Ever since the Nation at Risk report, we’ve had a reform narrative in this country that begins with the premise that our schools are failing (despite the fact that when one corrects for the socioeconomic level of students taking the international tests on which this claim is based, our students consistently perform at the top or very near the top). Then, the Gates Foundation decided that the “problem” was teacher quality and not having metrics in place to drive improvement in teacher quality. They made this decision based on lousy research that used invalid test scores as the determinant of outcomes.

So, the simple-minded, one-liner for insertion into politicians’ speeches became, “Our schools are failing, and this is because we have lousy teachers.”

This narrative appeals to a lot of authoritarian types on both the left and the right–to all folks who are fond of hierarchies and top-down mandates.

What did the unions do to contribute to the teacher bashing? Well, the two main costs of education are facilities and teacher pay and benefits, and the teachers’ unions negotiate the latter. So, folks on the right who want to control costs–to keep wages and benefits down–and who believe the reform narrative think that the unions have pushed up pay and benefits unnaturally at the very time when teacher quality and educational outcomes have taken a nosedive.

There are three-and-a-half million public school teachers in the U.S. As Jon Stewart pointed out during an interview with Dr. Ravitch, in any profession–fast food customer service–there are going to be some incompetents and some jerks. But the basic current reform narrative–that our schools have failed in general and that teacher quality is, in general, to blame is wrong on both counts.

Can our schools be improved? Can teacher quality be improved? Of course. But here’s the rub: you get what you pay for. If we really want to improve teacher quality, then we have to pay teachers more, we have to raise barriers to entry to the profession, and we need to give teachers lighter loads so that they can do the careful planning, the collaboration, and the mindful self-examination the lead to continuous improvement. And we have to give them more autonomy, for people perform best in conditions of autonomy, which is something that the deformers do not understand AT ALL.