Over the past decade, the American public has been saturated with political buzzwords like financial crisis, environmental sustainability, and even homeland security. However, there is one sacred word in the American narrative that is under attack: education. Politicians, policy makers, business people, and concerned parents are pushing for an education reform that reflects our capital market.[1] The market is consumed with international competition and is becoming more privatized by affluent business owners and their foundations. Therefore, the new design for education needs to be supported by qualified and resourceful institutions. The progression for new school reform is in response to the perceived failings of public schools and incompetent teachers who are hindering students from becoming socially mobile. As the idea of reform circulates and wins the attention of the masses, someone else has to fail: public schools and teachers.

The constant political rhetoric on the failure of education has created a platform for a reform that moves away from the public school system into a privatized institutions. This private and charter school movement needs participating members to bring into the fold, and in doing uses bipartisan support to enforce a positive attitude on this new school design.[2] In order to usher in this new reform, big government agencies and big corporate powers propagate the failings of the public schools across America as way of eradicating the need for improving the values public schools represent. Moreover, they project public schools as holding negative values such as greed and chaos. This rhetoric, along with misguided information on school ratings, depicts teachers and school administrators as scapegoats for this perceived failure.  Teachers and administrators are then demonized for abiding by the regulations laid out for them by federal and state policymakers.

Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, the American public has an entrenched connection to public schools, but are now torn when they are presented with wilted and biased content from politicians to reform to this corporate attitude. That deceptive rhetoric trickles down into popular media, especially T.V shows and films, which fuels a negative public perception of educators and schools[3]. In doing so, reformers are propagating against the public institution they helped create. An operational definition for propaganda is “the systematic propagation of information by an interested party, especially in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instill a particular attitude or response.”

Core Concepts

Teachers have notably been seen as the conductors of student leaning. However, the reconstructed concept of learning has redesigned the role of the teacher. Effective learning has been equated with high scores in standardized testing. This form of testing is seen as the best way to assess the progress of students and quality of their teachers, principals, and schools.[4] Not only does standardized testing weed out underperforming schools, it forces people to believe the notion that school improvements are linked to competition. Consumer pressures to have and be the best puts teachers in a bind, and standardized testing only complicates the matter. The cultural-narrative is a race to the top through proper credentialing, and consumers (parents) are looking for schools to give their children the upper hand in this societal rat race. [5] When teachers don’t meet performance expectations, they are seen as counter-productive to the cultural narrative, thus leaving them pray to judgment and negative depiction.

To subject the quality of a teacher to test metrics is completely asinine. There are so many other factors that contribute to a student’s low performance. Weight in the student’s home life, core problems like poverty and segregation, and lack of intellectual curiosity [6] and there is substantial reasons as to why the student my struggle to perform. However, ever reform needs someone to blame, and unfortunately teachers and administrators get the short end of the stick.

Another hole that corporate reformers dig for teachers to fall into is the negative portrayal of tenure. The controversies surrounding tenure sprawl out into different directions, but the underlying concern is air-locked workplace protection policies that leave many to believe is producing complacent educators. Tenure protects teachers from getting fire for personal or political reasons.[7] These deemed complacent and ineffective teachers are seen as depriving students the right to a thorough and efficient education. [8] In turn, visual tropes  (see Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Jake Kasdan, 2011. Bad Teacher.  Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, an incompetent teacher who hates her job and students.

of teachers as self-entitled, lazy, manipulative people enjoying the perks of tenure. These images generate fear and paranoia when people think that these are types of teachers tasked with shaping the minds of tomorrow. The public discourse on education then steamrolls over those additional factors for low performance described in the previous paragraph, and instead focuses on what teachers and schools are doing wrong.



Like most things in life, politics has a major impact on the perception of education and teachers. The corporate reform, adopted by Democrats and Republicans, is a good example that showcases how a political agenda uses the weaknesses of an education system that they helped create as a foundation for a new and better design; a design that does not leave room for public school practices. The underlying purpose for the new design is to respond to global competition and meet the demands of those funding this corporate reform, the wealthy and their foundations.[9]  Demands, such as standardized testing, school choice, and privatization are pulling teachers and schools in different directions. These pressures leave teachers vulnerable and unable to completely concentrate on students, thus making their jobs that much harder to perform. Teachers are not super-humans, but reformers are not too concerned about what’s happening at the classroom level, but rather are fixated on competing on a global scale.

