Education Reform De-professionalizes Women Educators

Who were your teachers?

In elementary school, nearly 9 of 10 teachers are women; by high school, about 6 of 10 are women. And nearly all of your teachers, 80%, were white (see NCES data).

As a student and a teacher, then, I have spent a great deal of my life in spaces where women are the overwhelmingly majority; often I am the only man in the room.

Recently, while I was presenting at two education conferences (South Carolina Council of Teachers of English and Wisconsin State Reading Association), I had several important experiences with recognizing teaching as a profession constituted by mostly women.

At SCCTE, I attended a session led by SC for Ed, making eye contact with one of the organization’s leaders at one point in recognition that I was the only man in the room. This session was on teacher activism and the need to inform state legislators about education while the state considers a major education bill.

As the discussion focused on many of the state representatives being condescending, I offered to the group that many of the problems faced in education can be traced to men in political leadership (and administration) not trusting or allowing the full professionalism of teachers since the field is primarily women.

Alia Wong explains that teaching continues to see a rise in the percentage of women in the field while other professions have the opposite gender trajectory:

Ingersoll and his research team highlight the rising proportion of women who are, for example, physicians (from 10 percent in 1972 to 40 percent in 2018, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data and federal surveys), lawyers (from 4 percent to 37 percent over the same time period), and pharmacists (13 percent to 63 percent).

Wong then confirms what we confronted at the SC for Ed session at SCCTE:

What explains these contradictory trends? Much of it comes down to misunderstandings of what teaching entails and how those assumptions intersect with gender norms. Unlike in many other countries, in the United States, teaching has long been seen as a relatively low-status profession. In 2018, a survey of people in roughly three dozen countries asked respondents to rank 14 different professions—including teaching, medicine, law, social work, and website engineering—by each career’s perceived social status. On the one hand, survey participants in the United States gave teachers a middling ranking, and tended to liken them to librarians; respondents in countries such as China and Malaysia, on the other hand, put teachers in first place, analogizing them to doctors.

This cultural disregard for teaching has a gendered consequence: The status of a given career tends to correlate with the share of men in that profession—higher status equals more men, generally speaking. And that has its own consequence: Research has found that employers place less value on work done by women than on that done by men. These trends reinforce each other in perpetuity.

Even in education, as the status of the position within education rises, so does the proportion of men, Wong notes: “Notably, close to half of all principals today, including two-thirds of those serving high schools, are men, as are more than three-quarters of school-district superintendents.”

Administration also reflects greater power and higher pay than classroom teachers.

I gave a presentation and spoke on a panel just a week later at WSRA; my session was attended by almost all women, and then I was the only man on a 6-person panel.

During my presentation, Misreading Reading Again and Again: The Media, Reading Policy, and Teaching Reading, two comments by teachers and the discussions around them help navigate the nearly constant state of reform occurring in education and more directly the current “science of reading” movement that is driving many states to adopt new reading legislation.

First, as I was discrediting the myth that whole language failed in California in the 1980s and 1990s—when the state experienced a significant drop in education funding and an increase in English language learners—a woman interjected that she taught in California during this time.

Her class was 32 second graders, including 6 ELL students (hers was an inclusion/ELL class). Her direct statement was that the teaching and learning conditions made effective teaching of reading (or anything) nearly impossible, regardless of the reading program or philosophy she implemented.

Here, we must recognize that teaching and learning conditions can and often do de-professionalize teachers.

Later, I was discussing the recent attacks on Lucy Calkins Units of Study reading program, emphasizing first that I do not endorse any reading programs (including Calkins’s). Many attending the session clapped for the idea that schools should not spend funding on programs, but provide teachers all the books and materials needed to teach reading.

But as we interrogated the problem with Calkins’s program, several teachers enthusiastically announced their hatred for not only the program but Calkins herself, as the name on the program.

What we unpacked was that even despite Calkins own warning not to implement the program as a structured mandate to teachers, many administrators have turned this and other reading programs into a way to manage and monitor teacher practice.

In other words, the valid anger felt by teachers about Unit of Study is their awareness that the program is used to further de-professionalize them.

And that brings us back to the “science of reading” movement that has some disturbing elements. First is the argument that the “science of reading” is settled (suggesting that science is a fixed prescription)—even though the evidence on teaching reading is rightfully described as compelling even as that evidence base is diverse (both in types of research and what that evidence supports).

Next, building off that misrepresentation of science, this movement is calling for systematic intensive phonics (phonics first) for all students; without too much imagination here, we can see that this is a blanket mandate that de-professionalizes teachers and certainly will have the same negative impact on teacher attitudes that misguided implementation of Calkins’s program currently exposes.

But the most disturbing aspect of the “science of reading” movement is that it is the next step feeding the over forty years of education reform that has plagued U.S. education.

Public education has experienced relentless political intrusion since the early 1980s, mandates standards, testing, and programs that have erased nearly every aspect of professionalism from the field of teaching.

And political intrusion, we must recognize, is almost entirely the work of men.

Think of the recent anti-abortion laws in Alabama. While the press highlighted a woman governor signing the bill, Alabama has 23 women out of 140 legislators, a mere 16.4% (see gender balances in state government here).

As has been dramatized brilliantly in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and the Netflix adaptation), tokenized women, such as the governor of Alabama, often work in the service of men.

While many faces on the “science of reading” movement are women, their agenda is being used mostly by men in political power to mandate education policy and further de-professionalize teachers.

My home state of South Carolina has about the same gender imbalance as Alabama (28 women out of 170 legislators, 16.5%), and many of the SC for Ed teachers interacting with state representatives and senators are receiving angry and condescending responses that demonstrate a lack of respect for teachers.

What people fail to recognize about the systematic intensive phonics movement as an attack on balanced literacy is that phonics programs fit well into the top-down authority model implemented in many schools and driven by accountability mandates (legislation included). Balanced literacy, on the other hand, is intended as a guiding philosophy of literacy that depends on teacher autonomy and professionalism to provide all students what they need to learn.

Balanced literacy does not mandate any practice for all students, and does not bar any practice where students demonstrate a need.

Accountability, education legislation, and reading programs have mostly worked against teacher professionalism, against the autonomy and professionalism of women.

Teachers need teacher and learning conditions that make their work as professionals possible, but the current movement to legislate the “science of reading” will further erode teacher autonomy and distract from the real work needed.

Teachers do not need yet more reform; teachers need their profession to be respected and supported.