necessary commonplace: Almost everyone we know has been turned around, or at least seriously shaken, by a teacher—in college, maybe, but often in high school, often by a man or a woman who drove home a point or two about physics, literature, or ethics, and looked at us sternly and said, in effect, You could be more than what you are. At their best, teachers are everyday gods, standing at the entryway to the world. If they are fair and good, they are possibly the most morally impressive adults that their students will ever know. For a while, they are the law, they are knowledge, they are justice.
Everyone celebrates his or her personal memory of individual teachers, yet, as a culture, we snap at the run-down heels of the profession. The education reporter Dana Goldstein, in her book “The Teacher Wars,” published in 2014, looks at American history and describes a recurring situation of what she calls “moral panic”—the tendency, when there’s an economic or social crisis, to lay blame on public-school teachers. They must have created the crisis, the logic goes, by failing to educate the young.
We have been in such a panic for more than a decade, during which time the attacks on public-school teachers have been particularly virulent. They are lazy, mediocre, tenaciously clinging to tenure in order to receive their lavish pay of thirty-six thousand dollars a year (that’s the national-average starting salary, according to the National Education Association). As Goldstein put it, “Today the ineffective tenured teacher has emerged as a feared character, a vampiric type who sucks tax dollars into her bloated pension and health care plans, without much regard for the children under her care.” Because of this person, we are failing to produce an effective workforce; just look at how badly we’re lagging behind other nations in international standardized tests. Our teachers are mediocre as a mass; we have to make a serious effort to toss out the bad ones before they do any more damage. And so on. It’s not just Republicans who talk this way. Democrats, too, are obsessed with ridding the system of bad teachers. From the President on down, leaders have been demanding “accountability.”