Lori Manz, who is normally a curriculum specialist in the Teaching and Learning Department at the Ocean View School District, substitute teaches in a 7th grade math class at Vista View Middle School in Huntington Beach, Calif. on Thursday, January 20, 2022. (Photo: Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Four Decades of Attacking Teachers Is Destroying Public Education

The most important factor driving teachers out of the classroom is a morale crisis.


Kansas is facing the worst teacher shortage in the state's history. In Florida, school districts must try to fill some 9,000 job openings, just as students are returning to classrooms. And in California, teacher retirements are way up, even as the supply of new teachers has dwindled.

Long before the GOP embarked on its modern-day witch hunt for "woke" teachers, scapegoating teachers for educational inequities was a bipartisan endeavor--one led by Democrats.

It's not hard to see why teachers are in short supply. The pandemic has battered the nation's schools, leaving educators to contend with shifting health protocols, staff shortages and a wide range of student needs. Meanwhile, average earnings have been flat for several decades. Compared with other highly-educated professions, teachers earn far less.

But perhaps the most important factor driving teachers out of the classroom is a morale crisis. Job satisfaction has plummeted as right-wing extremists have depicted teachers as indoctrinators, or worse, "groomers" who prey on children. A growing number of states have adopted educator "gag orders," limiting the discussion of race, racism and LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom. And parent anger at teachers who advocated for school closures and strict COVID mitigation measures has yet to subside.

For teachers, being painted as the enemy isn't just demoralizing. Being publicly demonized also erodes what sociologist Dan Lortie called the "psychic rewards" of the profession, which have long been a significant part of teacher compensation. While educators have never been particularly well-paid, the job has long come with the sense that they were doing something meaningful in their classrooms and for the larger community. Historically, such rewards have appealed to people who care more about doing good in the world than they do about doing well for themselves. The attacks on educators diminish those rewards--the equivalent of a massive pay cut.

Yet as dire as the present moment may seem for the nation's teachers, the decline in psychic pay actually predates both the pandemic and the current culture wars. Long before the GOP embarked on its modern-day witch hunt for "woke" teachers, scapegoating teachers for educational inequities was a bipartisan endeavor--one led by Democrats.

Rhetoric about the nation's schools began to turn negative several decades ago. In 1983, the Reagan administration released its "A Nation at Risk" report, bemoaning a "rising tide of mediocrity" in the schools and establishing a new narrative about public education in the U.S. Although polls indicated that Americans continued to view their own children's schools quite positively, legislation like No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002, was the apotheosis of the "failing schools" narrative. But the war on teachers didn't reach its apex until the Obama years.

Arguing that "America's future depends on its teachers," Barack Obama and his administration became laser-focused on weeding out "ineffective" educators, using student standardized test scores as the key indicator of classroom success. Obama's education chief, Arne Duncan, argued that "bad value-added teachers" were blunting the life prospects of their students and imperiling the nation's ability to keep pace in a global economy. And that view quickly found its way into policy. Incentivized by the Obama administration's Race to the Top fund, nearly every state adopted laws holding teachers accountable for how their students fared on standardized tests. A raft of new measures also weakened their unions.

Research has since found that the drive to weed out "bad" teachers had no impact on student test scores or educational attainment. What it did, instead, was narrow the focus of public education, which became increasingly oriented toward federally-mandated standardized tests. Teacher morale cratered, while harsh anti-teacher rhetoric and the anti-union policies traditionally favored by the right acquired a sheen of bipartisan respectability.

Now we're reaping what was sown. A steady stream of surveys indicates that teachers are eyeing the door. And though research has shown that such threats to leave don't always translate into actual departures, polls point to real dissatisfaction that will have equally real consequences for schools and students. When teachers are stressed out and demoralized, the quality of instruction suffers, as do their relationships with students.

The perception that teaching is an embattled profession is also discouraging prospective teachers. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has declined significantly since 2010--a trend that has only accelerated since the pandemic. Even Teach for America, which places graduates of elite colleges in public school classrooms, has seen a striking decline in applications.

Republicans have responded to teacher shortages by loosening the rules governing who can work in classrooms. In Arizona, teachers no longer need a bachelor's degree, while in Florida, military veterans with high school diplomas are now eligible for a temporary teaching certificate. But such measures are likely to further undermine the teaching profession. Lower credentials, after all, translate into lower pay, while the message that "anyone can teach" further erodes the job's psychic rewards.

Confronting current and looming teacher shortages will require reckoning with the profession's loss of appeal. And there are growing signs that teachers, themselves, are doing just that. Last year saw a surge in collective action, as teachers in California, Minnesota, Illinois, and Massachusetts went on strike. Many more unions authorized walkouts--a trend that is likely to continue as schools reopen. Notably, these teachers cited the urgent need to restore the psychic rewards that had for so long been a core part of educator compensation. As the president of the Minneapolis Teachers Union put it: "You should feel joy at work, you should be proud to be an educator, you should not feel demonized."

However Americans feel about educators and their unions, the inescapable truth is that schools can't function without professional teachers in the classroom. For the past two decades, policy elites have embraced a narrative that frames the interests of teachers as inherently at odds with what is good for young people and society at large. Educators have been scapegoated, villainized, and maligned. Ultimately, however, much of what is good for teachers is also good for students and communities; and abuse of educators, in turn, tends to bleed into schools and neighborhoods.

As the pandemic enters its third year, students are struggling academically and emotionally like never before. And while policy leaders do seem genuinely concerned about meeting the needs of young people who have already lost so much, they are mostly overlooking a simple truth. Supporting students requires valuing the work of their teachers.

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