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The Bite On Teachers

Politicians are fighting for voters' hearts by going after the bad apples in classrooms

By Romesh Ratnesar

TIME magazine

Remember this scene? San Diego, 1996. Bob Dole steps up to the podium for his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention. He looks lean and hungry, the faithful are cheering, so midway through the speech, Dole stares into the cameras and decides to uncork. "To the teachers' unions, I say, when I am President, I will disregard your political power," he bellows. "If education were a war, you would be losing it." Dole says he is not talking "to the teachers, but to the unions," but it doesn't matter. Democrats seize on Dole's screed and cast him as a rabid teacher hater, an enemy of education. The two largest teachers' unions pour more millions into the Democrats' campaign war chest. President Clinton vows that he, at least, will stand by America's teachers. You remember the rest.

So do Republicans. Since the Dole disaster, the mantra around Washington has been simple: Don't mess with the teachers. Last year G.O.P. consultant Frank Luntz declared that Dole's attack was the least popular sentence of the entire 1996 campaign and instructed Republican candidates to "find common ground with public school teachers." As fed up as many Americans are with the sorry state of the country's public schools, they have generally regarded teachers as the good guys: the ones who stay late, who buy textbooks out of their meager salaries. So while Republicans still detest the two formidable teachers' unions--the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers--for their fealty to the Democrats, they know better than to sound anti-teacher. "When it comes right down to it, people like teachers," boasts A.F.T. president Sandra Feldman. "And they think they deserve to have unions."

So with voters rating education as the campaign season's top priority, the Republicans have come up with a more subtle strategy: they're focusing on how to improve teaching without taking on teachers. So far it seems to be working. g.o.p. polls show that Republicans have gained 10 points over the past six months in surveys asking which party is best able to address the education issue. In New Mexico's special house election two weeks ago, Republican Heather Wilson coasted to victory, largely on the strength of a single pro-education TV spot using a teacher to promise that "Heather will fight for higher standards for teachers." In Georgia, gubernatorial front runner Guy Millner has run commercials pledging to beef up teaching standards in the state without putting teachers down. Texas Governor George W. Bush, who is testing the presidential waters, is also going at the issue indirectly by condemning "this business of passing children through our schools who can't read." The subtext: this Governor can insert himself in the classroom but won't push teachers out of the way. New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato is the exception to the rule: while his campaign for re-election this November has embraced traditional Democratic causes as varied as the environment and health-care reform, he's nonetheless stuck to the Dole approach on education. He ripped teachers' unions early this year for "protecting the perks and privileges of their members" and called for replacing tenure with renewable five-year contracts.

But here's the strangest part about the G.O.P.'s willingness to focus on teachers: Democrats are joining in. In California's Democratic gubernatorial primary, the candidates bickered over whose plan got toughest on middling teachers. The winner, Gray Davis, supports evaluations of public school teachers by their peers and the testing of teachers in their subject every five years. Although the California Federation of Teachers has endorsed Davis in the general election against Republican Dan Lungren, it was a reluctant endorsement; and Davis has accepted it reluctantly. "Teacher testing and evaluation are not things that warm the hearts of people in the teachers' unions," says Davis' campaign manager, Garry South. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry said in June that "no teacher should have a lock on any job."

What's caused these jabs at one of the sacred cows of Democratic politics? In part it reflects parents' pent-up demand for the very changes to public education--school choice and, in a larger sense, classroom accountability--that teachers' unions have consistently resisted. "There's broad frustration and even antagonism out there," says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. "Americans perceive unions as people who put the interests of their members first. They don't feel the unions pay enough concern to getting rid of ineffective teachers. They see unions as challenging and often trying to stop school reform."

The unions are taking notice. At their national meeting in New Orleans this month, delegates for the 2.3 million members of the N.E.A. turned back a proposed merger with the A.F.T., which would have created the nation's largest union. But most observers think the threats to the unions' power make the drive to combine forces irreversible. And so while they concentrate for now on the tactical move of simply growing bigger, both organizations are also trying to project a new, more cooperative image. Moved in part by a Democratic President's enthusiasm for reforms like charter schools and tougher teacher standards, union leaders have in the past year begun to at least pay lip service to ideas once considered heretical. The shift was detectable last February, when the new head of the N.E.A, Bob Chase, made an astounding admission before the National Press Club in Washington: "The fact is that in some instances we have used power...to protect the narrow interests of our members and not to advance the interests of our schools."

