Review: “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!”

Chris McNutt
June 7, 2020
“You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!” And 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers’ Unions, and Public Education by William Ayers, Crystal Laura, and Rick Ayers provides a quick-to-understand, ready-to-read breakdown of the common assaults against public education and its workers.

“You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!” And 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers’ Unions, and Public Education by William Ayers, Crystal Laura, and Rick Ayers provides a quick-to-understand, ready-to-read breakdown of the common assaults against public education and its workers. At the moment, I find myself overwhelmed with everything going on in the world and although I keep purchasing more and more books to read and occupy my time, I can’t really sit down and focus. Luckily, You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones is a short, segmented read. Each section is broken down into bite-sized points that quickly tells you what you need to know — and each is equally gripping and enlightening. Ayers, Laura, and Ayers break down the following myths:

  1. Teachers’ Unions Are the Biggest Obstacle to Improving Education Today
  2. You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones
  3. Teachers’ Unions Represent a Flock of ‘Go Slow/Status Quo’ Sheep
  4. Good Teaching is Entirely Color-Blind
  5. Teachers Have It Easy
  6. High-Stakes Standardized Tests Improve Student Achievement and Effectively Detect Inferior Teachers
  7. While Teachers and Their Unions Use Poverty as a Convenient Smokescreen for Their Own Failures, It’s Become Obvious That Grit and Merit Can Overcome Every Disadvantage
  8. Teachers Are Made More Visible and Accountable in Charter Schools, More Competitive Through Voucher Programs, and Irrelevant with the Advent of Teacher-Proof Cyber Schools
  9. Anyone Can Be a Teacher
  10. Teachers Follow Popular Fads and Political Correctness Rather Than Teaching the Basics
  11. Teacher Activists Are Troublemakers
  12. Discipline Is the First Priority for Every Teacher, and It Is Especially Essentially for Teachers in Urban Schools with Large Numbers of Black Students
  13. Teachers Need to Set High Standards and Drive Kids Hard
  14. Teachers Are Poorly Served by the Universally Dreaded Teacher-Education Programs Currently Available
  15. Too Many Bad Teachers Have Created a Public School System That Is Utterly Broken, and the Only Solution Is to Wipe the Slate Clean and Start Over
  16. Teachers Are Unstable to Deal Adequately with the Disciplinary Challenges Posed By Today’s Youth, and We Need More Police in Our Public School Buildings to Do the Job and Maintain Law and Order
  17. Teachers Need to Stick with Teaching the Great Lessons of Western Civilization in Order to Civilize Youth and Mold Them into the Good Citizens of the Future
  18. Teachers Need to Focus Less on the Arts, More on STEM
  19. The Truly Great Teachers Are Heroes

In this review, I will highlight three of the above but honestly — the entire work is worth dissecting. Ayers, Laura, and Ayers do a fantastic job at conveying these ideas through storytelling, factual evidence, history, and wit.

Good Teaching is Entirely Color Blind

Each myth begins with a 2–3 page summary of the argument that surrounds this “idea.” In this case, that America is a “post-racial” society where African American CEOs exist, Barrack Obama was President, and the Civil Rights Movement solved all racial inequities in the United States. There are plenty of teachers who believe in “color blind” teaching, saying “all lives matter”, and that they can be neutral in anti-racism.

This chapter stood out due to the surge of conversations surrounding racism after the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now that these discussions are mainstream and the majority of people support the movement, more educators are questioning their own practices and how they fuel white supremacy and carceral pedagogies (which was overdue.) Understanding why color blind teaching doesn’t work is incredibly important to avoid tokenistic anti-racism in the Fall.

The authors start by breaking down all the depressing statistics of racism in the United States school system, from Black students being suspended at 4x the rate as white students to the continuance of segregation: 77% of Black students attended schools with a Black majority in 1968, 75% in 2014. Some educators and policymakers hope to “wish away” racism by ignoring these inequities. Ayers, Laura, and Ayers explain,

Color-blind wishful thinking asks us to accept that race is obsolete and white supremacy a thing of the dim past. True, race is a social construction, not a biological fact, but race is also a marker that defines the boundaries of a system of domestic colonial oppression. Color-blindness as ideology is obvious to the afterlife of slavery as a living wound in our body politic and an ongoing blight on our shared social life. It’s grossly insensitive to ongoing injustices visited upon people every day because of skin color, including in isolated, majority-Black schools that act as little more than conveyor belts for mass incarceration.

Expanding upon the issues with individual teachers, the authors expand on the neutral racist thought process of not seeing underlying systemic issues. Sometimes, educators/policy makers refer to the “racial achievement gap” while not recognizing white supremacy and its impact on standardized testing; educators/policy makers may advocate for “colorblind curriculum” without recognizing that “colorblind curriculum” is Eurocentric, Western curriculum. They state,

Good teachers have the courage to explore learning with their students on their own terms. Because most official curricula do not support or acknowledge this approach, these teachers are setting off into unknown territory with their students on a voyage to a curriculum of discovery.

