Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home


“There Are a Lot of Really Bad Teachers Out There”

Posted: 2011-01-24

from Phi Delta Kappan, October 2010.


A district's plan to standardize units, lessons, core assignments, and assessments for all elementary and middle school English classes would sacrifice good teaching for the sake of equality. Good teaching requires allowing the teacher to make decisions and to adjust lessons to fit the situation. Mandating a practice undermines good teaching and creates an illusion of quality that obscures and thus perpetuates bad teaching.

It was another August inservice. While my colleague Keith wrote subversive professional

development haiku (how convenient that âtriangulationâ has five syllables!), I listened to

the consultantâs rationale for leading us through a multi-year process to standardize the

countyâs 9th-grade English classes. A similar process had already resulted in common

units, lessons, core assignments, and assessments for all elementary and middle school

English Language Arts classes.

After reminding us of the literacy crisis, the consultant assured us that standardization

would solve at least two problems of equity. First, students in the same school would no

longer have completely different experiences of English 9 simply because they had

different teachers. Second, the countyâs migrant students lost instructional time because

they moved so often. With the new standardized curriculum, a student might move from

School A to School B and find her new English class (literally) on the same page because

all classes would be taught in the same way.

I had to admit: The plan had a certain egalitarian logic. Still, I couldnât shake an image

from a Kurt Vonnegut short story my 10th graders would read with me in a few weeks. In

an attempt to make âeveryone equal, every which way,â the Handicapper General --

Diana Moon Glampers -- has weighed down George Bergeronâs above-average body

with hundreds of pounds of birdshot and muddled his above-average mind by assaulting

it with sounds from an ear-radio. When Georgeâs son Harrison casts off his handicaps,

refusing to conflate equality with sameness, the Handicapper General murders Harrison

in front of a television audience. George watches the broadcast of his son's death, but in

the space of a commercial break and an ear-splitting series of radio transmissions, he

forgets why there are tears on his face. In my mind, the consultant was morphing into

Diana Moon Glampers.

After the presentation, I described how my best teaching evolved as I got to know my

students and experimented in the classroom. I worried that mandatory units, lessons, and

assessments would weigh me down like George's birdshot. With a wink and smile, the

consultant said, "Thatâs all well and good for you, because you're like an artist. But there

are a lot of really bad teachers out there. You're going to have to give up some of your

freedom to prop them up a bit." She leaned in for the kill, "Why don't you join the

committee that creates the common curriculum?"

Despite Vonnegut's warnings, my sensible English teacher clothes began to strain against

the pressure of my inflating ego. I was sort of like an artist, wasn't I? Why shouldn't I

join the committee and impose my progressive methods on others? Wouldn't my own

lessons ultimately be better for students than the grammar worksheets and five-paragraph

essays many were currently enduring? I thought of my 3rd grade son, whose teacher had

told him he couldn't bring Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen, to school with him for free reading

time because he needed to choose books from the leveled book tubs. If I were ELA

Queen of the World, never again would a leveled tub stand between a boy and his book.

Voice and Choice! Vive le Revolucion!

Luckily, my imagined power trip didn't strip me of my sense of irony. How could I call

for student voice and choice and then deny it to the teachers whose students I'd be trying

to empower? On the other hand, if I refused to join the committee, I'd have to implement

their curriculum, lessons, and assessments.

Teachers all over the country face a similar conundrum: Standardize and impose their

own progressive methods, or be the victims of mandates with less progressive roots.

So whatâs a progressive educator to do? I'm uncomfortable with the consultant's

invitation to impose my ideas on others, but I sympathize with the concern that led her

there: How do we make school a better place for all students?

While the consultant and I share an interest in improving schools, her concept of the

problem fails to consider the influence of environment on teachers' actions and decision

making. Mandating practices in the effort to improve teaching paradoxically creates the

kind of environment that undermines good teaching. The consultant's solution

contributes to an environment that actually stunts teachers' ability to make good

decisions in the classroom and obscures bad teaching with its illusion of uniformity. All

educators involved in school improvement and professional development efforts have a

responsibility to consider their own role in creating situations that affect teachers' ability

to thoughtfully navigate the interaction between principles, practices, and studentsâ


Mis-Identifying the Problem

The consultant diagnoses the problem as she sees it: "really bad teachers out there." Her

prescription? A large dose of control in the form of a mandated, uniform program.

Teachers' actions are controlled, but the teachers' decision-making power -- the teaching

self developed through knowledge, experience, and reflection -- is largely bypassed.

There is no "development" of the teaching self in this kind of professional development,

only control over actions.

This particular solution to the problem of "bad teachers" implies a fixed view of the self.

We see this attitude demonstrated most clearly in conservative anger toward teachers

unions, which harbor "bad teachers" from administrators whose hands are tied. While

invoking progressive notions of equity, the consultant offers the next best thing to

termination: If we canât get rid of teachers' physical selves, we can replace their teaching

selves with the standardized self of the mandated, scripted curriculum.

