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New Teachers Beware: You Will Face Impossible Expectations

Conventional views of public education as "failing" are wrong, says this author. It's time for teachers to start challenging that narrative.

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I regularly encounter, as I travel around the country, teachers who are dispirited by what they feel is an unrestrained contempt for their calling and career. These teachers feel that this contempt, initially expressed by politicians and “experts” with no classroom experience, has been repeated so frequently that it has spread to the public at large. They feel they are being blamed for all the inequities in American society, and are expected to rescue children from impoverished families and communities with no support from others in society.

They feel abused by demands that they discard curriculum it has taken them years to develop, curriculum they are convinced has inspired children who had little prior interest in school, to love learning and inquiry. They do not believe that requirements that they focus on preparing students for standardized tests is respectful of the educational process or their own expertise, because such tests reflect only a tiny part of the knowledge and skills children need. These teachers are embittered and feeling put upon by those who claim to represent the interests of poor children but express this interest by trying to destroy the public education system that is the only institution attempting to serve these children. The teachers I meet all consider some colleagues to be inadequate and would like to see them leave. But the teachers I meet insist that poor performers are a small minority in their schools, and resent the now-popular and, they feel, indiscriminate witch hunt to cleanse schools of incompetents.

In May, I addressed the 2012 graduates of the School of Education of Loyola University–Chicago. Anticipating (correctly, as it turned out) that these young people shared many of the feelings of the experienced teachers I have described, I urged these students to have the confidence to resist the now-conventional attack on public education and their teachers. Here is what I said to them:

Thank you, Dr. Fine, President Garanzini, Dean Prasse, faculty, parents, and guests.

Congratulations to the graduates.

Good luck as you embark on new responsibilities in one of the most important enterprises with which our society can entrust you – the preparation of the next generation.

Yet you leave here in a national climate of mistrust for all government, including public education. You are entering a highly politicized field where facts are too easily ignored.

In medicine, and in all fields, we know you can’t design proper treatment if your diagnosis is factually flawed.

Yet in education, conventional and widely shared diagnoses are based on fantasy, with little relation to facts.

Understanding these fantasies requires you not only to be good educators, but sophisticated citizens, capable of questioning data and penetrating the relationships between schools and the society that they reflect.

Politicians of both parties, leading educators, and philanthropists like Bill Gates who increasingly influence education policy, repeat incessantly that our schools are failing, especially for disadvantaged children. Past efforts at improvement, and vast increases in spending, have accomplished little or nothing, they say. Achievement gaps between disadvantaged and middle class students have narrowed little, so as the proportion of white children declines, this failure of our schools weakens our nation, rendering it unable to compete internationally.

In truth, this conventional view relies upon imaginary facts.

You may be surprised to learn that African-American elementary school student achievement, in Illinois and nationwide, has been improving so spectacularly that in math, the average black student now performs better than about 90% of all black students performed less than a generation ago.

What’s more, black elementary school math performance is now better than white  performance was in the previous generation.