This month’s column is by Leo Casey, the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute and a former UFT vice president, from remarks he made at a recent Democratic National Committee Labor Council meeting.
— Tom Murphy, RTC chapter leader
When teachers went on strike in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and North Carolina in the Teacher Spring of 2018, it was not just for themselves — although their pay, pensions and health insurance have been diminishing for the last decade. It was just as much for the students and the communities they serve, so that they might have the schools they deserve.
The strikes were driven first and foremost by government underfunding of public education, which is most intense in “red” states with Republican-dominated governments where funding, already diminished by austerity, has often been redirected into privatization schemes such as vouchers.
In much of the United States, funding of public education now lags well below pre-Great Recession levels: 25 states spend $19 billion less on public K–12 education than they did a decade ago. The chronic austerity that has starved schools and other public services while providing tax cuts to the wealthy and the redirection of education funds into vouchers and charter schools has undercut teacher salaries, health care insurance and pensions. In 38 states, teacher salaries are lower than they were a decade ago, and the gap between teacher salaries and those of comparable professionals has widened to 17%. In many states, teachers struggle to provide the essentials for themselves and their families: 1 in every 5 American teachers has taken on second and third jobs, and significant numbers are relying on public assistance such as food stamps.
The situation is particularly dire for millennial teachers whose average student loan debt grew 82% between 2002 and 2012, with the portion of students taking out loans increasing from 41% to 67%. Coming of age in an era of exploding economic inequality, millennial teachers have found that the middle class life promised to them as the fruits of education and hard work and a life of public service increasingly appears to be a mirage.
Underinvestment in public education has resulted in crumbling school buildings and facilities; outdated textbooks and learning technology; the elimination of music, the arts and enrichment subjects from the curriculum; and the cutting of health care and social services for the neediest students. In 35 states, class sizes are larger now than a decade ago. The strikes have been for the common good; for an education system that meets the needs of America’s youth as much as for salaries and benefits.
A contributory factor to the teacher insurgency is the deskilling and deprofessionalization of American teaching, produced by the top-down, technocratic and market-driven reforms that acquired momentum with No Child Left Behind in 2001. That left American teachers feeling increasingly hamstrung in their efforts to provide instruction in the best educational interests of their students and engendered a growing sense of alienation from their work as it became more stressful and less fulfilling.
Why? In the business model of education at the center of these reforms, test scores became the basis for personnel and enterprise decisions. In place of professional educational judgment, punitive accountability systems that relied on high stakes standardized exams were imposed. Student promotion and graduation depended upon passing the exams, and schools could be placed into receivership or closed based on the numbers of their students who passed.
Teacher evaluation was based on students’ performance on exams, rather than on observations by an educational professional. As standardized exams grew in importance, demands were placed on teachers to replace rich and varied lessons with test prep and heavily scripted, narrowly focused instruction. Since low scores on standardized exams are highly correlated with poverty, schools with high concentrations of poverty bore a heavier burden from these changes.
There has been a 23% decline in college students completing teacher education requirements from a decade ago and teachers are leaving the profession in increasing numbers: In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the rate of educators leaving their jobs in state and local education was the highest on record.
The strikes of the teacher insurgency are symptoms of deep, organic problems in American education that must be addressed by all levels of government.