Unless you've been living under a Rock--efeller Plaza you probably know that NBC is focusing on education this week. Coinciding with the release of Waiting for Superman, every NBC station (and I think there are like twenty of them) is taking their turn telling us how crappy the American education system is. I've got a lot to say on the subject, including how I think the above conventional wisdom is mostly wrong, but I'm going to limit this post to what I've heard a lot this week: Bad teachers need to be fired. Even the President said it.
What strikes me most is what happens after someone says it. Never is the logical follow-up question asked: Just what exactly is a bad teacher?
Teachers are unique. There is no one metric that can be used to assess a teacher's performance. Other jobs are simple. If you're a salesperson and you don't meet your quota, you suck. If you're a lawyer who loses cases, see ya. If you make widgets and nobody buys them, you're going to go out of business. And if you're a chef that makes food nobody wants to eat, you're not going to be cooking for very long.
The easy answer is to say that a bad teacher is one who doesn't educate the students in her classroom. Right now we use standardized tests to determine this. Putting aside for a moment all of the problems inherent in rendering a verdict based on the results of a single test, the method has other obvious flaws.
I give you the following examples. Let me know which teachers you'd fire.
Teacher A is young and energetic. Just out of college she wants to make a difference. Although she could probably get a job in the suburban district where she grew up she wants a greater challenge. She gets hired in a poor, inner city district where many of the parents didn't graduate high school, much less college. Some of them barely speak the language. Many of her students come to her reading well below grade level. A lot of them don't want to be there. Some of the parents resent the amount of homework she's asking these students to do in order to catch up. She sends home books for students to read but they don't read them. A lot of the books don't come back. Additionally, she spends much of her day dealing with behavior problems and feels like she can't teach. When she contacts the parents about these problems they tell her to quit complaining and do her job. At the end of the year she gives the state standardized test and despite her best efforts many of her students perform poorly. One kid just filled in bubbles to make a pretty picture. Another was sick but his parents sent him anyway.
Teacher B is old and set in her ways. She doesn't like to try anything new. She's got her way of doing things and it's worked pretty well, thank you. She teaches in a lily white district where many of the parents are professionals. They volunteer in the classroom. They send in extra supplies. They follow-through with homework and assigned reading. Teacher B doesn't worry too much about her students. Most of them already read well when they get to her and she figures that as long as she doesn't screw them up they're going to be okay. She's right. Despite ignoring "best practices" and an over-reliance on worksheets, her students regularly pass the state test. They will again this year.
Mrs. Jones is a hard-ass. She's the teacher a kid fears getting. You can't away with anything in her class. There is no fun allowed. It's work, work, work. And if you don't work you can forget about recess. Mrs. Jones regularly calls parents when students don't turn in assignments or if they slip up in class. The parents don't like her much either. She's opinionated, blunt, and often confrontational. A lot of parents skip out on parent-teacher conferences. This is fine with Mrs. Jones. She doesn't need them anyway; her kids are going to learn come hell or high water. And learn they do. Every year, Mrs. Jones's students outperform the other classes in the school. But her kids absolutely hate it. Many of them pretend to be sick. Some cry in the morning. Shelby in the back of the room is so worried about getting in trouble she goes through most days with a stomachache.
Miss Violet isn't too bright. She doesn't know the curriculum very well and isn't real effective at teaching what she does know. She doesn't have great control of her classroom. What Miss Violet really likes--no, loves--is the kids. She spent her high school years babysitting a group of three of them and there's really no better way she can spend her day than with a group of students. She loves talking to them about their lives. She asks about their weekends. Once, when Stephanie was reading a journal entry about her dog dying, Miss Violet actually teared up. Her students adore her and they can't wait to come to school. In fact, if you asked them their favorite place in the whole world, a lot of them would tell you Miss Violet's classroom. At the end of the year, Miss Violet's students don't do very well on the state test, but they love school and the idea of coming back next year is exciting to them.
Which teachers would you want your child to have?
Which teachers would be best for kids from broken families?
Here's a crazy idea: Before we start labeling teachers as "good" or "bad" maybe someone should actually watch them teach.
And here's another point to consider: Half of new teachers quit within the first five years. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tried to encourage young people to go into teaching because the workforce is old and when the economy recovers the country is going to need teachers. But why in the hell would you enter this field if you're going to be the scapegoat for all the nation's ills? And why would you choose a job where you're judged not on how dedicated you are or whether you're willing to go where you're needed most, but on how well your students (whom you do not get to choose) perform on a test?
If we want smart, dedicated people to become teachers we might first try not vilifying the profession.