How Trying to Get Rid of Bad Teachers Has Demoralized Our Best

Why Bad Teachers SurviveEvery time I have a discussion with someone who claims to be passionately committed to improving schools, they bring up the subject of the “bad teacher.” They see public schools as zones of cultural and economic stagnation in an otherwised dynamic society, saddled with a smug and incompetent teaching force that prevents schools from playing their assigned roles of creating a competitive global workforce and elevating people out of poverty.

They feel that the American educational system can only be transformed into an asset in the global marketplace if schools have the power to remove bad teachers, and if that means undermining, or circumventing teachers unions, so be it, whether by giving preference to non-union charter schools, or developing teacher and school evaluation systems that are based on hard data derived from student test scores.

There are many problematic features of this analysis. among them, the irrationality of singling out schools over other institutions (for example banks and financial institutions!) as a cause of the nation’s economic difficulties and of singling out teachers as the cause of poor educational performance in high poverty schools when research shows out of school factors are responsible for between 60 and 80 percent of the determinants of student achievement.

But the most damaging of all is how this worldview leads to teachers being excluded from policy discussions at the highest level and being deprived of agency and autonomy in the classroom. When you take two propositions as a given — first, that teachers have enormous power over student performance and functioning of entire school systems and, second, that our public school system is a dismal failure, the logical response is to do everything you can to take power away from the existing teaching force and put people from other walks of life in charge of schools.

This is what has been done at the national, state and local level. When presidents, or governors, or mayors create educational policy or school reform commissions, they make sure that business leaders and foundation heads have the determining voice, with lifetime educators, especially teachers, often entirely excluded. Not surprisingly, the policy recommendations coming out of these bodies usually involving weakening or eliminating teacher tenure, they involve scripting classroom learning, through continuous testing and observation, to such an extent that teachers have little power to determine what goes on in their classrooms.

I am sure reformers would like to say that these measures have shaken up a stagnant system and led to improved instruction, especially for high needs students, but there is little evidence of such improvement in terms of graduation rates, or scores on global tests. What these measure have done is reduce teacher morale to it’s lowest level on record and lead to an exodus of talented people out of the teaching profession.

I see this every day in my communication with teachers, both in the Bronx, where I have developed close ties to many schools, and nationally, where my reputation as a teacher advocate has brought me in contact with both veteran and young teachers. Not only do teachers everywhere feel the sting of being excluded from policy discussions and attacked almost daily in the media by politicians and school reform advocates, their classroom experience has been poisoned by protocols which require them drill students to pass standardized tests to the exclusion of all else, and to continuous invasion by administrators and evaluators who scrutinize their every move.

It is hard to put in words how difficult to work in a profession that is “under suspicion,” where you are regarded as a potential danger to the children you work with, and where everything that goes on in your classroom is being shaped by people far away, be they in the offices of test companies, or the programs developed by management consulting firms hired by school systems.

mark naisonFrom Bill Gates, to Michelle Rhee, to Arne Duncan, educational reform advocates constantly emphasize the need to improve the quality of the nation’s teaching force. Ironically, the policies they have pushed for, and that are being implemened in every state and every community, insure that exactly the opposite will happen.

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent

Saturday, 16 February 2013

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  1. says

    Back in 1996, the newly anointed Republican nominee Robert Dole said:
    “I say this not to the teachers, but to their unions: If education were
    a war, you would be losing it. If it were a business, you would be
    driving it into bankruptcy. If it were a patient, it would be dying.”

    All a false portrayal — 80% of our public schools work rather well, the greatest problems are in areas of concentrated poverty–, but it is interesting that

    Dole took the time to distinguish between teachers and teachers unions.

    He said he would disregard the unions’ “political power, for the sake of the children, the schools, and the nation,” insisting that they “join the rest of us in accountability, while others compete with you for the commendable privilege of giving our children a real education.” But the idea that teacher quality was a problem meant something much different at that time — it meant that unqualified teachers were in the classroom and the Federal Government had to encourage that states require local districts to hire only qualified teachers. Indeed, one of the more important provisions of No Child Left Behind was that 100% of teachers in core academic areas be certified.

    Somehow or another, with the help of Mike Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee and the Bill Gates-funded New Teacher Project, the teacher quality argument metastasized into the idea that qualifications did not matter, nor did experience. What mattered was talent, and enthusiasm and dedication. False arguments about how those idealistic TFA teachers were out preforming veteran teachers gained currency. Whitney Tilson, hedge fund manager and part-time advocate for dismantling public education, claimed 45% of teachers were beyond redemption; he added caveats later. And public officials acted on these unfounded accusations and misrepresented research studies.

    There is one missing piece in Prof. Naison’s insightful analysis is testing. (He does write on testing elsewhere, however, even in rhyme.) I said ‘somehow or another’ above. Well, the how was by testing students, gathering data and defining success in terms of test scores. The ‘third proposition that is taken as a given’ is simplicity itself: that tests accurately measure the value of a school and that good teachers will improve test scores.

    By the way, a news note — Molly Horstman, a 27-year-old with two years of TFA teaching in New Orleans, recently took charge of teacher evaluations for the state of Louisiana. How much you want to bet she’ll have a lot to say about how teachers need to improve their students’ test scores? I’ll give you odds.


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