Assessment Opinion

Battling the “Bad Teacher” Bogeyman

By Anthony Cody — January 01, 2011 5 min read
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In the narrative being driven by “education reformers,” the “bad teacher” has emerged as the greatest threat to our future. This threat is being used to justify a wholesale attack on the teaching profession. With our rights and even the institution of public education in danger, why have teachers been so slow to respond?

Educators are unlikely warriors. In our classrooms we depend on the authority of the school as we exert our own authority to maintain order. Accustomed to our place in the hierarchy, we serve “under” the supervision of our principals, as our students work under our supervision. This deference to authority is perhaps one reason teachers have been so slow to understand the systematic attacks we face as a profession. But make no mistake, our profession, our retirement funds, our schools, even the classrooms in which we teach - all are under a systemic and coordinated attack.

In the next 12 months we are likely to see:

  • Class sizes increase dramatically
  • More public dollars going to privately managed charter schools
  • Teacher retirement funds attacked as being overly generous
  • Due process for teachers done away with in order to get rid of “bad teachers.”
  • Seniority eliminated since expensive experienced teachers do not raise test scores any more than novices proficient at test preparation.

But our foes will never admit they are attacking us. They will smile in our faces, as Oprah did last fall, and sweetly reassure us that they LOVE good and great teachers. It is just the louses responsible for poor test scores that they despise. One of the academic architects of many of these policies is the Hoover Institute’s Eric Hanushek. Dr. Hanushek authored a rather discredited study in 1992 that purported to prove that class size was not a critical factor in student achievement. Recently Arne Duncan and Bill Gates have both given speeches suggesting that class sizes be increased to cut costs. More recently Dr. Hanushek has been focusing on teacher quality.

In his essay at Education Matters this month, Dr. Hanushek writes,

This is not a war on teachers en masse. It is recognition of what every parent knows: Some teachers are exceptional, but a small number are dreadful. If that is the case, we should think of ways to change the balance.

Those of us who spent hundreds of hours documenting the effectiveness of our teaching to achieve National Board certification were apparently wasting our time. Hanushek does not need such overkill. Last February, he explained how we could tell good teachers from bad ones:

Good teachers are ones who get large gains in student achievement for their classes; bad teachers are just the opposite," explained Hanushek, who said he uses a simple definition of teacher quality. Looking at data from a large, urban school district, he found that effective teachers at the top of the quality distribution got "an entire year's worth of additional learning out of their students, compared to those near the bottom."

Here are the problems I see with his approach.

Problem One: He assumes that test scores alone are an appropriate means of determining who the best teacher is. This ignores the fact that students are not randomly assigned to teachers, that some students are much more difficult to teach than others, that small changes in student composition can have a large effect on the average scores a teacher achieves, and that recent analyses of value added models have shown that as many as 20% of the teachers in the top group one year are in the bottom group the next year. Furthermore, attaching these stakes to test scores will result in further intensifying the focus on test preparation that is responsible for the narrowing of our curriculum.

Problem Two: He assumes there is a ready supply of highly effective teachers to replace the bottom rung he suggests we cast aside each year. I have worked in an urban district for the last 24 years, and spent the last four years running a program to try to retain science teachers. Our problem is not how to get rid of people - it is how to retain them. Most of our vacancies are now filled by interns who have received a crash course in the summer. They struggle to learn the ropes the first year, and by the end of their second year are becoming effective. The trouble is, 75% of them leave by the end of their third year. Our mentoring program has made a difference, but we still struggle to retain people, especially those recruited for a two-year commitment. Our pay is low, conditions are challenging, and the emphasis on test scores makes it even harder to keep our teachers.

Problem Three:
He proposes that we improve by focusing on the negative. I really wonder what sort of environment Dr. Hanushek grew up in. In my classroom, I encouraged my students by focusing on the positive, by grouping students together so weaker students could learn from leaders. The teaching profession is no different. We can gain so much more by focusing on creating a collaborative culture where teachers are observing one another teach, sharing and reflecting together through processes such as Lesson Study and Collaborative Action Research.

This is not to say that teacher evaluation is perfect, and cannot be improved. Many of us have worked to offer constructive ideas to do just that. But recognizing this willingness to embrace change would clash with the narrative - unions exist to protect the bad teacher, simple as that. And the reason ineffective teachers persist is because unions are protecting them.

Of course, Dr. Hanushek does not see this as a “war on teachers.” He is one of the architects of this campaign, and he sees it as a sort of purification process. He is not against ALL teachers, only the “bad” ones with low test scores.

I was on a panel at a forum last fall focused on “grading teachers,” and Dr. Hanushek was on the panels before and after mine. I directly confronted his line of reasoning, and accused the LA Times of being part of a war on teachers. I believe this encounter is one reason he wrote this defensive piece.

You can watch Hanushek on the panel that followed mine here:

At about minute 27, he says “As a nation, if we could be Finland, which is at the top of these scores, there’s pretty strong evidence that the present value of future gains to the US economy is $100 trillion dollars.” At this point I interrupted him from the audience to point out that Finland has a child poverty rate of about 2%.

Hanushek responded by saying:

There is no doubt, no researcher that I know that has ever said, that family background [note that he refuses to use the term "poverty."] is not extremely important. It's not an issue. We understand that. We don't have the means to change families. Or we're not willing to use that as a nation. We DO have the means to adjust what our schools do. That's our public policy instrument. That's why some of us spend all of our time not looking at how to change families, but how to change the schools. There's absolutely NO evidence that if we gave $10,000 a year more income to poor families that the achievement of those kids would increase. There's absolutely none. That's not to say we might not, for societal purposes, and I believe it, that we should worry about the income levels of the poor people. But not because that's the way to solve our school problems, or that we have to wait until we equalize incomes to address some of these achievement problems that are extraordinarily real.

Richard Rothstein was also on this panel, and offered this rebuttal:

I'd like to take up Rick's comment, that the choice is between equalizing income or improving educational achievement. That's not the choice. The choice is between doing SOMEthing about the family circumstances of children who come to school not ready to learn, and not doing anything about it. We'd get a lot more purchase out of doing something about it then we would out of many of the school reforms that are being advocated. If I had the money to reduce the principal/teacher ratio to a reasonable level where you could evaluate teachers, you'd get much more bang for the buck from taking that money and building a health clinic in those schools than you would by putting more principals in the schools.

This is precisely the issue.
Leaders like Hanushek systematically lead us away from real solutions that they have decided society is unwilling to contemplate. His views are guiding the education “reformers” - you will hear him cited by Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan. Reducing class size is too expensive. Likewise quality pre-school, libraries, dental care, health care, nutrition, etc. They actively ignore the many things along these lines that their chosen role model, Finland, has done. Simply offer a bonus for higher test scores, fire the bottom five percent, and you have the perfect combination of carrot and stick. And vilify anyone, especially our teachers’ unions, that say this is not the best way to improve our schools, by accusing them of protecting bad teachers.

A year from now, if we do not confront these attacks, our classes will overflow, our retirement funds will be decimated, and our due process rights removed. Our public schools will be de-funded, even as the billionaires funding “school reform” insist they are acting in the interests of the poor. This is a fight for the future of education in America, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What do you think? Is the teaching profession under attack? How should we respond?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.