Blame Game

Why can’t we have a real conversation about teachers?  That’s the topic of my TIME column this week:

When a prominent educational figure remarked that, “a lot of people who have been hired as teachers are basically not competent,” it was a rare candid statement about teacher quality. The comment arguably overstates the problem and — in fairness — he was also quick to point out that with several million teachers there would of course be some lousy ones, just as there would be in any field. Still, it was a jarring thing to say.

Education policy debates are often like an argument between a couple in a bad relationship — about everything except the actual problems. Our leaders seem congenitally unable to lead a difficult but honest conversation about our nation’s teaching force that acknowledges that several things are all true at once — we have a teacher quality problem and a management problem, teachers are not to blame for all that ails our schools, we can’t fire our way to better schools, but removing some percentage of low-performers would be quite good for students. Instead we have a shallow debate dancing around the thing that matters most in schools: instructional quality.

Here’s one thing we probably all can agree on – the media industry is in trouble.  So do your part to help and click on this link to read the entire column.

18 Replies to “Blame Game”

  1. Every year at my school we had a new crop of teachers who had zero chance of making it. Few had any due process rights but most who survived for a year were granted tenure. I never saw a kid in the early twenties survive for another year, although many became great teachers in easier schools

    Why? Because you can’t kidnap qualified people at gunpoint and force them to teach in the toughest schools.

    The union has long worked to help remove bad teachers, but management, in my experience, was unwilling to share control. After all, it was management that was to blame for ignoring the violent and anarchic conditions that undercut teaching.

    Where I disagree is your claim that nobody wants to attack teachers. No! Attacking the educational problems caused by generational poverty is too hard, so they attack teachers. Reformers did not start down the path in order to fire teachers as opposed to teaching students, but now they are all too often consumed with anger at teachers because we warned against their simplistic solutions. So, they blame us not the use of standardized tests to drive school improvement.

    Reformers should see the Harkin Enzi compromise as a godsend. It could have gotten them out of this mess of incentiving educational malpractice.

    But what you’ve got there is the politics of resentment. The Poverty Warriors want someone to blame for the achievement gap and the social engineers have nothing left but pushing for teacher-proof, scripted test prep. As the “reform” bubble bursts, accountability hawks who view policy from 30,000 will just become more determined to punish good teachers along with the bad. I’m hoping that reformers who actually work in classrooms will come over to our side.

    Besides, where did the idea that you need test scores to fire teachers come from? Its certainly not a rational response. Its a “when all else fails” act of rage at a system that is harder to improve than they imagined.

  2. Mr. Thompson: Well said: “Why? Because you can’t kidnap qualified people at gunpoint and force them to teach in the toughest schools.”

    Instead of helping the teachers at these schools by (for example) enforcing consistent discipline policies to halt the pervasive student misconduct), the media and education reformers simply call for cutting off the teachers’ heads. “Off with their heads!” (as the Queen of Hearts might shout).

    So one set of teachers leave, only to be replaced by new teachers who similarly struggle because the conditions and supports necessary for successful teaching are absent. Tell me: Is that a successful education policy? Answer: NO.

  3. From today’s New York Times Nicholas Kristof column we learn that it’s basically all over by the 2nd grade anyway:

    “Schooling after the second grade plays only a minor role in creating or reducing gaps,” Heckman argues in an important article this year in American Educator. “It is imperative to change the way we look at education. We should invest in the foundation of school readiness from birth to age 5.”

    As for identifying, evaluating, and removing bad teachers. I’m all for it. I have 3 kids in the public schools and I don’t want any of them to waste a year with a bad teacher. Where the reformers get it wrong is in believing that standardized testing of students is a useful tool for doing this in all but the most limited circumstances.

    I had a teacher next to me removed from the classroom two years ago. He wasn’t the worst teacher ever, but he did deserve to go. And my administration managed to make it happen without using anything related to standardized testing. It involved administrators doing the hard work of spending lots of time in his classroom, working with him to identify areas and goals for improvement, and then eventually not renewing his contract when he didn’t get things into gear. I have no idea whether his kid’s test scores were higher or lower than mine. That’s almost entirely beside the point. He was not a good teacher. He didn’t plan lessons and had poor classroom management skills. The inmates basically ran the asylum.

