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Major Factors Contributing to Statewide Teacher Strikes
Thousands of school teachers in Oklahoma have returned to the picket lines today for the second day of strikes, demanding more public education spending. In Kentucky, thousands of teachers packed the state Capitol calling for changes to their pension plans. And there are rumblings Arizona educators could strike next. Two education professors at Syracuse University offer an explanation on the factors leading up to the strikes.
Dr. George Theoharis is a professor in the Teaching and Leadership Department at Syracuse University’s School of Education. Theoharis worked as a teacher, administrator, and principal in the Madison Metropolitan School District before he came to Syracuse. He says after decades of teachers being blamed for the struggles of education, they are standing up to call for a change.
“We have seen a resurgence of activism across the country….March for Our Lives, the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, Dakota Access Pipeline, immigrant rights, etc. Along with that, we are seeing growing public dissatisfaction with the putative accountability era of K through12 education that has led to teachers forced to narrow their curriculum, an increased focus on standardized testing, and resorting to less authentic schooling.
“In this current context, after decades of schools and teachers being blamed for the struggles of education, we are seeing teachers across the country standing up for teaching and public schools.”
Joseph Shedd is an associate professor at Syracuse University’s School of Education. He says many school districts are at a tipping point, and these strikes are signs of a deeper set of tensions that have built up in American public education for years.
“On the surface, the teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma (if not Kentucky) are easy to explain: teachers’ salaries in those states are among the lowest in the nation, and have been stagnant for years. Kentucky teachers’ salaries are higher (they rank 27th out of 51, counting the District of Columbia), but their average salaries are still $13,000 below the $65,383 average for all American teachers. It’s not surprising that teachers in those states have rejected calls for patience (in some cases, even calls from their union leaders) and decided to demand action from their state legislatures. The success of teachers in West Virginia almost certainly emboldened the teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky to act.
“The strikes are probably not isolated developments, however, but signs of a deeper set of tensions that have been building up in American public education for several years:
- The refusal of state legislatures to maintain financial support for public schools, and the tendency of most states to slash support for public education in order to lower or hold down taxes at both the state and local levels
- The political movement to blame teachers and teacher unions for weaknesses in public education, attacking teacher tenure, tying teachers’ evaluations to student test scores, and gutting protections for collective bargaining, rather than acknowledging that the cooperation of teachers and their unions is essential to any improvements in public education
“The picture is not all bleak, however. There are signs that things are getting better in some states and school districts, even as they are getting worse in others. I’d argue that we are at a ‘tipping point,’ with as many reasons for hope as for despair. In fact, the tensions that we’ve been experiencing can be interpreting as the symptoms of policymakers, teachers, school leaders and the general public struggling to invent a new system of public education: one that sets much higher expectations for student achievement and makes it possible for all students (not just some students) to meet those expectations.
“It shouldn’t surprise us that there would be sharp disagreements over how to meet those new demands, nor should it surprise us that some people would resist calls for providing more financial support for schools and for accepting teachers and their unions as partners, rather than framing them as obstacles, to achieving them.”
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