There are good reasons for unions to sound defensive these days. Earlier this month, the worst nightmare of Massachusetts parents came true: the state Board of Education announced that close to 60% of aspiring teachers flunked the state's certification exam in April, the first time it was ever required. Board chairman John Silber, chancellor of Boston University, argued that the results demonstrated the bankruptcy of education schools, the traditional gateway to a teaching credential. "It's simply immoral for schools to graduate students who are not on average more qualified than the students they will be teaching," he says. Representatives of the state's education schools rushed to explain themselves but did little to allay the outrage. "It's not comforting to be the butt of Jay Leno jokes," says Paul Karoff, vice president of Lesley College, which houses Massachusetts' largest education school, "when we're probably performing better than most other states."

As depressing as that sounds, Karoff may be right. Nearly one-third of Virginia's aspiring teachers didn't pass a test of basic skills early this year. A school district in Suffolk County, N.Y., gave teaching applicants an 11th-grade-level reading-comprehension test last July; 75% failed. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, more than 20% of high school teachers don't even have an undergraduate minor in the subject they teach. In California, half of the state's math and science teachers have no background in their field. And 12% of all newly hired teachers enter the classroom without any pedagogical training at all.

Part of the problem is that unlike such professions as law or medicine, there is no uniform, national method for certifying teachers. Says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Columbia Teachers College: "We still have a 19th century model of managing teaching." That's bad news for schools of the 21st century. With a growing number of students projected to enroll in grade schools and high schools, and with politicians slashing class sizes and a generation of teachers on the verge of retiring, American schools face a crunch: they will have to hire as many as 1 million new teachers over the next decade.

That numerical pressure comes at a time when unions are experiencing pressure of a different kind: parents and politicians want them to prove they are willing to root out bad teachers once they get into the schoolhouse. In the past, unions have blunted efforts to loosen tenure laws that make it both time consuming and expensive to fire bad teachers. And they have resisted any moves to pay teachers according to performance rather than seniority. But in some places, that line is beginning to bend. In Douglas County, Colo., teachers' raises and bonuses are determined by a range of performance standards. In Seattle, teachers agreed to let student achievement be a factor in judging their aptitude in the classroom. And they gave up seniority as the main priority in hiring: now a school must consider a teacher's ability first in hiring from another school.

And yet some much advertised union reforms remain cosmetic. Leaders of both unions have embraced "peer review" of teachers, where a new teacher's performance is judged for an entire year by a "consultant teacher." Peer review also seeks to identify and weed out veteran teachers who aren't performing. Feldman calls it "the best kind of teacher evaluation out there," but others call it a sham, designed to give unions even more control over personnel decisions. A handful of districts, taking their cue from the national union leaders, have successfully instituted peer review. But more often, local unions have ignored it. Says California state superintendent Delaine Eastin: "[The unions] do realize the issue of accountability is on the stove, but they want years to pass before we do something."

The unions are dismissive of alternative certification for people who want to teach--liberal arts graduates or people from other industries--without having to acquire teaching degrees. Advocates of alternative certification like Silber push it as a way to increase the number and quality of interested teachers. But while 100,000 teachers have been licensed through alternative programs, union leaders remain cool to the idea: "If John Silber wants to take a job in any school in America, I'll help him get his alternative certification. But this is not how to attract better teachers," says Feldman.

Union leaders, education experts and even some politicians agree on one thing: teachers' salaries need a big boost to attract and retain high-achieving candidates. (On average, first-year teachers make $25,000 a year.) In response to his state's teacher-testing debacle, Massachusetts senate president Thomas Birmingham last week proposed spending $100 million toward giving top college graduates a $20,000 bonus to lure them into teaching. Senator Kerry too called for "raising teacher salaries and paying [them] like professionals." Given the scope of the teaching crisis and the priority voters make of education, politicians of both parties might just agree to throw money at the problem.

--With reporting by James Carney/Washington, Andrew Goldstein/ New York and Richard Woodbury/Denver
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 20, 1998

The Bite On Teachers
Talking Race With The President
Tax Cut For Savers
The Middle East
Love, Valour, Compassion
Glory Raised High By Horns
Notebook


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