Teachers Are the Wrong Target

When I was a school board member, I twice led negotiations with our teachers union. They were tough, and sometimes bitter, to the point that a mediator finally had to be brought to the table to get us talking on the same wave length. The issues, of course, were salary, benefits and working conditions on the teacher side, and costs and taxes on the board’s.

The teachers used all the standard tactics including picketing and coming en masse to our school board meetings, making statements to loud applause and then walking out while we continued to conduct the board’s business.

Despite those efforts, despite the bitterness, our board held tight to one important thought: the reason our school district was outstanding was because we had the best teachers. And so, no matter what the provocation, no matter how outrageous we considered the demands or the tactics, never once did a single member of our board or administration attack the teachers or suggest that any were doing less than their best to help and educate our students.

Today, it seems, many people, especially my favorite targets, congressmen, governors and politicians of all stripes who insist they know how to make education better, have made teachers the target of their attack. Some may truly believe that poor teachers are to blame for weaknesses in America’s public education system, but for most of the political types, the real purpose is to end tenure and reduce pension plans that have made it possible for good teachers to remain in the profession throughout their careers. Since in many states most of those plans and benefits were negotiated by teacher unions, the unions themselves — and the process of collective bargaining — are the targets. 

A few administrators and board members to whom I have spoken recently seem happy that someone else is tangling with teachers and weakening their bargaining power. If teachers and their unions are on the defensive, if laws can be passed to circumvent their pensions and health plans, these people reason, they’ll be able to take advantage of that in bargaining with their own teachers. It is a dangerous tactic that is going to backfire. It will not improve teaching or schools but instead will cause the very best of our teachers to leave the profession altogether.

That’s not just speculation. A survey of American teachers, conducted by MetLife, showed that teacher job satisfaction has dropped 15 points since 2009, when 59 percent of teachers surveyed indicating they are “very satisfied” in their jobs, to just 44 percent today — the lowest level in 20 years. Twenty-nine percent of teachers say they are very likely or fairly likely to leave the profession, up from just 17 percent three years ago. In six years, the percentage of teachers who do not feel their jobs are secure has risen from eight to 34 percent. 

It would be nice if all the teachers who feel their jobs are threatened, or who are thinking about quitting, were the ones the politicians call “bad,” but the likelihood is that many of them are the very best teachers — the ones who have the skills and the confidence to test themselves in other professions where, perhaps, the pressures, internal and external, are less onerous.

That MetLife survey had some other interesting, and disturbing, numbers. Consider the following.
  • Two-thirds of teachers report that their school had layoffs of teachers or other staff, including 44 percent who reported layoffs of classroom teachers. In addition, 53 percent report that reassignment of teachers and staff has increased during the past year. 
  • More than one-third (36 percent) of teachers report reduction or elimination of programs in arts or music in the last year, presumably to allow increased time for teaching to the standardized tests. Physical education was reduced, according to the teachers, in 12 percent of their schools.  
  • A majority of teachers (63 percent) report that class sizes have increased in the past year.
  • One-third (34 percent) of teachers report that educational technology and learning materials have not been kept up to date, and 21 percent report that school facilities have not been kept in clean or good condition in the last year.
Deteriorated facilities. Lack of technology. Shutting down of classes in art, music and physical education. Crowded classrooms and reassigned duties. Layoffs right down the hallway. That’s what’s happening in too many public schools today.

But let’s not focus on those realities when we evaluate our schools and wonder why education results are better in other nations. Instead, let’s go after teacher pensions and tenure. That’s what will improve our education system… I don’t think so! 

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, and educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEFPI's 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."