THE MOST convenient scapegoat for all problems in our nation’s education system seems to be public school teachers. Whether the issue is test scores or graduation rates, many would have you believe that it is teachers who are at fault. In his new book Bad Teacher! How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture, Kevin K. Kumashiro examines the current narrative around “bad teachers” and what it means for those who seek to improve education in this country.
Kumashiro begins by exploring a 2010 FrameWorks Institute study that examined the ways that Americans think about schooling, identifying five concepts that have become common sense in education discourse. The study found that the average American thinks about education purely in terms of the interaction between teachers and students in a kindergarten through twelfth-grade classroom. While this is an important aspect of schooling, framing education this way obscures the bigger players in the education system.
Missing from this picture are school and district administrators, state and federal governments, textbook publishers, testing companies, and massive educational foundations like the Gates and Broad Foundations. These actors play decisive roles in determining how funds are appropriated to districts and schools, how curriculum is written and implemented, and how teachers are hired and evaluated. When education is thought of only in terms of the individual classroom, teachers become the convenient scapegoat for all problems in public education. And that is precisely the group that corporate education reformers, including Teach for America and Michelle Rhee’s New Teacher Project, would like to focus on. Tapping into Hollywood’s view of education reform, they claim that all that is needed is a dedicated, young white teacher to “save” children of color in our nation’s urban public schools, à la Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers.
As Kumashiro points out, there is a contradiction between the rhetoric of teachers as educational saviors and the reality of teacher preparation. While many corporate education reformers claim that teacher quality is the sole factor that determines a child’s educational outcome, they seem unconcerned with ensuring that teachers are being trained to deal with today’s educational challenges. Rather than support teacher preparation programs in education colleges that train teachers to work with culturally and linguistically diverse populations and allow them ample time in classrooms as observers and student teachers, these corporate reformers instead advocate alternative routes to teaching that require little to no coursework or time spent in a classroom.
Kumashiro explores the reasons why these programs are so popular with corporate reformers. This includes the perspective of teacher education as an untapped market—just as the entire public education system is viewed as an untapped market by these investors. He also examines how the creation of alternative certification programs has produced two tracks for teacher placement with traditionally certified teachers working in wealthier suburban schools and alternatively certified teachers working in poorer urban schools. This two-tiered system serves only to exacerbate the already existing disparities between these communities.
Finally, Kumashiro looks at the attack on teachers within the broader neoliberal attack on education in recent years. He traces the current standards-based reform movement to the “manufactured crisis” of the 1980s. The claims of politicians and corporations that our nation’s schools were failing served as a pretext to roll back many progressive education reforms, including student-centered learning, differentiated instruction, and multicultural curricula. Kumashiro reminds us that “back to basics” reformers seek a return to the time before these progressive changes and before the broader social reforms of the 1960s and 1970s that addressed poverty and racism. He then explores the real goals of the neoliberal education agenda, which revolve around privatization, competition, personal responsibility, and new investments for corporate reformers.
Published before the historic strike by the Chicago Teachers Union this fall, the book suffers from a lack of discussion of teachers’ unions, either as a convenient target of corporate reformers or as a potential source of resistance against the neoliberal attack on schools. The bad teacher narrative is often very much focused around teachers’ unions, which supposedly protect “bad teachers” from being fired and prevent “good teachers” from excelling. It would have been helpful for Kumashiro to take up this myth and explore the realities of what unions do, and have historically done, to protect public education.
Bad Teacher! contains valuable information for anyone who seeks to engage in true education reform. It provides an understanding of the rhetoric and goals of the neoliberal attack on schools and looks at why corporate reformers are pushing for reforms like high-stakes standardized testing and charter schools. It also explores the current landscape of teacher education, examining the motives behind the move away from traditional teacher preparation. With this book, progressive education activists can understand where the narrative of the bad teacher comes from and how corporate reformers are using it to dismantle public education.