Lawyers Run the Legal Profession. Doctors Run the Medical Profession. Why Don’t Teachers Run Education?

I’m fed up with the inefficiency of the judicial system! I’m going to become a judge. I may not be a lawyer, but I’ve been a law-abiding citizen all my life, I mean, how hard could it be? I have 20 years of business experience in the TV industry. When I blow into the courtroom demanding accountability, I am going to shake things up! Who needs legal experience when you understand the bottom line?

Wait—no. I’m going to be Surgeon General. Sure, I’m not a doctor, but I’ve seen a million of them!  You should have seen the pair of “specialists” who nearly killed my grandma. It’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and set some standards. Patients first, dammit!

No, you know what? I think I’m going to be a Rear Admiral in the Navy. I grew up right near Lake Michigan, a large body of water, and with my business experience…

Okay, all of these ideas are preposterous. Common sense and business savvy are no substitute for a lifetime of training and expertise. What’s crazy, though, is that in education, the opposite view prevails. I cannot think of another profession in which major policies are set by people with little or no experience in the field. Look at who’s driving education policy these days: Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Wendy Kopp. None of them has ever been a teacher. Three years ago, I participated in a roundtable discussion led by one of the U.S. Department of Education’s Deputy Secretaries. His years in the classroom? Same as everybody else high up in the DOE: zero. He had an extensive background in…improv theater. That was gonna be your next guess, right?

The Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, who is continually testifying that he has evidence that it doesn’t matter how many children you pack into a classroom because an “effective” teacher will just keep raising test scores, has never spent even a single day facing down a classroom of squirmy, perspiring, cranky, hormonal children. The Broad Residency, which places people with business backgrounds in administrative positions at urban schools and state departments of education, does not require any classroom experience. In our era of rampant teacher layoffs, TFA’s entire raison d’etre is based on the belief that an energetic person of no experience from an elite university is better than an experienced teacher who, implicitly, is regarded as burned out and, well, less elite.

And, in case you’ve been under a rock for the last two years, the Common Core standards were developed by a consortium of 60 people that included only one teacher.

Why do teachers have so little voice in our profession? I suspect it’s a relic from pre-feminist days when teachers were young women who took low pay and unprofessional working conditions that most men with post-college degrees would find unacceptable.  The image of teachers is still suffused with a sexist disdain that regards working with children as inherently demeaning. To this day, a surprising amount of a teacher’s labor is menial: photocopying, creating filing systems, secretarial low-level grading, picking up students’ garbage, moving furniture and an absolutely mind-numbing assortment of mechanical procedures that, depending on where you work, may dictate everything from how your students enter your room to how and where you write on your whiteboard. There is no career path. There is no incentive for receiving an advanced degree in your field. Because of the overwhelming class load, there is no time in the work day for study, reflection or collaboration with colleagues on anything other than how to handle the fallout from the most recent state-mandated change in standards.

Teachers are not victims here. We need to start demanding professional working conditions, professional pay and power in policy decisions. The real work of teaching is creative, challenging and rewarding. It is enormously complex, as complex as every student in the classroom, and teachers need to demand the respect we deserve for mastering this work. But as a country we need to treat teachers as people whose experience we trust and whose wisdom we seek. Real education reform starts with valuing teachers. If we want to improve the quality of our nation’s teaching, let’s listen to the seasoned experts who are actually in practice.

This post originally appeared in LA School Report.


8 thoughts on “Lawyers Run the Legal Profession. Doctors Run the Medical Profession. Why Don’t Teachers Run Education?”

  1. Absolutely. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times– we have less control over our profession than any other professional group.

    1. Thanks for the support! I’ve come to believe that the single most important educational reform we need is teacher empowerment. Until teachers have professional working conditions–conditions that include the time and resources we need to meet the needs of our students, as well as the support that frees us to be innovators who drive change–any effort to recruit or retain so-called “effective” teachers won’t be successful for long. Every teacher I’ve talked to who plans to leave the profession in the next few years, which is the majority of teachers I know, cites unsustainable working conditions as the main thing driving them from the classroom.

  2. Why do teachers have so little voice in our profession? Here are more thoughts:

    – We get an over-exaggerated sense from the media about negative things that happen in schools. They report Miramonte over and over (and yes, that was horrible and yes there are other horrible stories out there). But they never report things like “Teacher holds tutoring session on Saturday!” or “Teacher skips lunch to console crying teen who has emotionally abusive parent!”

    – So the above becomes the perception of what happens all over the place in schools. There’s this thought that they’re bastions of laziness and ineptitude. “That would never happen where I work in the private sector!”

    – 90% of us also attended public schools for 13 years or so, so we have a lot of experience as students. (emphasis on as students)

    – Then you get some good well meaning people (others not well meaning) who say, “I need to fix this!” So then they go into education to “fix” it, many with the worldview of “I’m smart, successful, and have experience leading. Education doesn’t have people like me. So let me show them the way!” Then you get stories like what happened in Newark with Zuckerberg, Booker, Christie, Anderson – note they’re liberal and conservative:
    Some might say they weren’t well meaning, but I give them the benefit of the doubt that they all were.

    – This falls apart because it’s just basic bad leadership. For any leader, if you go into an organization managing people with a certain disdain for the people you’re leading, I don’t think you’ll get better results. Yeah, I know, a lot of these people going into education say they love teachers but hate the system, the status quo, the bastions of bureaucracy. But then they implement ideas that alienate the teachers.

    Let me share a story:
    I remember my first year teaching Geometry I had a student (HS) who could subtract 7 – 4 correctly. I showed a problem where there was a 7 inch stick next to a 4 inch stick, and it was shown on a diagram. The student had to infer from that picture that there was a 3 inch difference. She could not. I did everything possible, redrawing things, cutting out paper, making two sticks. She just didn’t understand it until about 15 minutes in. 15 minutes! Don’t forget I had around 150 students that year (and that’s low these days).

    The popular ideas in education these days don’t help me with this stick problem I had teaching. Finding an easier way to fire me, finding a way for my District to layoff not only the youngest students, giving me a financial bonus, getting rid of my union, closing my school, parent triggering my school, testing my students to hold me accountable, comparing my students’ multiple choice exam scores to my colleagues’ scores…all of this doesn’t help me with the stick problem. A lot of these ideas make me feel like I’m being yelled at for not being able to get this student to understand that a 7 inch stick is 3 inches longer than a 4 inch stick. I admit some of these reforms are worth pursuing, but it’s absent and far removed from the reality of the classroom.

    I’ll sum up all of the above:
    Smarts + Power + Inexperience in Education + Lack of Humility = disaster

  3. I see your point, but to be fair, in my opinion both the medical and legal systems in the United States are disasters! The paragraph following the question “Why do teachers have so little voice in our profession?” is excellent, though. I also feel justified for refusing to apply to TFA after I graduated.

  4. After having been an educator for over 40 years (with some time off to work in the business world), I agree with this article. My only question is: So, what can we do about it? I thought that’s what our unions were supposed to be for, but our union is so busy working with teachers who need a voice to help them speak with administrators that the union has little time to work with education reform on a higher level. Who can we contact at a higher level to let our opinions be known – the state Commissioners of Education? Really? Do you have a suggestion about who needs to be contacted?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s