Educational Leadership Article, February 2014
"Why Does the Public Hate Us?"
The Nation at Risk Report of 1983 ignited a national debate in this country which led to decades and waves of education and school reform, and declining public confidence in public education. By 1995, Berliner and Biddle had documented The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, And by 1999, in the Education Commission of the States report “Americans, Perceptions about Public Education”, while noting that public perceptions about what is wrong with education are complex and, in some case, at odds with the facts, also found that while Americans still trusted teachers, principals and school board members to manage schools, that “that trust is wavering.” Confidence of the public in its public schools has eroded to the point where, by 2012 in that year’s Gallup Poll, public support of public education had slipped below fifty percent. When half of the population reports lower confidence in its public schools, teachers on the front lines feel the backlash. NCLB and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT) have both contributed to the public’s equating “struggling schools” with “failing schools” in the mind of the public—and “failing” teachers.
Gallup Poll “Confidence in the Public Schools”, June 2012
Recent reform efforts in Chicago in response to NCLB and RTTT and other calls for greater accountability have exacerbated the teacher quality and student achievement debate and with it, the morale of its teaching force. Begun by current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2003, school closures and turnarounds of high poverty, struggling (read “failing” schools), policies vociferously opposed by teachers, have been found to be ineffective. According to the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, there is no evidence to show that firing staff and turning schools around works (2009). This study found what urban teachers already knew, that the only true linear relationship in student achievement is the one between poverty and performance. Just this past spring, the Chicago School Board voted to close 50 underperforming (or under-enrolled—a distinction that changed from moment to moment), also opposed by teachers and community groups, the largest effort to close schools in the nation.
In an effort to understand the effects of this diminished public trust and reform policies focused on under-performing schools and the perception of of teacher scapegoating, I developed an email survey of Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers, followed by interviews of 100 teacher-respondents, during the 2011-2012 school year. This was the school year leading up to the first teachers’ strike in Chicago in twenty-five years. Over 2,300 teachers completed the survey, which consisted of both multiple choice and essay questions. In-depth interviews were then conducted with100 teachers who completed the anonymous survey and responded to the researcher’s invitation to voluntarily participate in a follow-up interview. The interviews became the basis of case studies, designed to provide depth and the human side of the survey statistics, as well as anecdotal and illustrative material to support them. The results provide a window into the minds of Chicago public school teachers in the days and months leading up to a ninety percent strike authorization vote and a7-day walkout which captured the attention of the nation (Lynch, 2013).
When asked about the most serious challenges facing them today, the urban teachers in this study reported, for the first time ever, that public perception was their most serious problem. Just as public confidence in public education has dipped below the fifty percent mark for the first time in a quarter of a century, urban teachers reported that that backlash was now their most serious and pressing concern, far more serious than even student behavior and school safety. Public perception ranked at the highest challenge facing teachers, averaging 4.5 on a 5-point scale. This was followed by the Chicago Public School (CPS) mandates teachers are faced with in the post-NCLB?RTTT era (averaging 4.1 out of 5) and the twin concerns of job security and parent involvement (averaging 3.7 each out of 5) in third place. Of the ten items presented in the survey question, however, all items were rated at least as “serious” at 3.0 or higher (see Table 1.2).
What are the most serious challenges facing you as a teacher today?
Please rate from least serious to most serious.
(1 = Not Serious, 2 = Somewhat Serious, 3 = Serious, 4 = Very Serious, 5 = Extremely Serious)
Number of Responses
Teaching to the Test
*The Rating Score is the weighted average calculated by dividing the sum of all weighted ratings by the number of total responses.
In addition to a rating, teachers were encouraged to add comments. Their characterizations of the negative public perception intensity of their reactions to were shocking:
“If we were under any more of an attack, they might as well kill us.”
“It’s demoralizing to see you life’s work pilloried almost daily in the news as the cause of America’s leadership decline and economic collapse.
“We are being used as scapegoats for a lot of problems…nobody can figure out how to solve the problem of poverty, broken families, lack of role models…hard problems to solve and it’s just easier to say that teachers are all bad.”
“If we spend our time reading the news, then (we know) teachers are the most evil people on the planet right now. When talking with friends and others, and discussions go in that direction, you get, ‘What's wrong with these teachers? ‘and I say, ‘Hey, you know I am a teacher, right?’ And they respond, "Well, you're okay, it's the rest of them.’ Well, I am the rest of them.”
“It has gotten to the point where I don’t even tell people I am a teacher anymore?
Now I just say ‘I work with at-risk youth.’ It’s just easier.”
“When and how did we become the enemy? I understood that I was entering a profession with little outward gratitude...but to be beaten back both publicly and by administration as an obstacle to student achievement is grossly inaccurate.”
