Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

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

Publication Date: 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.

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.