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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

The Trouble with Teaching’s Circle-the-Wagons Mentality

By Rick Hess — December 22, 2010 3 min read
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Recently, I keynoted a state Teacher of the Year banquet and said what I tend to say at such affairs, which is that I don’t romanticize teaching because--while I believe that most teachers mean well--the reality, I think, is that many or most benefit more from their role than do their students. (By the way, it’s typically not advised to have me speak at those kinds of affairs; such addresses require a certain sweet, sentimental sensibility that I generally lack.) I told them that I was honored and delighted to be with them not because they were “teachers” but because I value excellence and great teaching--and I can’t think of anything worthier than being an excellent educator.

This notion, that there’s a difference between fawning over “teachers” and admiring terrific educators, always seems to rankle. That evening was no exception. The honorees went to great pains to make clear in their remarks that every single teacher is a precious, sacred “gem” and to insist that they were no better or more committed than any other teacher in their school, district, or state. And to say that they all needed to remember that every teacher is “saving lives” and deserves to be protected from any who would question their efforts or skill. Indeed, whenever I’m in the field and we get into the subject, I hear from teachers that measures to identify mediocre educators, reward excellent teachers, compensate teachers based on the scarcity of their skills, or remove lousy teachers constitute “attacks on the teaching profession.” I’m not talking particularly about “unions” here, I’m talking about classroom teachers.

That circle-the-wagons mindset does a grave disservice to good teachers and the profession. It enlists the most effective and impassioned in the service of the least worthy. It drowns out the voices of educators who are trying to contribute in serious ways to discussions about accountability, staffing, and pay, leaving policymakers skeptical of what educators have to say. This is a huge problem, because there are real, practical concerns with much of the simple-minded reform agenda. If they weren’t seen as reflexive opponents, educators could much more effectively help address real concerns.

For instance, just last week, the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project noted that the correlation of a given teacher’s value-added, from one course or one year to the next, is pretty darn small. It’s about .35 to .40 in math, and about .20 in ELA. The value-added measures of teacher performance bounce around--a lot. This isn’t a reason to “oppose” value-added assessment, but is good cause to be smart about using it.

Similarly, value-added systems are vexed by the “teacher of record” problem. When we tally up batting averages in baseball or points scored in hoops, we know who swung the bat or took the shot. In teaching, we may not. In some schools, pull-out instruction, shifting assignments, team-teaching, and student mobility mean that a teacher may be instructing a given student 100 percent of the time or 10 percent of the time. Casually disregarding such considerations (as many states have) or merely pretending that these considerations won’t distort a teacher’s apparent performance is just naïve. Even if every state adopted top-shelf longitudinal data systems tomorrow, we could only generate value-added data for perhaps a third of the nation’s teachers anyway (given grades, subjects taught, and so on). Simply suggesting that we’ll “get around to it” or substitute observational protocols when it comes to history or music is hardly a compelling answer.

Such concerns aren’t reasons to reject value-added systems, but are cause for taking care as we proceed. Educators could and should be helping policymakers to rethink simple-minded remedies and to solve these problems in smarter ways. Some are. One sterling example is provided in the new Teachers College Press book Teaching 2030, in which Barnett Berry and a number of practitioners wrestle with how to reshape the profession. Teach Plus is engaging young teachers in these conversations in serious ways.

But these positive notes are drowned out by the circle-the-wagons drumbeat urging teachers to “stick together” (e.g. with the best standing up to shelter the worst) and the insinuation that taxpayers and policymakers should fork over the money and the kids, and then butt out. This state of affairs is bad for policy, bad for schools, bad for kids, and, ultimately, bad for teachers and teaching.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.