“I wanted to teach in an inner city school to really help these children. In the past six years I feel unappreciated, battered and watched like prey.”
“When politicians, corporations and the media gang up on you, it is difficult to believe you are anything but the underdog, emphasis on the word dog.”
“We are not the enemy.”
The pain and feeling of betrayal is palpable in these statements. They didn’t
expect great riches, or even gratitude, but blame, derision, questions about their competence and commitment?
Teachers identified CPS mandates as the second most serious challenge facing them today. These mandates included increased testing (“too much, too many, too often”), school accountability pressures (school closings and school turnaround policies which neglected neighborhoods schools and destabilized communities, and the commitment to the expansion of charter schools (also perceived to be at the expense of traditional neighborhood schools and promoted unfair comparisons) .
Survey respondents were also asked about their levels of satisfaction with working conditions such as the level of respect from the principal and district administration, and the level of resources to do their jobs and the sense of community and morale in their schools. Their responses to these issues are presented in Table 1.3.
Teacher Levels of Satisfaction
How would you describe your satisfaction with the following?
(1 = Extremely Unsatisfied, 2 = Unsatisfied, 3 = Neutral, 4 = Very Satisfied, 5 = Extremely Satisfied)
Number of Responses
Level of Respect from the Principal
Level of Respect from CPS leadership
Sense of Community within the School
Your Input in School Decision Making
Your Job Satisfaction
Morale of the Faculty and Staff
Administrative Support for Your Role
Level of Resources to do the Job
Level of Support for Student Discipline
Level of Support from the Teachers' Union
* The Rating Score is the weighted average calculated by dividing the sum of all weighted ratings by the number of total responses
The highest ranked areas of satisfaction were with the level of respect and support from the principal, the sense of community within the school, and job satisfaction. These areas are areas focus in the search for ways to address low morale in public schools, particularly urban schools. Over half of the survey respondents reported that their school’s level of morale was either low or extremely low (see Table 1.4).
Teacher ratings of their school’s level of morale
Please rate your own school’s morale and explain why.
Number of Responses
Ratio of Response
How can low teacher morale be addressed? Many possible avenues for improving morale
emerged from their responses and commentary:
Being heard. The fact that so many teachers responded to the survey was a statement in itself. They explicitly stated that they did so in the hope that someone might listen.
“Hopefully, people will listen and it might effect some change.”
“I was happy to have the opportunity to spout off if someone might actually hear me. Maybe it will help, but if it didn’t, at least I said something.”
“I looked at this (participating) as an opportunity to voice my opinion and get the word out that we need to be heard…I can no longer work for CPS…I want someone to know why teachers are leaving and if it keeps happening we are not going to have a good school system or a productive society.”
“I thought my opinion might be worthwhile to share. It is really important to me to speak out about what it means to be a teacher and what we really do every day. I am very anxious to help because it is the only way we have a voice.”
“Hopefully someone will actually listen to us.”
Being understood. Teacher respondents really wanted the public to know what they do and how much it means to them. They want the public to understand that teaching in urban schools is hard work, but work they chose, they embrace and they love. They want the public to know that, contrary to popular stereotype, the vast majority of their fellow teachers are caring and committed. They want the public to understand that they work long hours and contribute significant amounts of their own money in order to do their best for their students.
“Don’t believe the media. Teaching is rocket science.”
“There is little help from the critics but much critic from people who don’t understand the problems we are faced with.”
“Teaching in urban schools is the hardest, most heartbreaking job…it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.”
Being supported. Teachers want the public to know that they cannot do the job they love so much alone, that they need the support, not derision, of the public and the parents and the communities they serve. They need support from the home and do not blame poverty for low student achievement. They blame a lack of home support, support that is vital to the success of a child. They also need support from the community which many feel has written off poor children
“If it takes a village, then where are the villagers?”
“The lack of support we receive is staggering. It is very easy to condemn teachers but a
lot harder to look at the situation objectively.”
“Our hands are tied when there is no support from home.”
“This is extremely hard work but most of us come ready and prepared for the challenge every day. We aren’t looking for money but we are looking for the support and respect we deserve.”
Being able to teach. With the increased demand for accountability, teachers reported grave concerns over more time on test pre and testing and less time on actual teaching. Increased testing was viewed as the least effective of recent reforms, followed by school closures. They felt there was too much time spent on testing, too many tests being given and given too often. In addition to decrying the time lost to authentic instruction they were concerned about the effects of this incessant testing on their students who they believe are being deprived of meaningful instruction. They were further concerned about the increasing demands to teach to the test which, they report, is taking its toll on the quality and scope of the curriculum. This they believed was an especially egregious injustice to urban children who need a rich, relevant and engaging curricula the most.
