Guest Opinions

Schoolteachers are feeling the pain

While it is not difficult to agree that Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist's response to the Legislature's approval of the Basic Education bill was "churlish," neither should it be difficult to understand her frustration and the frustration of thousands of Washington's teachers.

In his recent column, Gary Crooks insists the legislation is not a "slap at teachers."

As a teacher I can accept this, but I also know many teachers feel insulted by a recurring theme in education rhetoric.

It is a theme having to do with Crooks' iteration, "The bill's advocates have stated all along that teachers are the most important factor in a good education, which is why the goal is to reward the best and improve the rest."

Numerous studies show good teachers to be the most important factor in student learning. Statements like this one have become ubiquitous in discussions of education reform, and while on the surface they appear to be empowering to the education profession, they have another side, one that can have a chilling effect on teacher morale.

I call it the Jaime Escalante effect. This teacher's amazing efficacy was chronicled in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver. While the film largely is fictionalized, it gave the public a powerful image of a great teacher at work.

Unfortunately, we cannot fill our schools with Jaime Escalantes any more than we can fill our courtrooms with Clarence Darrows. The Michael Jordans of the world exist in every profession, but they are rare.

What we do have are thousands of dedicated, competent professional teachers who are being constantly told the best way to improve education is to improve them.

If the most important factor in student success is a great teacher, the thinking goes, then the reason for student failure must be a poor teacher.

This sort of extrapolation provides a dangerous smokescreen scapegoating teachers who have worked very hard to learn an extremely difficult profession.

The tough reforms needed to enable all teachers - real hardworking human teachers - to be effective are far more complicated and much more difficult for lawmakers to tackle.

These reforms also are too complicated to tackle in detail here. They include improving the stature and respect for education in our culture, addressing attendance and discipline issues in a realistic and effective manner and helping students believe their education is a priority in our society.

Lawmakers need to partner with educators, who are the experts in the trenches every day. An equal cooperation between educational professionals and government could provide concrete reform that begins this work.

As long as government continues to legislate to teachers instead of with teachers, it will only continue to undermine a profession deserving of respect.

* Joseph Brusberg teaches English and Literature at Prosser High School.