There may be no more vilified profession in our culture these days than teachers. It’s quite a comedown: Teachers once were the immaculate Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love, or the avuncular Gabe Kaplan in Welcome Back, Kotter—selflessly devoted, connecting with kids who’d be lost without them. Today, the most compelling image of a New York teacher is the rubber room—those holding areas where teachers wallowed at full salary for months or years waiting to hear charges against them. The rubber rooms went away last week, but the image of a lazy, entrenched, union-coddled no-show employee endures—this for one of the most demanding, socially valuable professions there is. How did this happen?
The decline of the teacher is a story of class struggle and political overreaching—and of a reform movement loaded with equal parts good intentions and hubris. Not so long ago, in New York, the United Federation of Teachers filled a power vacuum: Thanks to the decentralization of the schools in the early seventies, the chancellor was effectively independent from the mayor, but his principals couldn’t make a move without deferring to the superintendents, who needed the union’s OK to make major decisions. The mayor needed the UFT, too, for political purposes. So for years, the mayor would blame the schools’ problems on the chancellor, and the UFT would play both sides. Back in 1973, Woody Allen in Sleeper learned that civilization was destroyed when “a man named Albert Shanker,” then the UFT president, “got hold of a nuclear warhead.”
Then came Mike Bloomberg, who, with help from Albany, made the chancellor his employee and immediately set about blaming everything wrong with the schools on the teachers. “No group operates without management,” Bloomberg crowed in 2003. “That’s been one of the problems—they never had any. It’s a world where they’re much more socialistic. Until it comes to contract time, in which case they’re the ultimate capitalists.” Bloomberg’s chancellor, Joel Klein, got teachers’ pay tied to test scores in exchange for pay raises. He shut down entire schools to start over with new teachers (something a state court blocked last week). He hired over 10,000 new administrators, reading and math coaches, and statisticians, while the number of classroom teachers shrunk by 1,600. The mayor’s reforms have been mixed and inconclusive, though test scores have been encouraging. The union, maybe out of self-defense, became the only force questioning some of the more haphazard aspects of his reform strategy. In some eyes, that made teachers seem like an obstacle.
Then a funny thing happened. Klein’s talking points went national, first with No Child Left Behind, then with Obama’s Race to the Top program, which calls for lifting the cap on charter schools and tying teacher evaluations closely to standardized tests. Today, merit pay and tenure challenges top the school-reform agenda; even Newsweek recently concluded that the main problem with schools is that bad teachers can’t be fired. Not everyone agrees, of course. “What if they said the problem with our health-care system is bad doctors?” says Leonie Haimson, head of the parent-advocate group Class Size Matters. “The teachers are scapegoats, the media is jumping on this as an easy answer, and it shows an incredible lack of understanding of what’s happening in schools.”
Locally, things have been so bad for teachers that in February, UFT chief Michael Mulgrew floated a theory he had that every time there was bad schools news to report, a story about a rogue teacher (like those lesbians caught making out in Brooklyn) would curiously find its way into the tabloids to distract the public. “We’re not that good,” responded the Department of Education spokesperson. But they don’t have to be now. The teachers are trapped. The more they defend themselves, the more recalcitrant they seem. It’s permanent detention.