If Police and Firefighters were Treated Like Teachers

by Christopher Paslay  

While politicians view police and firefighters as heroes, they tend to see schoolteachers as Ichabod Crane.     

In 2002, when No Child Left Behind became law, George W. Bush boasted that it would transform education in America.  By 2014, he insisted, 100 percent of our nation’s children would score at least “proficient” on state exams in reading and math.  Despite learning disabilities, poverty, single parent families, an increase in autism, institutional racism, poor nutrition, the drug culture, and dozens of other biological, psychological and societal ills, every single kid in the U.S. would be able to read and perform math at the highest levels in history.  Those schools not achieving this lofty goal would be shut down or overhauled, and their teachers and principals fired or reassigned.   

From NCLB’s onset, real life teachers in the real life trenches of America’s public school classrooms knew the law was misguided, oversimplified, and pie-in-the-sky.  At its heart it was about control—a politician’s battle for the billions of dollars in raw materials that go along with the institution known as American Public Education. 

To highlight the absurdity of NCLB, imagine this law being applied to police and firefighters, both of which, like teachers, are public servants. 

Let’s start with police.  Imagine a law that required all crime in the United States to be abolished by a given year, say, 2018.  Murder, rape, burglary, assault, etc. would be measured in every precinct in every city in the United States, and the results would be assessed by race and socioeconomic status.  Any precinct not reducing crime levels across all predetermined racial and economic subgroups and meeting “adequate yearly progress” would be eligible to be reconstituted and overhauled.  Officers in neighborhoods with the highest crime would be fired, their captains replaced, and their resources and budgets cut.  Policies on policing would also be rewritten.  The replacements, as well as the new policies, would be filled and enacted by non-police officers with zero law enforcement experience. 

How about firefighters?  Imagine a law that required every building and home in the United States to be up to fire code by 2018.  Any ladder company that didn’t wipe out death by fire and smoke inhalation in their neighborhoods would be up for overhaul.  Money and resources would be cut, their personnel fired and reassigned.  New expert “firefighters,” who were career politicians with no fire-rescue experience, would now run the show. 

People like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, of course, say you can’t compare teachers with police and firefighters.  Bloomberg has said, according to a story in Capital New York, that police and firefighters are interchangeable widgets, and that teachers aren’t.  Which is why teachers can be evaluated and publically scrutinized, and police and firefighters can’t:

This is not like police and fire.  You think about it. Police and fire, we assign a cop or a firefighter to a station, to a post, to a firehouse, to a piece of equipment. And all of the firefighters and all of the cops are changed. Not only are they interchangeable, we deliberately move them around, because that helps their careers and they learn more things and they’re better able to perform their jobs. . . .

Bloomberg went on to say that education was different.

But is it really?  Under No Child Left Behind, the very reform that was enacted to increase teacher effectiveness, teachers are treated like widgets, too.  “Failing” teachers at “failing” schools are recycled and re-circulated, much like the changing of police and firefighters. 

Recently in Detroit public schools, pink slips were sent to over 4,000 teachers.  The teachers who want their jobs back must reapply for their position.  If they aren’t hired back at their current school, they will be eligible to apply to teach in another school in the district; a similar mass layoff took place in Detroit last year.   

Still, politicians will never hold teachers in the same regard as police and firefighters.  Police and firefighters—especially firefighters—are viewed as heroes.  Schoolteachers, on the other hand, are commonly seen as Ichabod Crane: gangly and self-serving.

Until true educational experts are at the helm of school reform, public schools and their teachers will continue to be at the bottom of the political pecking order.

5 thoughts on “If Police and Firefighters were Treated Like Teachers

  1. This just touches the depth of social hostility aimed at teachers from political officials of both parties, school administrators, the mass media, parents and the general public. And they are not taking any prisoners. Teachers have not been able to prove their worthiness in any way as scandals are made to seem routine. Volunteers are brought in to replace credentialed personnel. Paraprofessionals are given the responsibilities of Special Education staff. English immersion classes are used for profoundly impaired students. Hearing disabled are placed in severely impaired classes. Meanwhile, students are promoted without proficiency at their grade level because administrators direct teachers not to fail any student. Student misconduct disrupts instruction while administrators discipline teachers in response. Far from representing teachers, the union stands by and watches teachers being fired for political reasons to reduce expenses.

    Teachers are getting the message and leaving the profession. Not only are turnovers increasing, but the median age continues to rise as the message is heard by prospective teachers. Test cheating is increasing as a sense of desperation grips some into the worst of all possibilities to save their positions.

    This goes way beyond NCLB and there is little indication that teachers will ever be restored their status as professionals in the near-future. It sure won’t happen with Arne Duncan in the Dept. of Education. And it won’t happen by abolishing the Department of Education. The scariest prospect is that things will get worse. Despite Diane Ravitch’s assurances that there is no crisis in public education, there remains a profound disrespect for teachers at all levels of society. There are few indicators that public opinion will grasp the profound ramifications of the current dismantling of public education until it is too late.

    Thanks to CHALK AND TALK for saying what needs to be said. The big question is: how can we address the issues that continue to demoralize good teachers and undermine the education of young people? How do we stop a spiraling decline that will only project a worse opinion of the survivors and further increase teacher disaffection? How can things get better as future teachers with the capabilities are scared away from careers that stand in the midst of such turmoil? When can teachers begin to focus on the tasks of educating students absent the bureaucratic intimidation they face today?

  2. Martin,

    You raise excellent questions, and have expressed many of the sentiments I’ve felt over the years (that many schoolteachers feel). The entire teaching profession must find itself, and teachers must continue to remind politicians and the public, through their work in the classroom and their voice in the media, that we are professionals and must be treated as such. Thanks for writing,

    Christopher Paslay

  3. When did Diane Ravitch say there was no crisis in public education? Isn’t everything she has written and said in the past five years about the crisis in education?

  4. I’m willing to concede that point as I cannot find the video that I had intended to reference in regards to a statement by her that there is always some crisis projected in education.

  5. A good article on a glaring inconsistency in the treatment of public servants. We would never ask police or firefighters to undergo the kind of scrutiny that we currently ask of teachers. The question is, why is this? In other countries teachers are held in high regard. And further,. what can we do about it? My own view is that the core of the problem is that other public programs, like the police, have ways to let the public know how they benefit that public, such as crime reports that tally the crimes in each neighborhood. Education has nothing like that. All the data is about just the kids, not the effect of the education on the public in general. We all are creating good adults, not just good kids. So why don’t we get any credit for this? It’s because we have no overall national system that could track such things. It would have to be national because our students move all over the place after they graduate. This is something that could change; we could work to create a national system of tracking the public benefit that we produce, and this would help the public’s view of the value of teachers.

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