Hey Legislators! How Many Bad Teachers ARE There??

One of the standard crank arguments against teachers’ unions is that they protect bad teachers. Get rid of the unions, the rhetoric goes, and you can finally, finally get rid of all those terrible teachers.

That’s a great idea. Makes me think of this cartoon recently posted on Facebook: just blame all the bad teachers!

So….you want to know, don’t you? How many bad teachers are there out there?

I think you might be surprised. A 2009 report from San Francisco showed that about 1% of all teachers were bad ones, using a wide variety of evaluations (not just test scores). A recent commentator concluded, “…maybe the vast majority of teachers are doing a pretty good job.”

My personal experience corroborates this. I would even say that I’ve seen an upsurge in teacher quality since the SF report in 2009. Certainly in my experience, limited as it is by geography and circumstance, the faculty I teach with is dedicated, creative, and thorough. I’m proud to be associated with them.

We are a pretty easy target. Things not going well? Blame the teachers, not other real factors, such as “…indifferent or recalcitrant students, not poverty or hunger, not mistreated kids, not gangs or crime, not delinquent parents, not central administration, not principals, not state funding levels or the numbers game played with test scores,” as Rodger Jones, a Dallas editorialist suggests, but just blame bad teachers.

I trust that San Francisco study. My observations support it: there are really few bad teachers. If teachers’ unions support them, shame on them, but neither the very few bad teachers nor the teachers’ unions are at the root of our problems in education.

Legislators, stop taking potshots at teachers, almost all of whom are doing a good job. Things have changed in our society, and our students reflect those changes, good or bad. We all agree we want to help our kids, but blaming the teachers is certainly not the way to do it.

Teachers Unions Protect Bad Teachers

That’s the argument anyway: it’s impossible to get rid of bad teachers because teachers’ unions make it nearly impossible to fire them. Statistics say that it takes up to $219,000 to fire a bad teacher protected by tenure (http://teachersunionexposed.com/protecting.cfm).

But what makes a bad teacher? It’s not as easy a call as you might think.

Answering that question, an anonymous poster on a blog site wrote: “Great question! And I am a teacher. 1) Little or no sense of humor, and/or ability to laugh at oneself. 2)burnt out/uninspired/bored teachers. 3) Teachers w/ poor skills in communication, orginization, creativity. 4) judgemental teachers who are unable/unwilling to recognize their student’s strengths. 5) teachers who focus more on their student’s weaknesses. 6) those who do not differentiate their teaching styles/behavior management for individual students.7)those who simply do not care. cold, uncaring teachers…..I could go on…. ” You can read other good opinions here: http://www.dcurbanmom.com/jforum/posts/list/188300.page.

As you can surmise, determining bad teaching is a very subjective proposition. I remember one of my professors in college describing an eye-opening conversation with a public-school student. The professor had always considered himself to be a a pretty darn good teacher. The student had had a bad year with him and said, with great sincerity, “You are the worst teacher I’ve ever had.”

The professor’s point? A teacher may be good for some kids and not for others. Who says who’s bad? Disgruntled parents, unhappy about a bad grade, can put negative pressure to get rid of a teacher. A principal may just not like someone. A teacher struggling with depression or illness may have a few bad years. A struggling teacher may improve with help.

OTOH there really are bad teachers. I would say there are not very many of them. However, does it take dismantling teachers’ unions in order to remove them? What other approaches might we have?


“Torchwood: Children of Earth” and No Child Left Behind

We just enjoyed a great romp, watching “Torchwood: Children of Earth” on BBC, a week-long miniseries.  It was clever and artfully done, although we thought the ending was disappointing (no spoilers here though; you should see for  yourself).

In the story, aliens visited England years ago and were given a “gift” of a dozen children in order to get a remedy for a terrible virus that would kill millions. In the mini-series, the present-day aliens are back for more: children. They want 10% of the world’s population of children (what for? no spoilers: watch the series). The British officials don’t want to give up millions of children, but the aliens threaten planetary destruction if children are not delivered, so the British government agrees.

But how to choose which children?

You’ll never guess! In a British version of No Child Left Behind, test scores are meticulously kept from schools all over the nation, so everyone knows which are the high-scoring schools and which are the failing schools. The Brits’ answer is simple: just give the aliens the children from the failing schools, since those children are obviously inferior.

One of the ministers points out that this would amount to racial discrimination, since the higher-scoring schools serve the higher-income (and usually white) children, but this comment is overlooked.

What delicious irony! Lower scores equal lower worth–so sacrifice those children! With a sideways glance, “Torchwood” skewers such programs as No Child Left Behind.

It’s nominally true that our American student test scores are lower than those from other countries. But how can we compare America’s test scores to those in countries like Japan or Sweden? Those smaller countries have far more homogeneous populations and cultures, with far more resources to serve far fewer students.

In America, we embrace people from many cultures, economies, walks of life, and points of view, in a vastly larger geography. Of course we want to improve education everywhere, but please don’t take the easy path of  accusing bad teachers and bad schools. Most of the time, schools struggle to do the best they can with the limited resources they have. Most of the time, teachers are good people with good hearts, working as best they can to serve a wildly diverse population.

Give public education the support it needs. Watch out for those aliens. . . .the school they demand for sacrifice may be yours.

Mcain, Obama: Neither is Good for Educators

Barack Obama lost my vote this week when he said that one of his first priorities in office will be to fund charter schools and school vouchers. He lost my vote: doesn’t he do the research, or doesn’t his research team do its job? If we stick to the (debatable) measure of test scores as the touchstone of a good education, then charter schools have, over the long term,  proven to be inferior, as have vouchers. (Please note: I think charter schools can be a good thing despite lower test scores, as for example great arts charter schools.)

However, vouchers are proven losers –and people in my state, Utah, agree, as they shot down voucher legislation last year with over 131,000 signatures on a petition calling for a public vote on the measure, which was then soundly defeated.

McCain lost my vote when, in his acceptance speech, he vowed to remove bad teachers and fix a failing system. As Virginia Riley pointed out in her excellent editorial in Sunday’s Salt Lake Tribune (http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/ci_10456190), who are these bad teachers? You’ve got to read her whole editorial, but here’s a brilliant clip:

Have we really failed? Public schools are doing everything McCain asks of us with inadequate funding, facilities, textbooks and technology. Sitting in public school classrooms are students with autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, dyslexia and a host of physical and mental challenges. There are abused children, drug addicts, pregnant girls, clinically depressed adolescents, gang members and students with myriad social and emotional issues.  . .    There are students from families facing economic hardships, students who are putting in 40-hour workweeks and then falling asleep in high school classrooms, students who are trying to raise younger siblings, students who are undocumented immigrants, students living out of cars and students who don’t speak English and don’t understand what we are saying to them. . .     We teach them all.”

It is such a cheap and easy shot to say that schools are failing, that teachers are bad, that students are falling behind. It’s so easy to compare test results from American schools, especially inner-city schools or schools with transient, low-income, non-English speaking populations, with schools in places like Japan, smaller countries with homogenous cultures and small families. It’s an impossible comparison.

So now. . . I’ve got no one to vote for.  Obama suggests that he would reform No Child Left Behind. I don’t see any suggestion of how he would do that except for his commitment to charter schools and vouchers. . . back to square one.

Seems to me, that when you get right down to it, that the politicos are all about soundbites and not solid research, when it comes to education.