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Making Teacher Quality Reform’s Latest Red Herring

By Peter N. Berger — May 11, 2010 5 min read
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Nobody ever suggests curing our health-care woes by replacing doctors and nurses with better ones. But many policymakers tout restaffing schools with better teachers as the key to healing public education. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is one of them.

As is true for carpenters and dentists, there are some teachers who are bad at what they do. I’ve known a few of them. Most teachers, though, are competent. That’s not to say that many of us are excellent, but that is the nature of excellence: It’s rare. Any scheme to rescue public education that rests on staffing schools with “excellent” teachers is a pipe dream. Most teachers will never be excellent.

Of course, neither will most plumbers or members of Congress, and we’re only looking for 535 of the latter, out of the whole country.

Secretary Duncan heaps lavish praise on “good teachers” who “toil late into the night on lesson plans,” pay for their classroom supplies, and, as he says, “wake up worrying when one of their students seems headed for trouble.” As with many professionals, my workday doesn’t end when I go home. But I think paying for my classroom supplies is like expecting an autoworker to furnish his own steel. And though my students’ troubles touch me, as they would any decent human being, they’re not usually why I wake up at night.

We teachers sometimes do, as the secretary says, “light a lifelong curiosity, teaching students to solve problems like a scientist, write like a novelist, listen like a poet, [and] see like an artist,” but for most of us Thomas Edison’s maxim about genius still applies: Learning is far more perspiration than inspiration. I do my share of preaching, and I enjoy seeing the glimmer of understanding or a spark of curiosity in my students’ eyes, but most of them don’t grow up to be scientists or poets. The secretary’s lofty, romanticized notion of learning is shared by too many Americans, and is one of the reasons students in this country aren’t learning as much as they should.

But Duncan reserves his harshest criticism for the reformer’s favorite bogeyman: the industrial-age “factory model” of education. He complains, for example, that students are still “taking five subjects a day in timed periods.” Except that the five subjects he’s talking about are English, math, science, social studies, and a foreign language or other elective. It’s unclear which ones he’d like schools to eliminate. As for abolishing schedules, reformers haven’t yet discovered how to materialize an adolescent in two places at once.

The secretary charges that teachers are treated like “interchangeable widgets” on an “educational assembly line.” Instead of being respected as “skilled professionals,” he says, we’re “supervised and directed by everyone from the state legislature down to the school principal,” quoting Albert Shanker.

I don’t feel like a widget. I expect to be subordinate to my principal and the laws my state legislature passes. But if Arne Duncan means that too many people who don’t teach keep telling me how to do my job, I’ll agree. As long as he adds the nation’s secretary of education to the list.

Duncan proposes paying teachers according to the quality of their work. Student test scores undergird most schemes to measure that quality. Except that, as the No Child Left Behind Act has painfully demonstrated, modern standardized testing is grossly, expensively, and embarrassingly unreliable when it comes to tracking student achievement over time. Scoring errors are epidemic, grade-level standards are inconsistently rigorous, even on the same battery of tests, and despite the pretense of objectivity, scores are commonly corrupted by what the Educational Testing Service concedes is the “variability of human grading.”

I’ll agree that I shouldn’t keep my job if I’m lousy at it. You’ll pardon me, though, if I’m unwilling to be judged by tests that consistently fail to do their job.

I also don’t want to be judged based on the performance of students, many of whom regard standardized tests as opportunities to absentmindedly color in random circles. As for assessments that evaluate students based on their written responses—the problematic, humanly scored ones—thoughtfully writing things down is even less popular than thinking about which circles to color in.

Secretary Duncan asserts that “the single biggest influence on student growth is the quality of the teacher standing in the front of the classroom.” That’s probably true, provided you don’t count the students he or she is standing in front of, or take into account all the years, good and bad, outside the classroom that made them who they are.

You can’t hold someone accountable for things he can’t control. Judging my performance based on my students’ performance is as flawed as judging my doctor based on my lab tests. If my genes are bad, or I won’t eat right or exercise, it’s not his fault.

Don’t misunderstand. I expect to be judged. That’s supposed to be my employer’s job. Teachers do have a little more job protection than most workers. And I’ve known a number of them who would otherwise have been fired for offending the wrong bureaucrat or giving the wrong litigious parent’s offspring a C or a detention. But no worker deserves to keep his job if he’s proved incompetent. If incompetent federal judges with constitutionally guaranteed lifetime appointments can be impeached and removed, it should be possible to get rid of me if I fail to do my job. Any labor union that defends its members in the face of proven incompetence or malfeasance unconscionably smears those isolated blots across the entire profession.

Firing a few of us and paying a few others more money won’t save the country, though. Most teachers I know are already doing the best they can with the students they have. Nor will higher “merit” salaries be enough to lure some untapped flood of excellent prospective teachers into the classroom. I enjoy my job, but there’s simply a limited number of people willing to spend their workdays dealing with hundreds of other people’s children, no matter what the “enlist experts to teach for America” boosters claim.

Besides, merit pay misses the point of what’s wrong with public education. Most good teachers don’t stay or leave because of money. They leave because they’re compelled to lower their standards, water down their curricula, implement asinine regulations, and contend, unsupported, with an onslaught of antisocial, narcissistic behavior bordering on criminality.

They leave for the same reasons too many students aren’t learning.

If we want to retain good teachers, we don’t need to pay them more. We just need to make schools a better workplace—for teachers and for students.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Making Teacher Quality Reform’s Latest Red Herring

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