The concept of standardized testing and tenure play out in the documentary Waiting for Superman. (Figure 2.) [10]This film makes extreme efforts to illustrate how inner-city

Figure 2. Davis Guggenheim, 2010. Waiting for Superman. The golden children of tomorrow sets to navigate the choppy waters of the public school system.

schools are experiencing profound dropout and illiteracy rates. Along with showcasing the brokenness of these schools, the film also paints teachers as self-centered, uncaring, and incompetent.[11] The film makes central points on public school failings, not regarding scarcity of funding resources, but rather pits the problems on ineffective teachers and the solution for this national crisis is to improve test scores through the expansion privately managed charter schools.[12]


On a related side note, a fairly recent Minnesota law suit on teacher tenure was supported by the affluent Walton family (Wal-Mart heirs). [13] Also, the documentary Waiting for Superman was largely funded by the Gates Foundation [14](wink, wink…pushing their own corporate agenda for what education should look like; not only pushing it, but funding it!)

Mainstream film and T.V. has also defamed the role of teachers. We see it in infamous teacher roles, such as Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, who plays a reckless teacher concerned with everything but teaching. Also, Jack Black in School of Rock plays a self-involved teacher, trying to advance his personal goals of making it big (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Richard Linklater, 2003. School of Rock. Jack Black plays wanna be rock-star turned substitute teacher who educates students on the power of rock n’ roll,

The way that teachers are portrayed by media mirrors public perception on the profession. [15] Extreme stereotypes reduces teachers to negative caricatures, thus stripping away which their human qualities and struggles. (see Figure 4.) [16]

Typecasting Teachers- Kelsey Wroten. Different ways teachers are typecasted in film and TV. jukeboxcomix.com

More often than not in film and shows, students disrespect teachers, view them as a laughing stock, or view them as evil fiends out to destroy their lives. These views do not add substance to the public discourse on teaching and public education.



The constant political rhetoric on education reform (corporate reform) directs public discourse, leaving little room to address the core issues public schools and teachers face, such as tackling poverty and segregation. As such, we buy a ticket to this rat race and blame those who get in the way of winning; stretched-out teachers and underfunded schools. In the midst of reconstructing our educational identity as a nation, we often dump the baggage of American schooling on sinking schools and exhausted teachers. Politicians continue to undermine teachers despite their fearless efforts to accomplish the impossible.[17] The propagation against public schools fuels a polarizing atmosphere that leans towards a loud and loaded (cha-ching) attitude. Winners vs. losers. Success stories against dropout stories. Someone has to lose. It is that loosing narrative that is not met with empathy or compassion, but rather springs up feelings of judgment and generates castigation against those trying to do the impossible: teach.

Discussion Questions:

  • How has your school experience shaped you as a student today? What did that experience look like? And would you ever feel comfortable pinning the blame on the institution or teacher(s) for current hiccups in your life?
  • Why do you think higher educators (professors) don’t receive as much scrutiny from the public? Are there even negative stereotypes for professors?
  • Did false representations of teachers in films and TV ever feed into your expectations (big or small) of schools and teachers. Was there any disconnect when those expectations did not match up with reality? How did you respond?
  • What are some practical steps to take when providing a counter-argument against the demonization (or stereotypes) of teachers and public schools?

For More Information:

Klein, J. (2011 June). The failure of American schools. The Atlantic.

  • In this featured piece from The Atlantic, Joel Klein unpacks some of the disheartening truths behind the failure of American schools.

Lubienski, C. & Lubienski, S. (2013). The public school advantage: Why public schools outperform private schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • In their book, the Lubienski’s shed light on the progressives steps that the public schools are taking to enrich student’s lives; steps can be seen as more effective than private schools.

Mead, R. (2012 September 11). Chicago’s teacher problem, and ours. The New Yorker.

  • Mead discusses how an increase in poverty and inequality in America plays an instrumental role in the proliferation of problems public schools and teachers face.

Trier, J. (2001). The cinematic representation of the personal and professional lives of teachers. Teacher Education Quarterly, summer.

  • This journal article elaborates on the cinematic representations of teachers. Both good and bad.


[1] Ravitch,D. (2014). Reign of Error. New York: Random House, LLC.

[2] Ravitch, 11.

[3] Foat, L. Typecasting teachers: How media portrayals mirror public perception. KCPT- Kansas City PBS. Retrieved from kcpt.org/education/typecasting-teachers.

[4] Ravitch, 40.

[5] Ravitch, 15.

[6] Breslin, F. (2015, May 29). Why America demonizes its teachers. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-breslin/why-america-demonizes-its-teachers_b_7463084.html

[7] Teacher Tenure. ProCon.org

[8] Rich, M. (2016, April 13). Teacher tenure is challenged again in a Minnesota law. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/14/us/teacher-tenure-is-challenged-again-in-a-minnesota-lawsuit.html?_r=1

[9] Ravitch, 19-21.

[10] Guggenheim, D. (2010) Waiting for superman. Paramount pictures.

[11] Ravitch, 41.

[12] Ravitch, 40.

[13] Rich, 2016.

[14] Ravitch, 40.

[15] Foat, L.

[16] Welch, D. & British Library. (2013) “Know your enemy.” Propaganda: Power and persuasion. London: British Library.

[17] Ravitch, 28.



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