.
Fueled by the high-stakes standardized testing culture, the uneven accountability mandates of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind policy, and the fierce competition for federal funds awarded by the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, public education is being treated as if it were a commodity rather than a public service.
Some of the effects of Race to the Top's requirements that schools enact measurable reforms have demoralized teachers. Many districts have begun to evaluate teachers mainly on the basis of their students' scores on standardized tests. And to the dismay of testing experts, more and more tests are being required.
Race to the Top gives high points to districts that establish voucher programs and charter schools that do not have to hire unionized teachers and staff. With the blessings of conservative lawmakers, many districts are ignoring teachers' experience, advanced degrees and professional credentials in evaluations and salaries. Many districts are placing newly hired teachers on five-year probation and giving annual contracts thereafter. A handful of districts are looking for ways to get rid of veteran teachers and hire newly minted teachers because they are cheaper. To save money, many districts require or will be requiring students to take a minimum number of online courses to graduate.
The good news, at least for me, a teacher, is that teachers in many parts of the nation have grown angry enough to begin fighting back, often over the objections of their union leaders.
For the last two years, Florida, for example, has witnessed a surprising and growing coalition of teachers, students, parents and school administrators protesting the harsh policies and mean-spirited tactics of the state's GOP-controlled Legislature. It is difficult to determine if the new movement will have any significant impact, but the fact that it is happening at all and that teachers are finding their voice mark a positive turn.
In New York, the New York State United Teachers, the umbrella organization representing local teachers unions, rallied teachers, students, parents and community leaders statewide to oppose budget cuts that amounted to about $1.5 billion. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with the support of hedge fund bosses and rich foundations, threatened to lay off 4,600 teachers as a way to weaken the teachers union. Teachers and their union leaders see Bloomberg's threat as a step toward ultimately privatizing the city's public schools, turning them into a commodity.
Most recently, in late July, between 3,000 and 4,000 teachers from around the country convened in Washington and marched near the White House as part of a four-day rally primarily to bring attention to their dissatisfaction with standards- and testing-based accountability. The rally, Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action, got the attention of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the president. Representatives met briefly with Duncan and members of his staff.
Save Our Schools leaders argue that contrary to what their critics say, they are not defending the status quo. During an interview with Education Week, Sabrina Stevens Shupe summed up the rally's mission and that of other teacher protests nationwide: "What we're talking about is creating the right conditions (for teaching and learning), not prescriptive policies."
By standing up for themselves and their profession, teachers who are being unfairly attacked will be the ones who save public schools and democratic public education in America.