Charter Schools, Teach for America, and the De-Professionalization of Teaching

Since 1939, the economy of St. Louis, Missouri, has benefited from a healthy number of job opportunities provided by the aerospace industry. Starting with McDonnell Aircraft, which then became McDonnell Douglas in 1967, and finally Boeing in 1997, aeronautics has brought in a range of talented individuals into the city, including aircraft pilots, aerospace engineers, and machinists who build all of this cutting-edge technology.

The machinists who work at Boeing’s plant in St. Louis are a part of the International Association of Machinists, District 837. This union negotiates on behalf of its workers for wages, periodic wage increases, signing bonuses, health benefits, overtime premiums, safety standards, and pension plans with the Boeing Company. Additionally, the union provides legal aid to workers who may be mistreated by the company in some sort of capacity. To be sure, I don’t have the knowledge to analyze the nature of the IAM’s relationship with Boeing today. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that the machinists who work for Boeing are a critical element in the success of Boeing as a company, and it’s fair to say that the skills these people have developed require years of education, training, and professional development.

But let’s take a step back for just a second. Let’s envision a situation where protests arise against the arrangement between IAM and Boeing. Concerns emerge about the quality of the machinists’ work, the amount of money being paid to them, and Boeing ends up losing out on contracts with various governments and private companies. A wealthy citizen and/or corporation expresses public concerns about the state of the aerospace industry in the United States and argues that the IAM is largely to blame for this sordid state of affairs, going so far as to say that the situation is a threat to national security. Other countries are experiencing tremendous growth in the aerospace industry and are actively looking for more talent to help enhance their own capacity for development in aerospace, this wealthy citizen/corporation argues, and it’s time to reform the system. The wealthy citizen/corporation invests money into a new program named “Build for America,” which aims to create a sort of national machinists corps, a talent base in which to recruit competent machinists. The members of this machinist corps would need no prior experience in manufacturing. All they would need is a college degree and a willingness to work at least two years manufacturing airplanes at the Boeing plant. Once their two years were up these “Build for America” corps members could decide to go back and receive more training in manufacturing, or they could move on to other career endeavors. Leadership at Boeing loves this deal and the amount of money it will save the company, therefore they decide to cut their ties with IAM and create a bargaining agreement in which the wealthy citizen/corporation helps run the “Build for America” program and provide machinist labor for Boeing.

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The situation I’ve just described above, of course, is absolutely ridiculous. While leadership at Boeing may or may not enjoy working with IAM, they realize that the relationship between the company and its labor force is crucial to its success. The machinists who work at Boeing practice a highly specialized craft that requires a lot of talent, experience, and dedication. One cannot simply walk onto this sort of job without any manufacturing experience and master the entire practice of building aerospace technology within two years.

When it comes to teaching and public education, however, the situation I’ve described above captures the essence of the current battle between teachers unions, school administrations, and wealthy education reformers around the United States. Philanthropists like Bill Gates and the Walton family have come out against teachers unions, arguing that these unions are in the business of protecting bad teachers. These bad teachers are the root of public education failures throughout the country; taxpayers spend too much money on education, teachers make too much money for the work they do, and children all over the country drop out of school because the teachers and schools they attended failed them. As Davis Guggenheim suggests in the popular film Waiting for Superman, perhaps the reason public education fails so many students is not because of the struggling families, impoverished communities, and lack of quality jobs that surround these students’ lives, but the teachers themselves and the unions that protect them.

To address these problems, wealthy philanthropists have poured millions into charter schools and programs like “Teach for America,” where recent college graduates with no prior experience in teaching agree to work in impoverished public schools for two years. An implicit assumption made by Gates, the Walton family, et. al., is that teachers somehow have the power to overcome all circumstantial issues outside the classroom and lead their students out of poverty. By getting rid of the teachers unions that promote tenure polices for teachers and protections for teachers who are unfairly accused of misconduct, school administrators will be able to run their schools like businesses, firing the “bad” teachers, hiring “good” ones in their place, and using standardized tests to measure success in the classrooms.  In their attempts to obtain the highest possible test scores for the charter schools, these school administrators have even resorted to “firing” poor performing students. As Diane Ravitch points out, “some charter schools ‘counsel out’ or expel students just before state testing day. Some have high attrition rates, especially among lower-performing students.” Geoffry Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, for example, kicked out his first class of middle school students because they did not meet the test score expectations of the school’s board of trustees.

And now there is news out of Newark, New Jersey, that the state education department is looking into possibly firing upwards of 700 experienced public education teachers from the Newark Public School system and replacing them with more than 300 Teach for America candidates; candidates with no teaching experience and who frequently leave the communities they teach when their terms are up. This possible purge of public education teachers, in my opinion, reflects what Andrew Hartman has pointed out as Teach for America’s “hidden agenda.” Rather than working to fix poverty, segregation, violence, crime, and a myriad of factors outside the classroom, the Charter School/Teach For America/education reform movement incorrectly believes that simply eliminating teachers unions and privatizing education will magically solve the problem of public education in the United States.

Boeing would never fire 700 experienced machinists and replace them with 370 college graduates who lacked any manufacturing skills. So how is it logical to fire 700 experienced teachers and replace them with 370 college graduates who lack any teaching skills? What’s the point of getting a teaching degree?

To be sure, teachers unions’ are not above criticism (look no further than the “Rubber Rooms” controversy in New York City for an example of a ridiculous and wasteful teachers union initiative). But I am tired of reading articles in which teachers–who have spent years getting advanced degrees, gaining experience in the classroom, and investing themselves in the communities where they work–are blamed solely for the education failures of their students. I am tired of wealthy philanthropists and bureaucratic politicians who have never spent a day in a classroom tell teachers that they should be “seen,” but not “heard” when it comes to issues in education. I am tired of seeing laws enacted that make it easier for business leaders who have never spent a day in the classroom to become school superintendents. I am tired of reading articles from teachers who plead with the public not to blame them for the failures of their students because they have no room to actually teach. I think we can do better.

Cheers