America for Teachers!

Here's an important question: What sector of public employees recently received a 71 percent approval rating from its core constituents? If you said elected officials, well, you are wrong.

Give up?

The answer is teachers. On the recent PDK/Gallup poll of the Public's Attitudes toward the Public Schools, nearly three out of every four Americans said that they have trust and confidence in the men and women who teach in the public schools.

But rather than celebrating this exemplary review, too many Democratic and Republican policymakers and business interests are selling rhetoric and policies that blame and punish teachers for the shortcomings of our education system. This is similar to blaming a swim coach for not teaching kids to swim when none of the pools have water.

Unfortunately, the teachers are easy targets these days. Many schools have become test factories that demoralize students and single out teachers for low scores. Teachers don't shirk this responsibility even if accountability-based models diminish their abilities to instruct. And let's not forget that more students are coming from high-poverty families, arrive to school hungry or are learning to speak and write in English.

None of these factors make providing a student an opportunity to learn impossible, but they require a system of education that has the type of student and teacher support necessary for a transformative learning experience to occur for each student.

It's time to take a deep breath and study history to see the dangers to our nation of this blunt strategy of blaming those on the front lines. It's not the first time in our history that employees on the front lines have been maliciously labeled in order to advance a political agenda.

As an excellent op-ed for The Los Angeles Times reminds us, there are "distressing parallels between this approach to quality in education and the approaches that failed so badly in U.S. manufacturing."

The piece points out that in the 1970s as Japanese competitors were making inroads into U.S. market share, many managers and experts blamed American workers, denouncing their "lackadaisical attitudes and union job protections as the chief impediments to higher quality, productivity and competitiveness" for this nation's slide.

It took two decades, but that attitude eventually changed, especially after Japanese-run auto plants set up shop in this country and "reached world-class quality levels with a U.S. workforce, in some cases a unionized workforce" notes the op-ed by Rutgers University professors Saul Rubinstein and Charles Heckscher, and University of Southern California professor Paul Adler.

The moral of this story is that the failure of industry was not in its workers but in the system they worked under. This sounds all too familiar in our test-and-punish world of school reform that undervalues and blames education's most critical resource: teachers. Instead of viewing teachers as key contributors to system improvement efforts, certain reformers want teachers to be more replaceable, pushed aside as impediments to top-down decision-making, the authors note.

But there's another unmistakable parallel. While the U.S. is mired in debates about how to weed out bad teachers -- rather than how to create more excellent ones -- the world's industrialized countries are passing us by on international rankings.

After blaming teachers for failing to help ensure that every child excels under such challenging, stifling, and often under-resourced conditions, conservative governors and state legislatures are targeting teacher pay, benefits and working conditions.

It doesn't have to be this way. In many cases, teachers, through their unions, are successfully collaborating with school districts and with their state leaders in ways that make everyone a winner. One of the best examples is Maryland's Montgomery County schools, where administrators and unions collaborated to develop the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program.

Developed under the leadership of Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, PAR is a national model for professional development. The New York Times even featured the program, describing how PAR uses several hundred senior teachers to mentor new teachers and struggling veterans. A panel of eight teachers and eight principals oversees the progress of mentoring and helps makes decisions about how to proceed with struggling educators.

Praised by union, district and state officials for fostering trust and supporting teachers, PAR is no rubber stamp: The PAR panel has voted to fire 200 teachers, and an additional 300 have left rather than go through the PAR process, the Times reported.

It is true that PAR is an exemplary model, but it is not the only one. There are many other examples of teachers and their unions working with district and state leaders to address concerns and change policies to improve schools for all students and their employees.

But the more important point is that we should be seeking more of these models by working with teachers, acknowledging that the nation's knowledge base has been built on their efforts, and listening to what they have to say. Isn't this better than what happened in Wisconsin earlier this year, where a full frontal assault on teachers was celebrated by conservatives even though it triggered animus toward teachers and prompted an exodus of experienced teachers who decided to retire early rather than lose benefits and morale.

America may be overrun with growing levels of poverty and reductions in resources, but it is not overrun by bad teachers. That's why it is so dangerous and wrong to play the blame game -- the way American industry did with such self-inflicted wounds in the 1970s.

American Teacher, the recently released movie narrated by Matt Damon, notes that during the next 10 years the United States must attract more than 1.8 million full-time teachers -- that's more than half of the current total. This is not likely to happen if young professionals see teachers as overworked, underpaid and routinely demonized. And, as is often the case, teaching should not be a temporary job until something better comes along. Our students, democracy and economy will not grow stronger if this is what teaching looks like to those entering the workforce.

We cannot blame our way out of the challenges we now face in our education system. However, we can work together with the 3.2 million expert educators called teachers to make our schools places where all children have an equal opportunity for a high-level education. Policymakers should join the rest of America and trust its teachers.