Battling the Bad Teacher Bogeyman
Publication Date: 2011-01-02
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?
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:
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:
Richard Rothstein was also on this panel, and offered this rebuttal:
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?
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