Teaching Profession Commentary

Our Own Worst Enemy

By Sam Minner — May 30, 2001 6 min read
Why are we so silent on the issue that matters most?

Several months ago, I attended a meeting to consider the application of a young man for admission into a teacher education program. The student was a junior and had completed nearly all of his general education courses. As he put it, those classes were now “out of the way,” and he was ready to get down to the business of “learning to be a teacher.” The young man wanted to teach science at the middle or high school level and, given that career goal, I was struck by how few science classes he had taken. I was even more struck by how poorly he had performed in them.

The admission process began with a faculty team reviewing the student’s academic record, including his grades, ACT scores, and other data. When I commented on how few classes he had completed in his discipline and noted that his grades in those classes were barely passing, I was quickly informed that he met the admissions standards (a C-plus overall GPA and a perfunctory speech-and-hearing screening) and was a “good student with good potential.” The interview began.

The candidate told us of his sincere interest in helping students and serving as a role model for them. He spoke at some length of a particularly influential 6th grade teacher, who had helped him with an unspecified, but apparently very difficult personal problem. Since that time, he related, he had “always wanted to be a teacher.” I admit that his comments were moving. But I just had to ask him something about the subject he intended to teach. So I asked how many planets were in our solar system. He did not know. I asked what a phylum was. He responded, “It has something to do with biology.” Of course, he was admitted to the program.

Some time after that encounter, I attended a meeting of K-12 educators focusing on achievement problems among poor children. Nearly everyone there was a teacher or a school administrator, and some had won state and national awards for their superlative work. Speakers described their daily working conditions, including poor physical facilities, a lack of up-to-date technology, and few or no before- and after-school programs. An objective observer could have walked away from the meeting believing that the problems discussed could be partially or totally solved by spending more money. The gathering ended, in fact, with an agreement to lobby state legislators for more funds and to work harder to inform the public of the plight of low-income children in the state.

Just a few weeks ago, I had a third meeting, this one with legislators and other policymakers. The buzz here was almost totally on what they perceived to be an impending and acute teacher shortage. I was grilled extensively on what we were doing to prepare more teachers. Suggestions abounded on how other institutions were experimenting with Web-based teacher preparation, alternative routes to teacher training, and other innovations designed to quickly (and at relatively low cost) get large numbers of teachers into the workforce. One legislator glowingly described a pilot program he had visited, wherein “para-educators” (individuals with absolutely no formal preparation in either the disciplines they were teaching or in pedagogy) assumed the responsibility for classrooms under the supervision of seasoned teachers. According to the legislator, this strategy addressed the teacher shortage and did so in a manner requiring relatively few resources.

Teacher quality is not just an important issue facing our schools, it is the issue.

To my mind, these recent interactions with teacher-educators, K-12 educators, and state legislators were notable for what was not discussed: namely, the quality of teachers and how that directly affects how well schools function and the degree to which students learn. Teacher quality is not just an important issue in addressing the many challenges facing the nation’s schools: It is the issue.

The fact that teacher quality is so often off the radar screen becomes even more curious, given the significant amount of research evidence suggesting that this variable is the most powerful predictor of student success. In the landmark Tennessee studies of teacher efficacy, William Sanders and his associates clearly demonstrated the power of teachers. Top teachers increased the scores of low-achieving students by an average of 39 points above the scores of comparable students taught by poor teachers. Moreover, students who performed equally well in the 2nd grade displayed a significant achievement gap three years later, depending on whether they had been taught by good teachers or by poor teachers.

We also know from research much about what superlative teachers are like and how they behave. In general, they have deep preparation in the subjects they teach, actively engage their students in learning activities, conduct frequent assessments and checks on learning, engage in meaningful and ongoing professional development, and have a desire—a passion—to do the work they do.

Given these findings, why are so many of my colleagues in the educational establishment hesitant to engage in meaningful discussions of teacher quality, and even more hesitant to make changes consistent with this information? Surely, no one is against quality. I suspect the reasons are complex and varied. Some teacher-educators may fear what would become of their often large and sometimes influential programs if admissions standards to improve teacher quality were introduced. Others may be reacting to the political and societal pressures to produce more teachers in light of the alleged teacher shortage. And many K-12 educators find it difficult to engage in a serious discussion of teacher quality without offending colleagues and alienating co-workers.

If children are not achieving at high levels, and if the quality of teachers is the principal factor predicting those levels of achievement, then we can reasonably argue that the people doing the teaching are not of high quality. Needless to say, this is a tricky argument for someone working as a teacher to make. And legislators and policymakers have their own reasons for paying scant attention to teacher quality. Supporting legislation that will somehow quickly and inexpensively get more people into teaching is an easier sell than championing efforts to improve teacher quality. The latter are difficult and cost money. Whatever the reasons for our infrequent attention to teacher quality, however, it remains our best hope to make schools better.

The fact that teacher quality is so often off the radar screen becomes even more curious, given that this variable is the most powerful predictor of student success.

Based on everything I have heard and read, and everything I have experienced myself about what works and doesn’t work in schools, the quality of the teacher is the most important factor in students’ achievement. What teachers know (or do not know) and what they do (or do not do) makes all the difference in the world in learning. Unfortunately, I continue to be amazed by how little my colleagues talk about this fact, and how little we do about it.

Educators complain a lot about external attacks on the profession from those who have never taught a class of children. These critics are seldom seen as collaborators or people who could work with us to solve problems. They are often viewed as enemies: people who muddy the waters of educational reform and offer few real suggestions for improvement. Concerning teacher quality, though, we have met the enemy ... and they are us. Much time and many resources have been and will continue to be lost if we in the education community don’t begin to focus on the variable that matters most: teacher quality.

Sam Minner is the head of the division of education at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Our Own Worst Enemy


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