This, in my view, is why so many teachers are turning to social media for support. Although there are certainly problematic discourses on Twitter — it can be a radical cure for the isolated feeling of always pushing back a system that wasn’t designed with equity for all. It can be a draining experience teaching day-to-day because often the practices that most benefit are students are the most lonely.

While Teachers and Their Unions Use Poverty as a Convenient Smokescreen for Their Own Failures, It’s Become Obvious That Grit and Merit Can Overcome Every Disadvantage

The landscape of urban schools in the US is littered with KIPP and Success Academy schools boasting “high achievement”, toxic positivity, and “no excuses.” With an overwhelming focus on competition and reliance on the “free market” — these schools reflect the hyper-capitalistic norms of this country and their horrific outcome: dehumanizing practice. This chapter opens with perfect phrasing:

The American myth of meritocracy is a clever way that schools preserve class and racial hierarchies, year after year, without ever taking responsibility for the reproduction of privilege and oppression. After all, goes this story, if you work hard and show grit, anyone can make it. There are always a few exceptions, the students who do succeed despite the odds, and those examples perpetuate the illusion that the opportunities are there for all. But no one argues that poverty ‘justifies” failure. Rather, critics point out that school success correlates powerfully with poverty and that willful ignorance of this demonstrable fact leads to a range of magical proposals, missteps, and false moves leading to non-solutions.

The Horatio Alger stories that keep Americans believing in the “rags to riches” myth lock US citizens into believing that their version of inequitable capitalism is “working.” As Ayers, Laura, and Ayers point out in this chapter — the issue isn’t the public school itself…it’s the lack of funding, lack of resources in the community, and overall lack of opportunity presented by the extreme inequities in our society. As Jonathan Kozol points out in Savage Inequalities, it’s not a minor difference — schools are grossly underfunded at inhumane levels in the richest country in the world.

I appreciate how much effort is placed on statistics and specific research in this work. The authors dissect the stereotype threat and how educators/policy makers may subscribe to these beliefs, even subconsciously due to the overarching media narrative. Looking at Paul Gorski’s research:

…Gorski names and examines common stereotypes about poor people: they’re ineffective and inattentive as parents; they communicate poorly; they don’t value education; they’re lazy; and they wildly abuse drugs and alcohol. He systemically demolishes each of these false perspectives, drawing on mountains of data to make the case. To cite just two of his research-based conclusions: low-income people are less likely to use or abuse alcohol than their wealthier counterparts, and, in fact, greater wealth correlates with greater substance abuse. There is absolutely no credible evidence, Gorsci found, to indicate that poor people are lazier or have weaker work ethics than non-poor people. Indeed, low-income workers tend to work much longer hours and often hold down two or three jobs, compared to well-paid workers.

Which builds into the greater point which summarizes this whole chapter:

…’poverty-is-no-excuse-for-failure’ rhetoric…allows corporate reformers to perpetuate the illusion of meritocracy while driving privatization of the public space under the rubric of ‘improving schools’ and ignoring deeply entrenched inequities that exist in our society and are perpetuated by our public school systems.

The Truly Great Teachers are Heroes

The “I’m a teacher, what’s your superpower?” bumper sticker may seem innocuous, but the fundamental belief that teachers are miracle workers is dangerous for both students and the teachers themselves. Not only does this rationalize a savior complex, where students bring nothing to the table and the teacher is there to “save” them from the dangerous world — it rationalizes teachers working long hours in poor conditions for little pay (and as we move into the Fall….even rationalizing dying for our students due to COVID-19) — and further perpetuates a “white savior” myth where only 7% of teachers are Black.

Of course, this isn’t to say that a teacher’s job isn’t important. Ayers, Laura, and Ayers break it down,

What teachers really want is a witness, someone to understand the tremendous transformations happening in their classrooms…The problem is that the Hollywood narrative, when reduced to a sound bite or played out in a tear-jerking movie, simplifies the task of teaching and reinforces the notion of the Christlike teacher. These versions have little room for the complexities of instruction, the adventures of a curriculum of inequity, or the deep work that goes into community building. Instead, the hero teacher is an attractive genius who turns young people around with a few inspiring speeches. And she never, ever demands decent working conditions or more pay. That would be improper and a bit unseemly.

The authors go on to explain the dangerous tropes of “helping others” that pervade the over-the-top narrative of “teacher as savior”:

The desire to help, always hierarchical and tied to privilege, typically feeds on sensationalism and images of the exotic, and often results, regardless of intent, in some form of colonial relationship…As teachers we can resist the missionaries within ourselves while we find ways to work with people.

All in all, these are only three of the 19 myths presented in this work — and I highly recommend reading this book as a way to counteract dominant narratives and arguments in the education system. Even if you’re familiar with these myths, this book provides the research necessary to articulate why and how we can break down these ideas. Further, this book would be an excellent suggestion for new/aspiring teachers to understand the landscape or gifts for teachers who may have the best intentions, but have been led astray.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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