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Teachers Feel Like Scapegoats

high school students classroom
AP
Committed but dispirited, most teachers say they are unfairly blamed for school shortcomings, undermined by parents and distrustful of their bosses.

More than three in four teachers surveyed said they were "scapegoats for all the problems facing education," according to a study by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan policy research group that has tracked teacher opinions.

Wary of political favoritism and unfair claims by parents, teachers bank heavily on union support and on tenure policies that promise job security, the survey says. Such reliance comes even as teachers acknowledge flaws in the system: only 14 percent said it was easy for their district to remove bad teachers, and 78 percent said their schools had at least a few.

Even as they feel like the targets of reformers, teachers also show some willingness to embrace change, such as paying higher salaries to those who put in more effort. New teachers, in particular, show support for options such as charter schools and alternative teacher certifications.

"Their openness is quite stunning, given the fact that they feel unsupported - not only by administrators, whom they believe they should be able to depend on, but also by parents, who they believe are missing in action," said Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda.

Teachers' views ought to matter to a lot of people, Wadsworth said. Parents link their children's success to teaching quality, and all states are under federal mandate to have highly qualified teachers in every core academic course by 2005-06.

The study, "Stand by Me," covers testing, job performance and other crucial professional issues. Public Agenda surveyed 1,345 teachers after hearing from focus groups and experts.

The theme of frustration is no surprise, said Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, which represents 2.7 million teachers and other school workers. Beyond drastic state budget cuts, teachers are squeezed by a federal law that puts more emphasis on punishing poor-performing schools than providing help, Lyons contended.

"Teachers see time taken away to practice tests, to do the drill-and-kill exercises that suck the life out of learning. ... It's just not a happy time in public schools," she said.

Education reformers, however, say President Bush and Congress have appropriately demanded more of schools and provided choice for families.

"There is kind of a woe-is-me aspect to teachers when asked what they think of their lot in life, and a lot of that seeps through the data," said Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, one of four organizations that financed the study. "I wonder if that isn't fed by their unions and a part of the culture of the profession, which is philosophically opposed to a lot of the reforms under way today."

More than eight in 10 teachers agreed that without a union, they would be vulnerable to abuse of power by school administrators. The same number said their working conditions and salaries would be much worse without collective bargaining.

Teachers also defended the protection of tenure but said it could be a ticket to complacency. Most surveyed said they work in districts that offer tenure, which offers job security after three to four years barring dismissal for just cause. Still, almost six in 10 teachers said tenure was no guarantee that teachers had proved themselves on the job.

Lyons, the NEA spokeswoman, said the union supports faster discipline reviews so that incompetent teachers will be removed and those unfairly charged will have their names cleared.

On the salary front, teachers typically are paid based on years of experience and level of education. More than 60 percent said they would support paying more to those who work in tough neighborhoods or who consistently get great job evaluations.

New teachers were most supportive of such ideas. That should open the door to fresh ideas, Finn said, such as allowing teachers to volunteer for performance-based pay scales.

The NEA says it backs such ideas as extra pay for extra work but opposes "merit pay." In the survey, 63 percent said merit pay would lead to "unhealthy competition and jealousy."

"To say someone who gets a great evaluation gets more money, teachers know what that translates into: whoever is on the good side of the principal," Lyons said.

By Ben Feller