“We lose four weeks a year of teaching to actual testing. It’s probably two months if you think of all the preparation and testing…there are only so many times you can say (to the kids) ‘this one really matters”.”
“The amount of testing, so many tests and assessments so that we have no time to teach. And God forbid you be creative.”
“At some point you are overwhelmed by the data and you have little time for instruction…some people estimate that they are doing 60 percent assessment and 40 percent instruction.”
“We no longer have as much autonomy as to how to run our classes and teach our lessons. It’s testing, testing, testing. That is all we do and the students hate it. It takes an enormous amount of time away from teaching and learning.”
“Teaching is the easy part.”
Being respected by their principals and administrators. Though teachers reported that over half of their school’s morale was low or extremely low, they also identified respect from their principals as the factor they were most satisfied with (a 3.2 rating out of five). Teachers who reported being satisfied or extremely satisfied with the level of principal respect and support described their principals as: empowering, encouraging, appreciative, trusting, visionary, concerned, demanding and fair. They stated that these principals: follow through, are open to suggestions and welcome input, have high expectations and hold staff accountable while allowing autonomy. Such principals act as buffers against (sometimes unrealistic) demands of the bureaucracy and make sincere efforts to meet staff needs. They make an effort to keep staff informed and work very hard to provide a positive work environment.
“The only positive aspect about my job is the support of my principal and my colleagues. Without these two things I would have quit by now.”
“My principal is the best I have ever had. She is respectful, thoughtful and very hard working. Almost every decision that is made is based on what is best for the students. You can’t argue with that.”
“It is because of the great rapport and the hard work we do that is backed up by our principal that I don’t go totally crazy with all of the new requirements that are being thrown at us.”
“The administrative support in our building makes me want to go to work in the morning. I know that I have the freedom to support my students in the way I see fit and that my administration values my expertise in teaching.”
Being part of a school with a sense of community. Over and over again, teachers reported that the sense of community in their schools was what kept them going. Feeling besieged and often betrayed by the public and by their own district administration, those lucky enough to work in a school with a real sense of community report it to be a real buffer against hostile forces. Nurturing such a climate of collegiality, a culture of teambuilding and mutual support can moderate some of those perceptions of betrayal and disappointment.
“We’re a family at my school. It makes what comes at us from outside much easier to deal with.”
“Our teachers and staff work as a team…we know how hard the job is and we protect and help one another when things are especially difficult.”
“We know our school is rough and we are working with students who get no support at home. We work to support each other and make our work environment less hostile.”
“If it were not for the camaraderie, the job would be unbearable.”
“With all the attacks on teachers, it has forced us to have a bond with each other, creating a sense of community.”
“My school has a great sense of community because of our shared passion for helping our students in need, but sometimes that camaraderie comes from our shared struggle.”
Being part of the decision making process. On the flip side of being satisfied with the level of respect and support of the principal are those who ascribe their dissatisfaction and low morale to a lack of having any say over their working conditions. Having a say applies at the school district level as well. Teachers do not feel that have a voice in reducing testing demands and resent the “suits” from downtown, many with little or no teaching experience, leaving their air conditioned offices and coming out to their schools periodically to tell them what to do. Teachers also report outrage at the continuing policies to close and turnaround schools despite bother their own vociferous protests and the research coming out of reputable independent organizations such the Consortium on Chicago School Research.
“They lack experience as teachers yet they are dictating how to teach.”
“We don’t feel trusted—or trust—the administration. The staff feels like we have no voice in decision making but are always blamed for everything.”
“The attitude of the school is punitive. This is a bad work environment. The principal is inconsistent and teachers are given a new directive every week.”
“We know how to educate the young. The ‘suits’ downtown seem only interested in the bottom line, not kids. That there are a lot of hard working teachers who make a difference who regret coming into the field of education and will end up leaving the field to be replaced by lesser experienced and less successful teachers.”
Many of the survey respondents were skeptical that this study could make a difference, but they participated, just in case. These urban teachers have insights and experiences that should be the basis for education policy, not completely ignored. They are the resilient ones who show up day in and day out serving society’s most vulnerable and most forgotten children. We ignore their voices at our peril.
Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America's public schools. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.
de la Torre, Marisa and Gwynne, Julia, (2009). When Schools Close: Effects on Displaced Students in Chicago Public Schools. Chicago, IL: Consortium on Chicago School Research, University of Chicago.
Jones, Jeffrey M. (2012). Confidence in U.S. Public Schools at New Low. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/155258/confidence-public-schools-new-low.aspx
Weiss, Suzanne (1999). Americans’ Perceptions about Public Education. Education Commission of the States: Denver, Colorado.
