Blame Game: Let’s Talk Honestly About Bad Teachers

Removing the lowest performing educators would pay big dividends, but saying so invites charges of "teacher bashing"

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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.

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To be clear, as a nation we are blessed with many incredibly hardworking, talented, and dedicated teachers. They’re worth much more than they’re paid and it’s been dispiriting to watch them get blamed for issues beyond their control, for instance, bad policy choices that have led to soaring pension costs in some states.

But let’s also be clear: there are more than a few teachers who shouldn’t be teaching. Just ask their peers. In survey after survey, teachers themselves say that not all of their colleagues should be teaching and that some have tenure who shouldn’t. The data bear this out, too. It’s clear that some teachers are substantially more effective than others. They should be celebrated and learned from. But a small subset of them are startlingly bad, and they should be doing something else for a living.

Yet until recently there was little formal effort to recognize this. A landmark 2009 report by The New Teacher Project found that almost all — 99% — of teachers were given satisfactory evaluations even in the lowest performing schools.

Unfortunately, to raise these issues is to invite the charge of “teacher bashing.” This summer, education activist Diane Ravitch blogged on the New York Times’ website that, “Although politicians and corporate leaders claim they want to reform education, it is impossible to see how the campaign against teachers will advance that goal.” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told her members this summer that “so-called reformers” are trying to “blame teachers for everything.”

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Weingarten, Ravitch, and many others echoing these claims surely know that this is hyperbole and that there is not an organized effort to denigrate teachers or a campaign against them. But these charges are not leveled to help teachers. Rather, they’re made to squelch debate. It’s basically intellectual McCarthyism intended to dissuade people from raising the hard questions.

It works. Who wants to be seen being as against teachers?  I’ve sat through plenty of meetings where people decide against raising the hard issues because they don’t want to be at the receiving end of a diatribe. As Checker Finn, a longtime education analyst tartly notes, people like to be on the front page being lauded, not the editorial page being lambasted.

On the flip side, among too many conservatives, anything less that complete contempt for the teachers unions is seen as a sure sign of softness on reform. Yet the unions are not monolithic. Their positions on the issues vary and their local affiliates around the country differ in how much they’re willing to do to solve today’s problems.

Teachers themselves have the most to gain from an honest appraisal about their profession. Over the long run, better pay, improved working conditions, better training and professional development, and greater respect is politically conditional on creating a professional culture more in line with other fields. Neither the public nor the political class will go for it otherwise. A focus on instructional quality would also help defuse the bubble of enthusiasm among those who now see technology as a cure-all. What’s more, removing a small percentage of chronically low-performers would not only change perceptions, it would change educational performance.

When Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek looked at teacher performance he found that removing even the lowest five percent of performers could boost overall student achievement substantially. There are two key takeaways from this research. First, the lowest-performing teachers have a negative effect on student performance that is disproportionate to their numbers. Second, in practice this amounts to just one or two teachers per school on average. Most workplaces have similar problems.

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How do we figure out which teachers should go? For all their problems, even today’s fledgling efforts at teacher evaluations and using value-added methods to isolate how much students learned over the course of the year can identify the lowest-performers. Removing such teachers would not come close to solving all that ails our schools but would still benefit students nonetheless. Our failure to act more seriously is a failure of politics and leadership. And the politics won’t change until we can at least talk about teacher effectiveness and the broader problems of educational management in an intellectually honest way.

The leader who made the comment at the top of this column? Legendary teachers union leader Al Shanker, the former head of the American Federation of Teachers. It was actually almost three decades ago. Maybe it’s because the stakes are higher today, but we’re arguably getting worse rather than better at talking frankly about teachers.