Teacher Hatred and Class Warfare
(There’s a fairly lengthy thought-piece introduction here. If you’re simply trawling for education policy arguments, make like a choose-your-own-adventure reader and turn directly to Section II.)
One of the best parts about being an (philosophical) pragmatist: around 75% of the time the appropriate response to your critics is screwing up your face, raising one eyebrow, and saying, “Huh? No, that’s the wrong question.”
The original American pragmatists (Charles Saunders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, et al) developed a mania for clarification. They argued that the meaning of a belief—or a political policy—consisted in its consequences. No one ever captured it better than William James, who wrote [emphasis mine]:
Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea of belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”
For James and Co., if you can discover the effects of holding a proposition, then you know what that proposition means. No pre-existing abstract truths need apply. If, for instance, seniority-based raises for public school teachers lead to exceptionally good educational outcomes, those outcomes are what such raises mean.
Hopefully you can see how the pragmatist approach to meaning requires paying outsize attention to definitions. Just for the hell of it, let’s use a trollish example: if regressive tax policies lead to sluggish job growth and sharp increases in economic inequality, then it’s clear that one of two things must be the case:
1) rhetoric justifying these as “job creating” policies that “promote social mobility” is nonsense, or…
2) “job creating policies” are now to be redefined as those that do not, in fact, create jobs (etc).
Either option works. We can either admit that our belief does not actually have the “cash value” that usually goes with what we consider to be job creation or social mobility—and revise our belief to match the ideals we’re pursuing…or we can argue that our definitions of job creation and social mobility have been misguided until now and should be redefined to fit our new belief—e.g. when we claim that a policy promotes social mobility, we mean that it stratifies classes and distances the nation’s wealthy from its poor.
There. That hack job ought to ensure that at least 80% of the comments on this post have nothing to do with my thoughts on public education.
Troll-tempting radar chaff aside, I’ve included the foregoing 400+ word discussion to make a point about education policy rhetoric. As a former first grade teacher, a current post-secondary instructor, and a proud product of American public schools, I’m often frustrated by the quality of what passes for education policy discourse in the United States. We’re almost always asking the wrong questions. To hell with pragmatism. We debate education by proxy.
In other words, instead of a serious conversation about how to ensure that we have great teachers in every American classroom, we debate whether or not education reformers “hate teachers.”
For example, take a look at Corey Robin’s recent screed on this. Robin writes:
In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.
In Robin’s world, education reformers are money-loving social Darwinists. They (apparently uniformly?) share Robin’s tony background (Chappaqua, NY) and thus have no time or inclination to appreciate teachers. When these vicious creatures talk about the deplorable state of American urban education, this is just cover that allows them to punish their supposed inferiors. When they argue that the nation’s poorest students also deserve exceptional teachers and schools, education reformers are actually salivating at the opportunity to corporatize public institutions. When they argue that teachers unions often defend educational malpractice over and above the needs of underserved students, reformers are actually engaged in union-busting. What’s more, Robin and his allies see no difference between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s legislative attack on collective bargaining and mayoral attempts (in various cities) to negotiate with unions over the development of teacher accountability systems. None.
I’ve written about education reform a fair bit over the last few years, and nothing stings more than being called a “teacher-hater” or being accused of being a naïve, hyper-privileged rube.
Because, you see, Robin’s not the only one with an anecdote—and mine is considerably more common than his. It’s just simple demographics: dwindling social mobility aside, there are still more of us middle-class strivers than Chappaqua’s privileged few.
I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a dwindling Rust Belt town that experienced the recession a decade before the rest of the United States. During the 1990s, various corporate mergers sucked jobs and wealth out of the city and created a ring of stable, well-run, and well-funded school systems in surrounding towns. My peers from beyond Kalamazoo’s limits had a number of fantastic, creative teachers and a wide variety of ambitious classes to choose from, whereas it took a savvy navigator (my mother, in this case) to unearth the slim opportunities available at my high school.
Of course, there were some great teachers in Kalamazoo’s public schools (and there are even more now), but they took some finding. Quality varied enormously from classroom to classroom. Various prerequisites, graduation requirements, and arbitrary lottery mechanisms in class sorting procedures made it impossible to avoid sub-par (or worse) teachers. Even after years of learning the rules and playing the system, there were never guarantees: How many bridges should we burn to change sixth-grade teachers before it becomes counter-productive? Is a poorly taught AP Government class better than the non-AP version with a great teacher? Could I afford the risk of taking an interesting-sounding class with an unknown teacher—or would it be better to play it safe in boring classes with known (pedagogical) quantities?
