Thursday, December 31, 2020

Another Round Of Teacher Bashing

Remember back in the spring (approximately ten years ago in 2020 time), when teachers were hailed as heroes for their tenacity and adaptability? Actually, if you're teacher, what you probably remember is hearing that for what often comes next. And sure enough, here we are.

The attitude bubbles up in lots of outlets, sometimes snide and subvocalized, and sometimes right up in your face. A perfect example of the in-your-faciness would be this piece from the very right-tilted Foundation for Economic Education. FEE never met a union that it liked, and the subheading of this article perfectly summarizes the unfortunately-not-unpopular idea they're selling about unions and teachers:

Their willingness to put children last and fight to keep schools closed has proven once and for all that teachers’ unions do not, in fact, have kids’ best interests at heart.

The argument is composed of just a few simple parts.

First, the assertion that it's settled science ("one of the first things we learned" says FEE) that Covid doesn't kill kids and that kids don't transmit it. But there's nothing settled about that science. Here's the CDC in August of this year:

Children are at risk for severe COVID-19. Public health authorities and clinicians should continue to track pediatric SARS-CoV-2 infections. Reinforcement of prevention efforts is essential in congregate settings that serve children, including childcare centers and schools.

As with everything else about the virus, there's a wide range of data out there. The science seems to land on something along the lines of "You can re-open school buildings, if we take proper precautions, including masking, distancing, good ventilation, and regular testing, and all of that only if community spread is largely under control." Teachers recognize this unfortunate construction from other sentences like "You can properly support all students with special needs, if Congress fully funds the IDEA that requires you to do so." Conditional "if" clauses have a tendency to vanish in education, and so all sorts of folks have shortened. "You can get back into the building if we give you the necessary support and resources" to "You can get back into the building." 

But the second part of FEE's argument (and that of many others) is that it's strictly teacher unions that are holding up the opening of buildings. Never mind that many non-union charter and private school buildings are closed, that school buildings are closed in states where unions have been effectively neutered, that school buildings are closed in other countries, and that many districts have closed buildings without even talking to their teachers or unions. Somehow, it's those damned teachers and their unions.

FEE uses New York City schools as their prime example, and I'm not diving down that hole because, in general, New York City schools and the New York City union are not examples of anything except themselves. The district is large and lots of media and policy folks live there, and so we hear a lot about them as if they represent national trends. FEE is also headed in its usual direction, which is to plug charter schools and they do so with vigor and the usual rack of charter fallacies.

They also skip one of the other usual features, which is to point out all the other professions that are also facing the pandemic, which is true enough, though one might well ask why so many people are being required to choose between their livelihoods and their health. Our whole response has been very US style; as with universal health care and gun violence, we insist that what we're doing is the best that could possibly be done while the rest of the world just goes ahead and does better. 

But I digress.

The level of bash, of demeaning insult, in this "selfish teachers close our schools" argument is huge. Because there are only a couple of possible explanations for the picture critics like FEE paint:

Teachers are stupid people who don't understand the settled science.

Teachers are stupid and also lazy people who went into teaching hoping they would have to never actually work and the pandemic shut-downs are their idea of a gift from God, and they want to stretch out this paid vacation for as long as possible.

Teachers are big fat liars who are pretending not to understand the settled science so they can milk the taxpayers while providing nothing in return.

Teachers should be martyrs who want to give up their entire lives for their students, and if they don't want to do that (or, incidentally, want to be well-paid for it), they're lousy teachers and terrible human beings.

Note that all of these include the assumption that distance learning is a big fat vacation. Also, people who chose teaching as their life's work don't actually want to teach. Also, as FEE makes explicit, teachers do not have students' interests at heart. They don't care about the kids at all (which adds to the assumption of their stupidity, because if you don't care about children, teaching seems like a pretty dumb career choice, but hey--maybe you became a teacher because you couldn't manage a real job). 

There are just so many, many layers of insult and bashing here. And trying to pass it off as "Well, we're just targeting the unions; I'm sure individual teachers are delightful" doesn't cut it. 

Of course, there is an alternative explanation for how teachers and their unions have been behaving during the pandemic.

It's possible that teachers, like other citizens, are unsure about what is true about the virus and what is not. And it is possible that in that context, teachers (like other citizens) have concerns about ending up struggling with severe illness, permanently disabled, or dead. It is possible that they've noticed things like the high transmission danger of doing things like sitting down together for an unmasked meal, spending extended periods of time in close proximity, and being cooped up together in a place with poor ventilation--all regular features of a teacher's day. It's possible that they know that pandemic distance learning is a dreadful model that requires twice the work with half the results (it's even likely that they knew this before all the kibitzers chimed in). 

And given the number of teachers in the country, it's possible that the teaching corps includes te same range of opinions as the general public--everything from "this is an overblown fake" to "I'm still bleaching all my packages." Which means that union leaders are hard-pressed to represent all of their local members.

"Schools should be fully open in person right now and the only thing keeping buildings closed are those damned selfish teaches" may be a statement that comes out of frustration, or it may just be another chance to hammer home the same old anti-union message. But it's not an accurate reflection of reality, and it's more teacher bashing, because there's no reading of this statement that isn't insulting. Worse than that, it gets in the way of a useful conversation about how to achieve what everyone--including and especially teachers and their unions--wants, which is to get the buildings open and the students back in them--safely--as soon as is safely possible. 

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