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Teachers under the microscope

Reformers are on the offensive, but what measures will actually strengthen our teaching force?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Are teacher unions a "menace," as alleged in the documentary "Waiting for ‘Superman?’" Are they primarily concerned with protecting bad teachers? Or, as some would argue, are unions an important ally in campaigns for school improvement?

Much current dialogue about school reform is about teachers. Debates are often polarized and entangled with other hot policy disputes around issues like charter schools. Many feel the current climate is anti-teacher.

Some states are pushing to abolish teacher tenure. Other states are passing laws requiring student performance, often test scores, to be part of teacher evaluations. This was one way to increase the chance of winning federal dollars through President Obama’s Race to the Top competition. Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are actively seeking different ways to make teachers more directly accountable for improving student learning. They are being supported by powerful outside forces including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is contributing tens of millions of dollars to promote performance pay contracts.

Unlike in many other countries, teaching in the United States is not held in high esteem. Salaries have been lower than in other professions requiring comparable education. Top college graduates have generally gravitated to better paying fields. Teaching is also unusual in that, historically, the newest, rawest recruits are often placed in the most difficult assignments and left to sink or swim.

This edition of the Notebook examines the role of teachers in school reform from multiple perspectives. Stories tackle key issues of poverty, tenure, teacher supports, cultural competency, and pay-for-performance. A profile of Mastery Charter Schools looks at how this fast-growing charter network supports teachers in school turnarounds.

Our center spread on unions includes an interview with Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan as well as highlights of a roundtable with six teachers on the role unions can and should play in increasing educational opportunity. Readers can have their say by sending us a letter or email or commenting on our website.

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