  4. While we’re at it, there is a rarely held conversation about hiring teachers to coach sports. This is particularly crushing in a subject like math where if you don’t build a complete understanding of the material, review or tutoring must take place until that understanding is complete before moving on to a level that builds from the concepts covered in the class.

    When I talk to students, this topic comes up often. When I read commentary in the educational world, it seems bizarrely off limits.

    I don’t mean to say that this is the only topic on my mind, but it’s one that’s been on my mind since a college student walked into my office searching desperately for a tutor due to having teachers that she says watched football film instead of taught in the classroom.

  5. One thing we should all agree on is this:

    Let’s stop the shameful practice of placing minimally credentialed teachers with no years of experience in our most challenging schools. This is something we can do today. Every state should have rigorous standards for K-12 teachers and no emergency credentials or “waivers” should be accepted, especially in urban schools where the teacher is so badly needed.

  6. Linda: I don’t know that credentials are all that effective in determining the quality of a teacher. Certainly, EXPERIENCE helps — but that’s a different issue. From my perspective, I taught in private schools prior to getting a credential, then returned to school to get my teaching license, and then worked after getting licensed. However, I really don’t think that there was much difference in my teaching pre- or post-licensure (other than having a little more experience).

    In light of the above, I’d certainly like to see more experienced teachers in low-performing schools. In addition, I think it would be helpful if we could figure out a way to reduce the turnover rates for staff at low-perfomring schools. However, I’d be against discriminating against teachers who received their credentials through alternative systems, because I don’t think that credentials, per se, are all that effective.

  7. Attorney DC:

    I did the same as you, but I learned a great deal about how to teach reading when I went to graduate school. I’m not against alternative credentials but I am against hiring people with just bachelor’s degrees and no graduate work. I was one of those people and just cringe when I think of the mistakes I made in my first two years. I wish I could find each one of my former students and apologize to them.

    States are always lowering the standards for K-12 teachers and that needs to stop. Of course there are always people who will do a great job without much education or experience but we need to do what is done in every other profession: Have high standards and abide by them. This is what successful countries do.

    On a another note: I was very happy to see the Nicholas Kristoff article in the New York Times regarding early childhood education. Teachers have been fighting the status quo of inequity in education for years but citizens have fought it because of the expense involved. However, now more and more people are realizing that we all benefit when children have a good start in life. We’ve known for years that the achievement gap is well established by the time children enter kindergarten.

    Look for even more positive changes for children before the 2012 presidential election. Teachers, parents and other concerned citizens are working to end the status quo of education by race and zip code.

  8. Linda,

    What’s the alternative to having those alternative certification teachers in the classroom in our toughest schools? Supposing every state passed a law banning them from being in there, who will fill those spots? Is there a large pool of certified, experienced teachers waiting to fill that gap? I’d be the first to say that when TFA/TNTP teachers aren’t needed anymore, we’re in a great educational spot, but the simple reality is that if those spots aren’t filled by alt. cert. teachers, you’re just going to end up with something much worse.

  9. pgteacher:

    You’ve asked a good question. Right now there are a lot of certified, experienced teachers willing and able to teach in challenging schools. However, if the time comes that a qualified pool is no longer available, I’d like to see us do what we do when there are no qualified doctors, nurses or college professors. We start recruiting from abroad, train more people and pay higher salaries. These other professions NEVER lower their standards and neither should teachers.

    Initially TFA was founded because qualified teachers could not be found for low-income schools. I approved of it then but the recession has now presented us with an opportunity to hire fully qualified people for our schools. I’d like to see TFA change so that they provide teachers in areas where no qualified people can be found, such as higher level math and science.

    In my opinion much damage was (and is being) done to schools when “warm bodies” were placed in the classroom. And yes, that includes me. We are now in a good position to place only fully qualified people in our classrooms. Let’s do it!

