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.