This concept of the problem and the solution that follows -- "bad teachers" who must be

replaced or controlled -- ignores the very real influence of environment on a person's

actions and even personality. Research on personality -- against the field's early

assumptions that personality is a stable construct -- suggests that an individual's

personality changes not only within an individual over time, but also from situation to

situation. Theorist Walter Mischel tells the story of researcher Theodore Newcomb, who

was so distressed by his failed attempts in 1928 to find stable patterns of introversion and

extraversion in boys in a summer camp that he switched careers and became a social

psychologist (Mischel 2004: 2-3). Of course, as Mischel points out, both the person and

the situation are important (2004: 5).

For Mischel, the person and the situation have to be studied together. Current research

shows that an individual will exhibit a range of behaviors on any given scale

(introversion to extraversion, for example), but this range becomes predictable within

different groups of situations that the individual experiences as similar (Mischel 2004: 7).

A teenager might be more introverted in most situations involving unfamiliar adults and

more extroverted in most situations involving familiar peers. Anyone who works closely

with teenagers will not be surprised, I think, by such conclusions.

If it's true that the self and the situation work on each other, then the very climate of

control created by the consultant's mandated curriculum has to be considered a situation

with profound effects on the teaching self. What are the effects of this situation of

control? Even if we can all agree that there is some really bad teaching out there, those

who want to make schools better places need to grapple with this question, or their efforts

are irresponsible, even if well-intentioned.

Ranges, Degrees of Control

Schools exert varying degrees of control over a range of activities. On one hand, teachers,

administrators, community members, and students might work together to develop shared

principles and evaluate classroom practices and school policies against them. On the

other hand, some schools standardize the very words teachers must say. And there are

different kinds of negotiated principles or mandated scripts. A school guided by the belief

that students are active meaning makers surely looks different than a school guided by the

belief in students as receptacles of imparted knowledge. And perhaps there is some

difference between schools that mandate different kinds of scripts. I might prefer that my

sonsâs teachers read from lesson transcripts in Lucy Calkins' workshop-based Units of

Study rather than from scripts dictating decontextualized phonics exercises. But this is a

choice I donât want to have to make.

It's easy enough for progressive educators to condemn any kind of script, but what about

everything in between -- imposed materials, assignments, practices, and assessments?

The consultant wasn't asking me to participate in creating a script. She wanted me to

create mandatory materials, assessments, and practices. To those invested in systems that

control teachers, my position against mandating my own practices might seem silly, even

perverse. How can you oppose practices you use yourself? To understand my objection,

we have to understand the relationship between principles and practices in good teaching

and how this relationship becomes perverted when practices are imposed.

Principles and Practices

Our practices are expressions of our principles -- our beliefs about learning and the

nature of whatâs being taught. Many practices may express a single principle, and most

practices negotiate multiple principles. Consider just three principles many progressive

educators hold about reading instruction:


Appropriate level, and

Shared experience.

The practice of using leveled book tubs stresses appropriate level and choice. The

practice of reading whole-class texts emphasizes shared experience. Independent reading

practices stress choice, and book circles negotiate all three. An educator who holds all

three principles may view all four practices as viable options, experimenting with various

combinations of them, and even creating new practices.

If the play of these three principles werenât interesting enough, add the educator's

knowledge of her students' experiences. An English teacher might note that her 11th

graders are using Spark Notes to avoid reading whole-class novels. Her principles first

operate to help her understand the problemâs cause; knowing the importance of choice in

her own reading life, she attributes the problem to an exclusive diet of teacher-chosen

texts. Consequently, she might decide to base her English class on independent reading.

But no single practice is perfect, and she might find that, while independent reading helps

motivate readers, both she and her students miss the shared experiences of texts. The next

year, she might try one round of book clubs or one common text. This might work well

for one class but less effectively for others. She doesn't stop adjusting and experimenting

from year to year, or class to class, because no program -- not even one she works out

herself -- can prescribe exactly the right combination of practices in all circumstances.

Good teaching, then, depends on the educator's ability to make decisions that are both

responsive and grounded: responsive to her observations about individuals and class

dynamics, but grounded in principles.

When Practices Are Imposed

If good teaching depends on responsive and grounded decision making, educators must

cultivate an active intelligence that allows them to negotiate principles, practices,

students' needs, and the ever-changing classroom and school environment. Does

mandating practices cultivate or undermine this active intelligence?

Let's consider the effect of mandating leveled book tubs on teacher decision making in

my son's school. Teachers who use leveled tubs place "real" (rather than basal) books in

tubs grouped by difficulty. I have no problem with leveled tubs or teachers who use them;

the practice developed from the negotiation of principles I share. The tubs make it easier

for teachers to provide choice while ensuring that students arenât overwhelmed by too difficult


For a teacher who holds principles primary, my son's request to bring Hoot to school

would have been answered by thinking through how the request met the principles

involved. Choice? He had chosen the book. Difficulty? He was already reading it. But my

sonâs teacher wasnât told to think through how she could honor choice or appropriate

difficulty; she was told to use leveled tubs. A practice divorced from principles can offer

only a literal extension of itself in answer to a novel question: Well, no, we use leveled

tubs, and Hoot isnât in the leveled tubs.
In this way, mandated practices become so rigid

and codified that they no longer serve the principles that created them.