Etc. These are the calculations that parents and students make when they can’t count on effective (let alone excellent) teachers in many of their classrooms. This, not an elite public school that competes with the East Coast’s finest private boarding academies, is how most Americans families interact with teachers.
My high school (which, once again, is now orders of magnitude better than when I attended) introduced itself on all stationery, posters, etc, as “A WORLD CLASS HIGH SCHOOL.” Being adolescents, we made short work of the “CL” whenever and wherever possible. Obviously we tittered at our crude neologizing because we were all too hopped up on hormones to stop thinking about butts. But (ha) we also—and I’m serious—hated the slogan’s hollow pretense. We knew just as well as the administrator who coined the stupid thing that it was a load of bunk. We recognized it as an embarrassment. We knew that the school’s rhetoric was well out-of-line with the education we were getting.
So this is where the non-plutocratic experience really diverges from the 1%’s. Students who attend schools where excellent teaching isn’t the norm don’t hate the teaching profession. Unlike Chappaquans, we don’t have that margin of error. Instead, we learn to worship great teachers (even if it sometimes takes weeks, months, or even years to appreciate their work) and to recognize not-so-great teachers before class lists close for the semester.
And some of us go to college and discover that our patchwork education holds up pretty well against our prep school peers, so long as the loan rates stay low and the work-study jobs don’t fall through. As it happens, the Chappaquans’ academic head start isn’t so substantial after all. Sure, there are gaps in our knowledge as a result of the unavoidable tradeoffs mentioned above. Sure, we struggle to catch up academically without becoming socially unrecognizable to our Chappaquan friends. It doesn’t always work out, but many of us build on the legacy left us by standout teachers from our past—and we succeed.
Some of us even remember the general thread of our story and decide to do something about it. When I graduated from college, I joined Teach For America (TFA). If you’ve heard that TFA corps members are just a bunch of right, white law school applicants looking to improve their admissions standing, you haven’t looked at TFA’s actual demographic profile. Nearly 40% of 2012 corps members are teachers of color. Fully 35% of the corps consists of Pell Grant recipients. What a bunch of corporate teacher-haters, amirite?
And hey, when you look at who stands in positions of influence in the education reform movement today, TFA is dominant. They’re everywhere. That’s right. The movement that hates teachers is dominated by a bunch of former teachers. Many of them, like me, come from backgrounds far humbler than Corey Robin’s. More or less all of them (us?) believe that teacher accountability is critical because we recognize that our own successes are the produce of those few exceptional teachers that helped pull us out of otherwise inadequate schools. I know that I do.
In a very narrow sense, Robin’s right: teachers are undervalued in the United States (materially, politically, and even emotionally). We should pay teachers far more—and we should treat them like highly skilled professionals. But the exceptionally rare nature of his experience makes it a terrible source of proof that education reformers are snobbish products of privilege. For those of us without the resources to escape sub-par teachers entrenched in underserved schools, the sort of “teacher hating” he describes is a luxury we can’t afford. Nonetheless, we know that teacher unaccountability is a real problem, a problem that knocks innumerable poor children off their already-perilous path to an excellent education (and all the rights, privileges, honors, opportunities, and responsibilities thereunto attached).
And now we’re back to the pragmatists. Were he alive to witness our education policy debates, James would ask us to clarify the “cash value” of determining who hates teachers more. Why is this worthy of so much attention? If the education reform movement is full of people who know that high-quality instruction can provide a path out of poverty because many of them have traveled that very path, is it consistent to see their passion for public education as hatred for teaching? Seems like a strange redefinition of “hatred.”
I may be stretching things a bit there. Truth is, as a pragmatist, he’d be much more interested in determining which policies best served the educational ends we’d like to pursue as a country.
 It’s a bit like when conservatives insist that progressives are anti- or un-American, rather than addressing the substance of their ideas.
 The full procedure also required excising the “W-R” in “WORLD.”
 I’ve written more specifics about why I joined and what I learned elsewhere—while I was teaching, I tried to capture thoughts on this into a book-caliber project. I typed about half of it up a few years ago, but couldn’t wrangle it into anything that seemed like it was viable. Here’s how it turned out, if you’re curious.