Framing the Educational Questions

I often discuss with my students the art of framing a question. I teach them how to fairly, justly, and ethically create a question based on neutrality and fact-finding.

And then I tell them how to do it effectively.

I like to illustrate framing an argument using one of the most controversial of topics–abortion. I ask them to consider the names of the two sides.

One side of the debate calls itself “Pro-Life.” After all, who could argue against life? Who is “for death”? No one. Of course not.

But then, we have the opposing side, the “Pro-Choice” side. I mean, let’s be real. Who’s against choice, the freedom to make one’s decisions? Who wants to lose free will?

This is a bit of a simplistic method, but it illustrates how simply framing a name or argument can skew the debate. It shifts the focus to what the questioner desires.

And we, as teachers, face this spin daily. The media’s coverage of American education is disgraceful to me, and I believe the fault lies not only in the laziness of the press but also in the framers of the questions.

The central problem in education, according to the ignorant or dishonest, is that lazy teachers exist. Really, who wants a lazy teacher in the local school? Which kid is fortunate enough to get that instructor? Bill Ayers discusses this in an article when he says the following:

Because what am I going to say? “My granddaughter deserves that lazy, incompetent teacher!” They’re getting the conclusion that they want by framing the question as a statement. So there’s only one answer; no one can take the other side of that proposition. But what if I got to the podium first and said, “Every kid in America deserves an intellectually grounded, morally committed, compassionate, caring, intelligent, thoughtful, well-rested and well-paid teacher in the classroom”? We’d agree with that, too! So, who gets to say what we’re talking about?

This type of (false) argument shifts the focus from the real problems in education—poverty, a lack of parent involvement, a loss of local control, businessmen and legislators making educational decisions, poor funding, and class size (to name but a few)—to a scapegoat: the teacher. Now, I’m not saying that teachers couldn’t improve or that there aren’t some seriously lazy teachers; I see them daily. But, teachers have not suddenly gotten worse in the last ten years to be targeted in such a fashion.

Ayers also mentions a problem I dispise when discussing unions: the contract. I refer to the teachers’ contract as “our” contract or “the agreement” between the district and association. The district was at the negotiating table and did sign off on it; the district is an equal partner. However, this is not how people like to think of the contract. Even my building’s administrators like to call it the “teachers’ contract” without any acknowledgement or acceptance of responsibility for it despite the fact that one of my building’s administrators is a negotiator (and is the worst culprit). As Ayers notes:

“Remember, the contract doesn’t only belong to the union, even though in The New Yorker and in the New York Times editorials, it’s as if the contract is all the union – the school board is also party to the contract; they negotiated it!”

Ayers also comments on a major problem others have noted as well: the New York City “rubber room” for teachers waiting for their hearings was featured in newspapers all over the country. Even The New Yorker included an article detailing the cases of 15 teachers…out of many thousands of good and great teachers! As he says, “Why is that what we’re focused on? It’s because a case is being built that somehow teachers and their unions are the whole cause of the misery.”

Some unions are better than others. I freely admit that. But, I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that unions are not the primary issue to “solve” in education. Neither are the teachers.

The real elephant in the room is the search for the silver bullet to kill the problems in education and the search for the magic bean that will grow a new, perfect system. No solution will be simple. Or cheap. Or right for every school.

Still, the framing of educational stories continues, and we need to fight that every step of the way. It’ll be hard work, but I want to defeat the lazy teacher image anyway.

4 thoughts on “Framing the Educational Questions

  1. Melissa

    I always read these union-related posts with a mixture of confusion and wistfulness. Here in South Carolina we have no unions like that and the few prominent teacher organizations around are often looked at with distrust. I am really curious what it would be like to work in a state with a union, and whether I would feel less of the “us vs. them” mentality I sometimes get from the administration at the school/district level.

    I really like this point you make here-
    Now, I’m not saying that teachers couldn’t improve or that there aren’t some seriously lazy teachers; I see them daily. But, teachers have not suddenly gotten worse in the last ten years to be targeted in such a fashion.
    As a new teacher (3 years) I don’t have a ton of experience in the field yet, but what you said in that last sentence feels so right to me. In my school I see a lot of new teachers coming in who are very well-equipped to grow into becoming ‘master teachers.’ Most of the really scary teachers who seem lazy, incompetent, or cruel, have been teaching for 10+ or 20+ years.

  2. drpezz Post author

    I’ve also come to understand that unionism in the East is different in some ways than unionism in the West. Just as teaching requirements vary greatly, so do the tendencies, histories, and reputations of the different unions.

    Much of the language used seems to paint everyone into the same corner even though there are so many differences.

    I remember wondering why teacher credentials and “highly qualified” was constantly repeated until I realized that some states only evaluate teachers every 3-6 years and any degree could allow someone to teach. Here we are evaluated at least once (if not 3-5 times) a year, and we have to have a specialty area and an education degree/certificate (if not an additional endorsement area).

    I think these differences really change the perspective if not the rhetoric.

    P.S. I can’t imagine not having a union. I’ve seen my local halt pettiness and right a few wrongs where people could have lost jobs. I just don’t know where I’d get the back-up without it.


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