On Saturday, May 4 the New York Times published a column by Charles Blow that you ought to read. Blow is one of my favorite columnists and this is one of his best columns, straight from the heart, about his mom, a lifelong, utterly committed teacher. But it is also about what is wrong with teaching policy in the United States today.
I have a confession to make. Though I have been working for decades to make teaching a true profession, I remember, when I first read the No Child Left Behind Act, thinking to myself: “Well, this is long overdue; now, if the kids are not learning, their teachers’ jobs will be at risk.”
Years ago, when our foster daughters were in high school, the older one had a teacher who regularly came to school drunk, and when she was drunk, she was mean-spirited. There had been endless complaints about her, but all that happened was that the principal had kept reassigning her to classes with students whose parents were less likely to make a scene. That was in a well-regarded suburban district. Later, I would visit classrooms in an inner-city district in which I found teachers who were dripping with contempt for the students they were supposed to be teaching. They expected nothing from them and that is what they got. I remember one principal who said to me, “I have been found to be incompetent four times, but they will never get anyone to replace me. I will be here forever.” I have seen more than my share of teachers who are incompetent time-servers.
It always infuriated me that, in many schools and systems I visited, it was the teachers who sucked up to the principal who got whatever goodies were to be handed out rather than the competent, dedicated teachers. Then there were the talented young former teachers who showed up in my office telling me they had decided to leave school teaching and get the training they needed to get into research, development and policy analysis so that they could “make a difference.” When I pressed them, they talked about how they had been thrown into the most difficult classrooms and left there to sink or swim, how the older teachers resented their new ideas and created an environment in which the cynics and timeservers ruled the roost, and the unions and management had rigged the system so that the big retirement benefits went to the teachers who stayed to the bitter end, even if they had burnt out years before, and were just showing up to boost their retirement pay as much as possible, counting the days and shortchanging their students every one of those days.
So you would think that I would be a big cheerleader for using high stakes accountability testing to get rid of the time-servers and incompetents who are contributing the least to their students’ education.
But I’m not. Like everyone else, I’m persuaded that teacher quality is the single most important school factor determining student achievement. For those who are consumed with anger at the incompetent, uncommitted teachers they know and the unions they see as protecting them, it is obvious on the face of it that, more important than anything else, we should bend every effort to use the most powerful evaluation technologies available to sort out the good teachers from the bad ones and use whatever means we can find, including public humiliation, to get rid of them. This is the impulse that drove the framers of No Child Left Behind and, later, of the use of value-added testing schemes to rate teachers.
I understand that impulse, and, as I said above, there is a part of me that is very sympathetic to it. But then reality takes hold. The goal is not to get rid of bad teachers; it is to get good ones, not just for some of our students, but all of them. Now you might say that these aims are not in conflict. Why not get rid of the worst and bring in the best, all at the same time?
There is nothing wrong with such a strategy in theory, but there is everything wrong with it in practice. The most consistent element in the No Child Left Behind Act passed by the last president and the teacher quality and accountability policies being pursued by the current administration is the use of high stakes accountability systems based on low-quality literacy tests in two subjects to hold schools accountable for student performance. The context in which these policies are being pursued is not the Great Recession, but what is for schools more properly thought of as the second Great Depression, an era of massive school layoffs and contraction in school budgets.
Charles Blow lays it out point by point in his column in the New York Times. The United States is recruiting its teachers from the least capable portion of our college students while the top-performing nations are recruiting from the most capable. College students who are among our most capable students look at what teachers make when they begin teaching and how much they can expect their salaries to grow and can’t figure out how they can possibly make ends meet when they take into account what it will take to pay off their student loans. Then they look at public policy toward teachers, and, as he says, "...teachers have been so maligned in the national debate that it’s hard to attract our best and our brightest to see it as a viable and rewarding career choice, even if they have a high aptitude and natural gift for it.”
Our best and brightest students see us laying off teachers and talking tough about getting rid of those teachers who, according to some cheap test, are not measuring up. They don’t see us offering starting pay comparable to the starting pay of engineers, as our best competitors do. They don’t see us talking about forgiving the tuition charges for college students who choose to go into teaching, as many of our competitors are also doing; they see us promising to fire teachers who fail to help their students make enough progress as measured by methods that our newspapers are denouncing every day as deeply flawed. They don’t see us celebrating our teachers; they see us putting the screws to them.
However tempting it might be to put the screws to those teachers who deserve it, such strategies are ultimately profoundly self-defeating. Blow is right. There are time-servers in every field of endeavor. It is a terrible mistake to build our policies around our grievances. There is only one way to get where we have to go, and that is by pulling out all the stops to get our best and brightest into teaching, and by working with the vast majority of our teachers to help them improve their capacity to deliver for their students.
The vast majority of the teachers who will be teaching our students in five years are in the schools right now. We should be working as hard as possible to convince them that we do not regard them as our enemy, but rather as our best hope for the future. We need to reach out to them and find out how they think we can help them build their capacity to do a better job. Most of us find most of the rewards in work in the knowledge that the work we do is highly regarded by our colleagues, and a source of pride in our community and among our friends. Teachers are no different.
We are fools to think that we will improve teaching by inducing fear into the hearts of the incompetent. All we will accomplish is inducing resentment among the many good teachers we already have, inducing them to leave, which is happening at an increasing rate, and inducing revulsion among the best and brightest of our young people who therefore choose some occupation other than teaching, which is also happening at an increasing rate.
It is time instead to reach out to our teachers with an offer of support and to the most promising of our young people who are deciding on their careers with new policies that will convince them that we genuinely mean to convert teaching from a blue collar occupation into a high status profession that can offer them the profound satisfaction and reasonable compensation that Blow describes.
Some of the toughest accountability systems in the world can be found in the best of our professional partnerships in the law, medicine, architecture and engineering. What counts most in those organizations is not accountability to your immediate supervisor but accountability to your professional colleagues. It is a world in which everyone is working as long as it takes to get the work done, and doing less then your very best puts you at risk in a world in which all the people around you are doing their very best. That world does not need formal evaluation systems and the analogue to value-added measures of a teachers’ contribution to a students’ knowledge and skills. In truly professional organizations, your colleagues are taking the measure of your accomplishments every day and there is plenty of information on which to make those judgments. The pressure to produce comes from those colleagues and the fear of letting them down is intense. We will not have top-performing schools without top-performing teachers. And it is true that we will not have top-performing schools unless we have powerful accountability systems. But the record shows that we will never have the professional teachers we need unless we embrace professional systems of accountability, and we will never get those unless we start treating our teachers like professionals rather than blue collar workers.
Giving in to our impulse to punish the incompetent and the time-servers is a form of self-indulgence we can ill afford. It is only serving to drive out of teaching the very people we most need to go into teaching.
The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.