Again, the problem is not the practice itself, but what happens when we emphasize

practice over principles by mandating practice. It doesn't much matter that Fountas and

Pinnell (2006: 156) specifically warn against holding children to a certain level, for two

reasons. First, the environment of control (you must use leveled book tubs) sets up a

literal relationship between the teacher and the practice. The educator wasn't being asked

to actively negotiate her students' needs, the principles, and possible practices. If she had

been invited to focus on the principles, she might have seen several possible practices

that would express those principles. Her active intelligence would have been required and

strengthened as she decided which practice to use -- or how to combine various practices

or invent her own.

Instead, she was told what to do -- leveled tubs. The result? A literal interpretation of the

practice, and a literal interpretation of practice is bad teaching. But, again, we have to

hold the situation as accountable as we hold the teacher. Blaming her is absurd when the

teaching situation didn't allow her to make the most fundamental decisions about what to

do in her classroom. If we want to make school a better place for students, our response

to the problem of bad teaching cannot reinforce teachers' literal relationships with


The marketing of Fountas and Pinnell's leveled literacy system encourages a distorted

focus on practice at the expense of principles. Unlike such authors as Nancie Atwell,

Kelley Gallagher, or Penny Kittle, Fountas and Pinnell sell literacy systems, not

professional books meant to prompt teachers' thinking. And the difference matters. The

Leveled Literacy System and accompanying Benchmarking Assessment Program â

which costs upwards of $3,000 per grade level and comes complete with the Fountas and

Pinnell assessment calculator â promises results with faithful implementation of its

prescribed daily lessons, materials, and assessments. Districts are happy to buy these

expensive systems for teachers, provided that everyone follows them. But good teaching

means thinking through hundreds of small, new questions every hour.

Uniformity: An Illusion of Quality

Mandating a practice not only creates an environment that undermines good teaching, but

also creates an illusion of quality that obscures and thus perpetuates bad teaching.

Mandated practices and programs lull everyone but the students into thinking that

everything is going well â all our teachers use leveled book tubs, a good, research based

practice! (Students, of course, know the difference.) Good teaching doesn't rest on

specific practices, but on how well the educator actively thinks through hundreds of

decisions that no program can script. When we look beneath this thin veneer of

uniformity at the decisions actually being made, our perception of quality breaks down

quickly. This problem can't be solved with more, bigger, better programs. It must be

solved from the inside by first, acknowledging that teachers' decision-making process is

at the heart of good teaching, then by allowing teachers to actually make decisions, and

finally, by reflecting on and evaluating those decisions in light of principles.

I wish that my son's teacher's refusal to allow Hoot in her class were as rare as it is

ridiculous. Unfortunately, this particular form of rigidity has become alarmingly common

since practices originally founded in principles, such as appropriate level, have been

systematized. Parents and teachers all over the country tell me stories of librarians and

teachers who won't allow children to check out or read books that are above or below

their reading level -- often determined by Accelerated Reader or DIBELS. One South

Carolina teacher tutored a boy who wanted to read a Gary Paulson book above his level;

the librarian refused to check it out to the boy or to the teacher who would give it to him.

The teacher smuggled the book out of the library. Systematizing the results of thinking

(practice) rather than encouraging thinking itself makes this kind of idiocy inevitable.

How can we place all the blame on professionals for not thinking when we don't allow

them to think?

While teachers should have freedom from mandated practices, I'm not advocating teacher

license. If principles were primary, there would be room for differences; certain educators

might emphasize certain principles over others. But the practices would have to express

the range of the schoolâs values. The kind of flexibility and freedom I'm arguing for is

grounded in (and constantly evaluated by) the negotiation of principles developed

through the interaction of educator experience, disciplinary knowledge, and the school's

culture. Groups of educators might meet regularly to discuss their curriculum,

assignments, or assessments in light of their shared principles, pointing out novel

practices or particular decisions that express these principles particularly well, or

questioning practices or decisions that seem to undermine these principles. This is serious

intellectual work -- valuable not only for the way it affords teachers flexibility while

upholding a school's values, but also for the way it develops teachers' ability to make

thoughtful decisions in the classroom. In these groups, teachers and administrators would

hold each other accountable not for a rigid program of common practices, but for active

teaching and thinking -- for practice grounded in principle.

So, what about the consultant's invitation: Impose your "artful" practice on others or

implement the results of others' thinking?
I joined the committee and made my arguments

about why the committee's mission itself was misguided. Three months later, my

principal told me I wasn't allowed to go to further meetings. After flunking out of the

committee, I worked with my school's English department to convince the administration

that we should pull out of the county's "professional development" efforts. It worked. We

took over responsibility for our own professional development and began developing our

own shared principles and evaluating practices against them. But that's a story for

another article.

Fountas, Irene, and Gay Su Pinnell. Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency:

Thinking, Talking, and Writing About Reading

. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2006.

Mischel, Walter. "Toward an Integrative Science of the Person." Annual Review of

55 (February 2004): 1-22.

More Commentaries

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.