“Bad Teachers” Are Not the Problem; Its the Ones Who Won’t Elevate Their Game


Groping for Answers

Teacher Unions, their spokes people and arch defenders, like Randi Weingarten, Michael Hiltzik, and Diane Ravitch, consistently paint cartoonish pictures of their opponents in the school wars. They create straw men, then lampoon and pick them apart. Not an unusual tactic in verbal warfare.

Granted, the Teacher Union critics are not always clear about what they mean by “underperforming teachers;” or by using standardized tests to determine student proficiency; and further using them to (help) evaluate teachers. The advocates of these reforms do leave themselves open to criticism by virtue of incomplete staff work.

But taken together, the larger problem is Teacher Unions (and their supporters) too often saying and doing whatever it takes to preserve their power, with (seemingly) little regard for the consequences.  As I elaborate later on, this not only harms poor kids attending failing schools, but also undermines worthy and critical efforts to revive private sector labor unions. The Union movement is in deep trouble if has to depend on Teacher Unions to win back hearts and minds.

Here is my sense of how the Teacher Unions characterize (and caricature) their critics by putting words in their mouths. This is essentially what the opponents are accused of saying about teacher competence, student testing, and teacher evaluation; these are the straw men.

1. Regarding “bad teachers:”  “There are lots of ‘bad teachers. Tenure and other obstacles to removing them are the main reason why kids aren’t learning.

2. Regarding student testing “We need to test kids frequently (all the time, day in and day out) with simplistic, easily scored multiple choice tests that probe competencies not even in the curriculum.”

3. Regarding Test Scores and Teacher Evaluation: The student tests need to be the main method (yea, the only one) for evaluating teachers. Forget other considerations. And when a teacher’s kids score low, the teacher needs to be fired, as soon as possible.

How many critics of the Union policies really say or believe those things?  Almost none, outside the toxic blogs and propaganda radio talk shows. But to listen to Union reps, you would think school reformers, like Education Secretary Duncan, LA School Superintendent Deasy, or former LA Mayor Villaraigosa really believe or say these things?

Would they really like to see teachers just “teaching to the test?”  Or principals using only test scores to summarily fire teachers?  Or the architects of teacher evaluation methods ignoring student income, social factors, dysfunctional families, disruptive students, parental apathy, drug abuse,  and behavior problems the kids bring to school these days?  Is there anyone anymore who doesn’t understand that teachers today have to deal with vastly different challenges than Our Miss Brooks faced?

Sure, my own depiction of the cartoons Teacher Unions draw to characterize their opponents, are also caricatures to some degree.  But, take the time to read Ravitch and Hiltzik, two of the smartest and best credentialed representatives of the Union perspective, or listen to Weingarten, head of the national Teachers’ Union, and you’ll see that my satire is not too far off.  When teachers stoop to radio talk style assaults, we’ve done another form of  “destroying the village to save it.”

(BTW, Teacher Unions have been fighting local communities since at least the legendary 1968 school teachers strike in New York brought the City to the brink of civil war. That’s where Woody Allen’s great line about Albert Shanker, the Teacher Union head in that conflict, came from.  In Sleeper, one of Woody’s early, funny (not morose) films, Woody’s character, Miles, , was asked  “How did the world come to an end?”.  Miles answered: “They gave Albert Shanker the bomb”).

There isn’t the space here to fully address all the straw men Teacher Unions erect to attack education reforms. But I will say more about the so called “bad teacher” argument.

What the “bad teacher” argument is really about is not “incompetent” or “malfeasant” or “lazy” teachers, as Weingarten would have us believe.  Rather, it’s about teachers who can’t or won’t step up to dealing with the new (not really new, anymore) hand they’ve been dealt in public education. And the encouragement that this passive (aggressive) attitude receives from the Teacher Unions.

The teaching profession today needs people with the same zeal, energy, grit and commitment of the young peace corps volunteers of the 1960s or the 55+ senior corps volunteers of today.

Teaching today is not for the feint of heart or for folks who just want to mail it in. To listen to Weingarten, you’d think teachers are the only ones who have to struggle every day in their work to move the needle a bit, or who have to fight each day to get their basic job done. What do you think most workers face in their daily lives?

Of course students today are bringing problems and issues to the classroom that Our Miss Brooks never saw. Everyone agrees with Weingarten on that.  (Duh!) Where a growing number of people profoundly disagree, is with her near abject refusal to have teachers bear any responsibility for the solution…….unless, of course, they receive more money, smaller class sizes, more pre and after school and summer programs, higher teacher salaries, more paid time for professional development, “relief” from any form of objective/rigorous student testing, and certainly an exemption from being evaluated by someone else’s measures.  What a radical idea!

The problem isn’t with bad, incompetent, malfeasant, or lazy teachers; it’s with teachers who just can’t or won’t elevate their game; and Unions which plant and nurture these attitudes.

This is a really dreadful and non productive situation.  It has already split liberal democrats and made anti (teacher) union bed fellows out of liberals and conservatives. That’s really bad for teachers (and education) in the long run, because teachers do need to have a big voice in education decisions. And it’s even worse for efforts to resurrect unions in the private sector.

A perhaps unlikely quote from Albert Shanker (believe it or not) which eerily foreshadowed today’s situation.  Randi Weingarten, take heed:

“It’s dangerous to let a lot of ideas out of the bag, some of which may be bad. But there’s something that’s more dangerous, and that’s not having any new ideas at all at a time when the world is closing in on you.” (Albert Shanker Speech to the AFT QuEST Conference, 1985)




6 thoughts on ““Bad Teachers” Are Not the Problem; Its the Ones Who Won’t Elevate Their Game

  1. Stephen Glucoft


    IRV-PLEASE Put together a blog on these Supreme Court Rulings on Contraceptives and UNIONS-would be most appreciated at least on my end!!

    As always hope this finds you in good health.

    Cousin Stephen


  2. Kurt

    I think the inability of unions to reform and modernize their antique model is a major contributor to the problem. They’re losing support from moderates and centralists because of not being able to create a modern, germane operating model.


  3. Irv Lefberg

    Kurt, I agree. It’s a big and continuing problem. The “worker council” approach which both workers and one of the foreign auto companies wanted to try in Tennessee or SC is promising. Lawmakers prevented it from happening.


  4. Alex MacLachlan

    Irv, great piece. You have effectively described the attitude that frustrates most of us about big bloated bureaucracies, independent and governmental. They got their power, they got their salaries and pensions, they got their policies implemented to guarantee income for life, and they will fight like dogs to protect the STATUS QUO on everything they’ve created for themselves.


  5. Irv Lefberg

    Thanks for comment, Alex. If you haven’t seen Sleeper (and heard the Shanker line) , it’s a classic. Old old movie , before Woody got all serious and philosophic with us. My favorite Woody line: when asked to pose the solemn four questions (as a child on Seder night, during ceremony), Woody asks: “What’s the capital of South Dakota?” (I have no idea whether he’s a pervert or not, but is/was funny. He also said that after he first heard the planet Earth would die in 50 billion years, he couldn’t sleep for two weeks :). These lines were from old Ed Sullivan show routines.


  6. alex maclachlan

    I don’t think I have seen that movie but will keep an eye out. Yeah, unfortunately, you have to catch genius in a bottle when most comedians are young, hungry, and with an inferiority complex. Then they get money and fame and it all changes (most of the time)



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