...From Chicago State University
Chicago State University Professor Authors New Book on Teaching in Urban America
for immediate release April 1, 2013
CHICAGO, IL – If the President of the United States, Secretary of Education and other national leaders and decision makers are going to consider policies to strengthen public education, than they need to hear from the very people who are teaching in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods. That is the logic by Chicago State University’s Deborah Lynch, PhD, who has penned “An Open Letter to President Obama: Chicago Teachers Speak Out on Urban Education.”
"For too long others have told the stories of urban teachers,” Lynch said. “In this book, teachers themselves tell of their experiences and perceptions working in urban schools today. They share the stories that have moved them, lessons they have learned, and provide their recommendations for improving urban schools (not closing them), and for closing the seemingly intractable achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. They want to be heard and supported in their vital mission educating children in some of the most challenging communities in America today. These are their stories."
In her new book, Dr. Lynch offers a thoughtful reflection on working in urban schools today, with recommendations from education leaders throughout the country. Lynch surveys thousands of teachers and sits down to interview many more to get a full picture of what educators are facing in the modern day urban school. She draws on the experiences of teachers who often deal with classrooms where 9 out of 10 students are from families below the poverty line to draw conclusions and recommendation on closing performance gaps and reforming public education.
“Dr. Lynch’s fine work is yet another example of the positive impact Chicago State is having on our city and our state,” Dr. Wayne D. Watson, President of Chicago State University added. “Chicago State is unique among public institutions and we are proud to have a diverse and talented faculty who dedicate themselves to influencing public education. Dr. Lynch has done a wonderful job with her new book and she has made the Chicago State family proud.”
Stigma against teachers prompts book from educator
© Copyright 2013, The Beverly Review, Chicago, IL.
Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 9:50 am | Updated: 11:35 am, Tue May 28, 2013.
by Caroline Connors
The current workforce of teachers is among the most experienced and well educated in U.S. history, according to Chicago State University (CSU) Professor Deborah Lynch, Ph.D., yet urban teachers are experiencing a public backlash that has them feeling denigrated and stigmatized.
“Teachers feel like society has turned its back on them,” Lynch said. “They feel that they have been scape-goated and turned into the enemy.”
A Mt. Greenwood native and Chicago Public Schools teacher for 20 years, Lynch said she was concerned about the growing negativity toward her profession and was puzzled by the growing perception that those who serve the city’s neediest and most at-risk students should be replaced with cheaper, less experienced teachers.
To help gain some insight into that question, Lynch, an assistant professor of graduate studies in the CSU College of Education and the president oChicago Teachersf the Chicago Teachers Union from 2001-2004, designed a survey in which teachers could describe their daily challenges, share their reactions to the changing public perception and provide their recommendations for improving and enhancing urban public education.
The response to the survey was so great, Lynch said, that she decided to compile the information into a book. Thus, “An Open Letter to President Obama: Chicago Teachers Speak Out on Urban Education” was written with the help of more than 2,000 teachers who responded to the survey and more than 100 teachers who agreed to tell their stories in one-on-one interviews.
Completed last year, the book “highlights what was in their minds leading up the [Chicago Teachers Union] strike” in 2012, Lynch said, and allows teachers the forum to share their stories in a “cry for understanding.”
“It’s an opportunity to shine a light on their jobs and humanize them so that maybe there will be some greater public awareness and understanding,” Lynch said. “With 225 schools that have a poverty rate of 95 percent or higher, simply calling for teachers to work harder or blaming teachers for low performance is unfair.”
While conducting her research, Lynch said, the overwhelming majority of teachers cited public perception as their number-one concern.
“They are beyond hurt; they’re devastated,” Lynch said. “Some actually compared the way they are being treated to the way veterans were treated when they returned from Vietnam to the U.S. They’re shell-shocked; they have answered a call to their country and are now considered the enemy.”
Lynch said she believes a “perfect storm” of politics is to blame for the phenomenon. Many teachers, she said, also believe that the media has “bought into” the news releases from those in power and simply regurgitate information on hot-button issues like charter schools and neighborhood school closings without getting the full story.
“A 2010 study done by Stanford [University] showed that charters don’t do any better than public schools when matched by income—17 percent do better; 50 percent do the same, and 33 are actually worse,” Lynch said. “Only 50 percent of charter school teachers need to be certified, and they are often very, very young. So why are politicians always pushing charters? The main reason is the lack of a union.”
Lynch said she hopes her book sheds new light on the daily challenges experienced by urban school teachers and that, by sharing their stories, people will realize that teachers are not the villain in the saga of urban education.
“Teachers should be seen as assets, but instead they’re seen as liabilities,” Lynch said. “It’s not just a local phenomenon, it’s a national problem.”