Education Opinion

Are Teachers Dumb?

By Nancy Flanagan — November 08, 2011 3 min read
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If you want to start a lively discussion, put “Teach for America” in the title of your blog. You’re sure to get a little heat, if not outright hostility. That’s OK--the purpose of blogging is hosting public dialogue. The best way to herd cats is to put out bowls of tasty food-- toss some debatable issues out there, then stand back.

So it was, a couple of blogs ago. A teacher who calls herself Julia629--saying she wasn’t a Teach for America corps member but wishes she’d gone that route--showed up to defend the TFA program. Her arguments centered around Andy Rotherham’s phoned-in piece in Time, in which he sets up five straw men (or, perhaps, straw corps members) then knocks them down.

Julia629 also asserted that teachers are--not to put too fine a point on it--intellectually feeble, what AEI researchers described as weak in the cognitive complexity department. With such inferior colleagues, she says, is it any wonder that top performers choose another line of work?

Ed schools continue to accept virtually anyone with a pulse, require students to take courses with little or no academic merit, and give out A's like Halloween candy.
It's an inconvenient truth that many high-performing non-ed-majors are better equipped to teach subjects they didn't major in than a lot of ed majors are to teach subjects they did major in.
I took harder math classes in high school than a lot of math teachers ever take in college.
With only one college astronomy class, I knew enough to be able to correct the high school earth science teacher I worked with as a student teacher. I'd known that stuff since middle school.
I was the only Ivy League grad in my graduate ed program, and only 3 or 4 others came from schools ranked in the top 30.
There are kids in classrooms all over the country who have Ivy League potential. Shouldn't they get to have at least one teacher in their K-12 education who has achieved what they aspire to and knows from personal experience what they will need in order to succeed? Especially in poor neighborhoods.

My first thought upon reading this was that Julia629 was probably not terribly popular in the teachers’ lunchroom. But her comments are familiar--the “bottom of the barrel” argument, which is usually presented using teachers’ SAT/ACT scores, and accompanied by blaming the usual suspects: ed schools, unions, public education in general. Dumb teachers teaching the disadvantaged--an argument based on shaky numbers, but well-known.

Julia629 makes a classic error here: she confuses “quality teacher” with teaching quality.

Like others on the TFA bandwagon, she assumes the test scores that get you into Yale will also make you good at whatever you choose to do. Ergo, upgrading the teacher workforce is a simple matter of being pickier about credentials at the entry gate. A prospective teacher demonstrates “quality” by attending a top-tier college and getting good grades--majoring in something other than education which, evidently, is not a real discipline. Then, armed with rigorous knowledge not available at lower-tier state universities, quality teacher goes forth into the wilds of public education and leads children--those with Ivy League potential and aspirations--to the lives they deserve.

Improving teaching quality is different process, with a different purpose. It’s not about credentials--it’s about actual practice, building proficiency and bringing out the best in teachers, including those who committed to the classroom years ago. It’s much more difficult and complex than simply skimming off the academic high flyers or adjusting salaries to attract the right candidates into teaching.

To improve teaching quality, practitioners must genuinely care about the learning of all students, and fill their pedagogical toolbags with tested and true strategies. Quality teaching is deep expertise in how people learn--more than simply “knowing” content, but the ability to adapt, apply, deconstruct or question that knowledge. It’s also about willingness to collaborate with colleagues, respecting what they bring to the work of teaching. Just saying...

I’m not certain which of those things can be identified or measured before a teacher begins a career. It takes time to build those skills and dispositions. At least a couple of years.

Our national commitment to teaching quality is reflected in the care with which we train teachers and facilitate ongoing development as they practice. If our top universities don’t offer rich education programs and districts chronically underfund investment in teachers’ knowledge and skills, it’s clear that teaching quality is not a real priority.

We seem to be focused on credentials rather than investment. And willing to repeat the damaging fiction that you’d have to be dumb to pursue a career as a teacher.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.