Teaching Is Either a Profession or It’s Not

In a recent post to her blog, Diane Ravitch has reported on the ongoing effort to unionize the teachers in Detroit’s charter schools. At five of those schools, the AFT has held successful unionization campaigns.

But when they attempted to organize the teachers at the seven University Prep Schools managed by Detroit 90/90, the school operators contested the validity of even holding a vote on unionization by arguing that the teachers that it employs—in particular, those produced by Teach for America—are “not actually professionals.”

The teachers’ unions have been making precisely that argument ever since the charter school movement began relying on Teach for America to meet most of its staffing needs, but rather than trying to make the case that their teachers are qualified, the charter school operators have instead emphatically attributed just about every instance of low academic performance to the inadequacies of professional teachers. In other words, they have implicitly acknowledged that their teachers are not professionals by arguing that the professional training of public school teachers has simply not produced results that justify those teachers’ higher compensation and benefits. So, I suppose that one cannot claim that, in asserting that their teachers are “not actually professionals,” the charter school operators are contradicting their main arguments for supporting their schools.

But none of this has ever really been about facts. Rather, it has all been about messaging. And the argument that the operators of the University Prep Schools have made to the NLRB underlines the fact that the quality of the teaching being provided in the public schools has never really been the issue. Instead, the issue has been that the teachers are unionized and can collectively demand to be treated as professionals who have made significant investments, financially and emotionally, in the careers that they have chosen to pursue.

Although there are unarguably some bad teachers, just as there are incompetent and irresponsible individuals in just about every profession, the recent civil unrest in a number of American cities has resulted in a greater awareness of the many ramifications of deeply entrenched urban (and rural) poverty—and the realization that expecting teachers to produce marked improvements in such environments may be asking them to meet a host of challenges that most teachers in more affluent districts simply do not confront.

Moreover, the exposure of the scams perpetrated by many of the for-profit online universities and the growing resistance to standardized testing are leading to greater attention to the fairly dismal results actually being produced by most charter schools and to the financial improprieties of a growing list of their corporate operators.


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