  10. Linda,

    On what are you basing the statement “Right now there are a lot of certified, experienced teachers willing and able to teach in challenging schools” and are you willing to add the further adjective “capable” to that description? As someone partially responsible for interviewing a segment of those teachers, I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced a flood of those teachers banging down the doors to teach in my challenging school – and the few that did come were deemed impossible to hire because of the arcane tenure laws holding less capable teachers in place at my school. It may be that I’ve got a case of tunnel vision, but I think I need a bit more to back up your statement before I can accept it outright.

  11. pgteacher:

    Like you, I’m basing my opinions on personal experience. The superintendent of my old district (mostly low-income children) told me that he has hundreds of applications for just a few openings. And, according to him, many of these people are well-qualified.

    Perhaps things are different in your district, but I firmly believe that the time has come to offer whatever it takes to recruit and retain fully qualified teachers in all schools.

  12. In PG County, you will those who have been in the system in the poorer schools, trying to leave for the better schools (going from inside the Beltway to outside).
    They have an advantage over a new hire because they are battlefield proven.
    If a teacher has made it through Potomac or Suitland HS, they are more than ready for Bowie HS.

  13. Linda: Thanks for your response to my comment above. However, I still think you’re conflating experience/training with having a standard teaching credential. In my experience, there are many teachers out there who have teaching experience (in another state, for example, or in a private school) but lack traditional teaching credentials.

    For example, I have no problem allowing a teacher with several years of experience in Virginia teach in Maryland while his credential is being officially transferred to Maryland (this can take months or longer).

    Contrary to your experience, I didn’t think that my teacher credentialling program did much to help me excel as a teacher; most of the material was simply too generalized to apply in practice to my actual classes once I left the program. In light of the above, I firmly support allowing teachers without the correct ‘credential’ have the chance to work in our schools, especially so if the teacher has experience working as a teacher in other states or school systems.

  14. Yes, phillipmarowe has identified the real problem with teacher quality. The newest teachers, often people like myself in 1964, without credentials or experience, get jobs in “inner-city” schools where they get their experience. Over 50% of these people quit and many of the survivers transfer to “better” schools (i.e. more affluent).

    Let’s stop the shameful practice of placing the least qualified and experienced teachers in the most challenging schools. This is something that can be done fairly easily, especially at this time, although in some places teachers might have to be recruited from across the nation.

  15. Linda: I agree with you and phillipmarlowe that inner city schools generally get the newest and least experienced teachers (who often either quit or move to other schools after working there a few years).

    But I’m not sure what to do about it. Given that most teachers would rather work in higher income schools (for many reasons), the higher income schools usually have many more applicants to choose from (laws of supply and demand).

    The solution to the lack of experienced teachers in low-income schools? I’d suggest trying to make low-income schools a more attractive place to work for teachers, starting with enforcing consistent discipline and behavior standards for all the students, and backing teachers up when they have difficulties or complaints. In addition, paying a salary premium might help lure in other teachers (but it would probably have to be a pretty big premium).

  16. Attorney DC: I agree with you completely. In addition to your ideas I’d add placing two teachers in every classroom in challenging schools. Expensive, yes, but there is no cheap way of doing it.

  17. Attorney DC:

    I just now saw your post of 10:53 a.m. Like you, I approve of alternative credentials for teachers from other states or private schools. However, I did learn a great deal in grad school and feel that the master’s degree should be required of all teachers. What I am very much againsit is placing a twenty-two year old with nothing but a bachelor’s degree in an “inner-city” classroom. There are quite a few people from elite universities in my family so I know that an inexperienced kid from Harvard is still an inexperienced kid. The people I know wouldn’t have a clue about how to teach reading to English Language Learners. We all know that a Yale graduate couldn’t be a nurse or a chemist if he didn’t train for it, so why do we assume he can teach first grade? To me this is just related to our low opinion of schoolteachers, who are mainly women. It’s time to move forward and give teaching the respect that it deserves. It’s an extremely demanding profession and needs to be recognized as such.

  18. Linda: I guess I’m coming at the credentialing issue from the perspective of someone who taught in multiple states and was faced with mindless bureaucracy attempting to obtain a license in any one state (and transfer it to another state). I also didn’t think that my particular graduate program was particularly useful (although I’m glad yours was to you).

    Mostly, I’m against putting up unnecessary red tape and obstacles to people who would otherwise be perfectly good teachers.

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