Teachers long have been blamed for the real and perceived failures of our public schools. Much of the blame has come from high places, from U.S. presidents, governors, legislators and others who sway public opinion and control the purse strings.
This tendency to single out teachers, which some in the profession have dubbed the Blame the Teacher Syndrome, became an American pastime with the publication of "A Nation at Risk" in 1983. This report, produced by the Reagan administration's Education Department, declared that the United States could not economically compete with the Japanese and Europeans because our schools were subpar.
One of the report's boldest, and most erroneous, charges was that our teachers were drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school seniors. That charge was false then, and it is false now. In truth, hardly any seniors from the bottom quarter of their classes even go to college. Of those who do, few enter teaching.
After Reagan, President Bill Clinton jumped on the teacher-bashing bandwagon, lamenting that we should have a "process for removing teachers who aren't competent." Clinton came up with a plan that would deny funding to schools that hired "unqualified teachers."
Then, along came President George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind. Beneath much of the benign language, NCLB, for all intents and purposes, is a blueprint for blaming teachers and making the privatization of our public schools more palatable by offering charter schools as the panacea.
Now President Barack Obama has succumbed to the Blame the Teacher Syndrome with his Race to the Top program. A mainstay of the program is improving public education by rewarding or punishing teachers when their schools do or do not close the so-called achievement gap. The program's primary focus, according to the executive summary, is "to ensure that students in high-poverty and/or high-minority schools … have equitable access to highly effective teachers and principals … and are not served by ineffective teachers and principals at higher rates than other students."
Race to the Top rates teachers on how well students perform on standardized tests. Such tests have a legitimate place in the overall teaching/learning process. But they become a convenient way to blame teachers when we ignore factors teachers cannot control.
Teachers have no control, for example, over the harmful and systemic effects of poverty in children's lives.
"Whenever data is generated by any credible source, the correlation between poverty and educational achievement is so strong it is impossible for any unbiased individual to ignore," writes Jack Random of dissidentvoice.org, an online newsletter. "When schools are ranked according to quality, those on the top of the list are invariably wealthy and predominantly white while those at the bottom are invariably poor with high proportions of minorities."
According to a 2009 report by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, while children represent 25 percent of the U.S. population, 41 percent of all children live in low-income families and nearly one in every five live in poor families. Some 48 percent of children in poor families did not have an employed parent, and 86 percent of poor children lived with a single parent.
Teachers do not control these factors but are expected to fix their harmful effects. Evidence shows that these factors affect attendance, attentiveness, behavior, suspensions, expulsions and graduation.
Meanwhile, charter schools' ostensible success is constantly being compared to the failures of traditional public schools.
Charter schools' success cannot be attributed to teacher quality alone. A major advantage is that charter school parents are highly motivated, playing positive roles in the schools and at home. The charters I am familiar with require parents to sign contracts. While receiving the same public funding as regular schools, charters have the additional advantage of raising money and enjoying charitable donations.
Diane Ravitch, author of the The Death and Life of the Great American School System, puts into perspective one main difference between the students of charters and traditional schools: "The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to 'counsel out' the lowest performing students. ... This is not a model for public education, which must educate all children."
All of us are responsible for the condition of public education, but all of us do not share the blame for the failures. Teachers are the convenient scapegoat. When are we going to start holding parents responsible for their children? When are we going to start holding children responsible for their own learning? Teachers are not responsible for everything, and they cannot fix everything.