Parents Question Journalists , Teacher Unions

Two frustrated questions at a recent Stillwater “Conversation in the St. Croix Valley” community meeting mirrored each other.  One came from a parent of a teacher.  The other came from a senior citizen, also a parent.  Together, they help illustrate two passionate, opposite polls in our national debate about improving schools.
            One person identified herself as the mother of a teacher working with special needs students.  She asked, “What can be done about the constant attack in the news media on teachers? It’s very demoralizing.”
            Last week I mentioned a national poll published by Met Life Insurance showing that teacher job satisfaction has dropped 18 points since 2008, to the lowest level in more than twenty years.    Some teachers write to me and affirm what this poll found…many teachers feel under attack.
            Yes, there is criticism.
            But any fair description of how newspapers and television depict teachers would find a variety of stories, not just “a constant attack.” Journalists also describe outstanding work that students and teachers are doing.  There is coverage of award-winning teachers.   It’s not all negative.
            There is a big disconnect between what some educators and many journalists see as the responsibility of the news media. Over the last forty years, I’ve learned that some educators think the job of the news media is to promote local schools.
            Many journalists quote a Chicago writer named Finley Peter Dunne.   He believed newspapers “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  While I understand some educators’ frustration with criticism sometimes found in a paper, I think that IS part of what journalists should be doing.  The other side is that journalists should, and often do, report on progress, and accomplishments.   But there is not room or time to cover every event, every potentially interesting story.
            This brings us to the second speaker at the Stillwater meeting.  He asked what could be done about the constant teacher union opposition to needed reforms.
 I responded that I think, again, the picture is more complicated.  Some unions and their leaders have strongly supported changes that produced progress.  I’ve written before about the successful effort in Cincinnati (district) public schools to close graduation gaps between white and African American students, and students from low and middle income families.  The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers was a strong supporter of these efforts.
            Closer to home, I know of unions who have recommended laws, allowing, for example, site governed public schools, new approaches to teacher training that make better use of the most effective k-12 teachers in our schools, and more support for high quality early childhood programs.
            But statewide teacher unions and some local unions in Minnesota also have opposed programs like Post Secondary Option, open enrollment and chartered public schools.
            In both instances – coverage of teachers and impact of teacher unions, I think the picture is more mixed than sometimes described.
            What’s best for students? Recognizing we won’t always agree, I think students gain and schools improve when we acknowledge good work that is being done, along with mistakes that have made and problems that need attention.
Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,jnathan@macalester.edu
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