By Margaret Szczykutowicz
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
School may be out for the summer, but education issues don't go on vacation. Recently, newspapers and opinion leaders have on Wisconsin citizens to forget the bad blood created in the recall movement and restore their respect for public school teachers. I agree. The time has come for respect to return to the teaching profession. The burden for this change in attitude, however, lies not with the public at large, but with the teachers themselves.
It is often said that respect is not given, but earned. Beginning in February 2011, teachers and teacher unions in Wisconsin lost the respect of many by engaging in illegal sick-out activities, knowingly accepting forged medical excuses for said activities, using instruction time to promote personal political beliefs, and changing the definition of democracy to mean uncivil discourse and expensive re-dos on recent and fair elections.
Although this did much to erode the public's respect for teachers and teacher unions, it turns out that the level of respect wasn't all that high to begin with. A new poll from Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next found that the share of Americans with a positive view of teachers unions fell from 29% last year to 22% this year. Not even a third of Americans respected teacher unions in the first place.
Why such a lack of respect for the work of teachers and teacher unions? It is because, even before 2011, public school teachers had done little to earn it. In Wisconsin and other states, taxpaying citizens watched teacher union power grow, school spending increase, and education outcomes flat line. From 1960 to 2009, the share of unionized teachers doubled to 70%, with unionized teachers making 40% more in pay and benefits than nonunionized teachers. This contributed to a more-than-doubling on public education expenditures in the same period. Scores in math and reading, unfortunately, haven't improved with the increase in union power or taxpayer spending. In short, over two-thirds of Americans do not respect teachers because teachers are not doing a good job teaching.
At this point, most people are quick to disclaim that not all teachers are bad at their jobs and teachers cannot be held responsible for larger societal problems which affect education outcomes. I'll make that disclaimer, I suppose, but I have to admit I'm getting tired of the excuses. Doctors are held responsible for their patients, even if their patients' lifestyle choices are what caused health failure in the first place. Many lawyers only expect a payday when they've won the case. In my own teacher education program I was taught to think of myself as a professional, on the same level as a doctor or a lawyer. These professions earn our respect because they demand study, hard work, integrity, and a high level of achievement. I was trained to think that teaching required the same.
The evidence, though, is overwhelmingly to the contrary. For decades teacher unions have demanded higher pay and benefits for results which would land a physician in a malpractice suit (where he or she had better hope for a good lawyer). In the last year-and-a-half, teacher unions in Wisconsin sided with the blue fist of labor, glorifying themselves as "working people" rather than highly competent professionals while behaving less like mature working people and more like petulant children. Yes, respect for teachers may be at an all-time low. But they earned it.
Pleas for respect for teachers will fall on deaf ears if teachers themselves do nothing to make the public change their mind. Perhaps teachers will never embrace Act 10, but demonstrating courtesy and flexibility towards taxpayers could go a long way towards restoring a civil relationship between educators and the public. Perhaps teachers will always embrace public schools, but recognizing that private and charter schools are effective alternatives for some students and families could go a long way towards strengthening the public's belief that teachers actually care about students. Perhaps teachers cannot be held completely responsible for academic disappointments, but to see them own up to their share of the problem, namely, perpetuating a system which has failed so many, could go a long way towards reversing the negative images of teachers held by many.
If teachers want to be seen as professionals, they have to act like professionals. Study, hard work, integrity, and achievement are the hallmarks of a professional. If teachers hope to be treated with respect, that seems like a good way to earn it.