Teachers can fix a broken profession

Don’t like what an education reformer has to say? Just call them a teacher basher.

Increasingly, that’s what teachers and others are doing, with this recent blog post on CNN – “When did teacher bashing become the new national pastime?” – being the latest in a long list of examples.

Most of these articles set out straw men. There’s the frequent assertion that we only want to judge teacher performance by one standardized test score (few do). And another that teachers simply face an impossible job with students who are too damaged or too unmotivated to learn (a myth Education Trust dispelled long ago.) Most reformers assert quite properly that a teacher is the heart of the education system and the key to improving it. They should be treated better. They should be valued more highly. But the conundrum seems to be that teachers just don’t seem to believe that anyone can fairly measure what they do, so they collectively have resisted all efforts to implement meaningful performance standards. I find that odd, however, because I have never met a teacher who couldn’t tell me in a couple of minutes who the best and worst teachers in the school are

If we assume a good teacher enables a student to advance quickly and a poor teacher does the opposite, then it becomes difficult to dispute that the teaching profession is horribly broken.

Solid research suggests that with consistently high quality teaching, we could overcome the achievement gaps that plague our schools and reverse the decline in academic standing with our international competitors. We know from the research how much of a difference a high performing teacher makes in academic outcomes. And yet, we recognize and compensate teachers based on how long they’ve been teaching and how many college credits and degrees they have – factors that research shows has little connection with effectiveness.

Tenure, which is granted in K-12 forever and at best tied to perceived performance over the first 15-18 months of teaching, further complicates the situation. I am a school board member who knows the problem first hand. I have yet to find an instance where the cost of the dismissal process and the risk of having to take a poor teacher back into our district did not outweigh a large, usually six-figure settlement to secure a teacher’s resignation.

To repair teaching, we must address performance evaluation and tenure reform. This is even more critical for the future of the profession because the current system has adversely and corrosively affected schools of education, which we rely on to train and prepare new teachers and provide professional development and advanced degrees to experienced ones. A lack of accountability has turned many schools of education into “cash cows” for universities. The quality of the training has suffered because it is not especially important or tightly measured by either the customer teacher or the provider university. Yet the customer teacher must take classes to increase pay. This is true both for teachers and school leaders, according to Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia’s Teachers College, who conducted extensive analyses a few years ago. When any credits will earn you a raise, even if they don’t relate to what you teach, the content of those credits has been devalued.

So despite the rhetoric, pointing out the weaknesses of the teaching profession is not “bashing teachers.” It’s a clarion call, even a pleading, for the profession to take responsibility for improving the educational outcomes for which teacher unions and associations claim teachers are central. This is only slowly occurring and mostly with grudging reluctance.

The reality is virtually every parent and practically every adult I talk with can remember multiple horrible teachers that either they or their children had – and nothing was done. I know of cases where poor teachers spanned multiple generations of the same family.

At the same time, most of us remember inspirational teachers that changed something in our lives, perhaps our entire lives, for the better. The teaching profession urgently needs to get out front in making sure more students routinely have great teachers instead of resisting change.

Society is aching to reward good teachers. But it wants to be sure which ones are good, and to have confidence that the problem of weak teaching is being seriously addressed.

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