Thursday, April 9, 2009

Reform: Bad Teachers vs. Other Problems

In response to a question from a teacher recently, President Obama said that some people just aren't cut out to teach. The President had asked the teacher if she had personally seen any teachers so bad that she would not want her children in that classroom. The teacher looked away and didn't respond. Here's a link to a news account.

I know that there are bad teachers; I'm a product of an urban public school system. I've had some terrible teachers. The problem is that the whole NCLB-type reform movement seems to blame most of the problems with public schools on the teachers. If only they were "highly qualified," then everything would be fine...

The problem with this view is twofold- Firstly, some teachers are good. My concern with merit pay is - who defines the good teachers. If the principal decides, some principals may favor the brown noses regardless of whether they can actually teach. Test scores pose other problems, especially single session high - stakes tests.

Secondly, there are other factors, intervening variables, at play here. One example is poverty. In some schools, the students show up hungry; cannot concentrate and have to negotiate halls full of drug dealers. They go home to a family more focused on feeding everybody than on reading to the kids or checking homework. Then we are shocked when many of these kids don't do well in school and a disproportionate amount of them end up in special education. What is more shocking really is that some of them do succeed. We should study those kids and their families to get a handle on what reforms should look like.

Don't misunderstand, I'm all for reforming our schools to make them better. Our kids deserve the best. But the reforms will have a better chance of success if they are reality based.


  1. I'm a parent of a special needs child who became a special ed teacher and now works as a special education advocate. I agree with just about everything you say.

  2. "Studying families* should also include getting parents' feedback on teachers. I'm sure there are surveys/inventories (anonymous of course) that could help teacher effectiveness and service-related standards. Many of my special ed parent-friends agree that teachers who don't provide good *customer service* are likely to provide similar educational experiences. While subjective, many parents are educated people (some ven teachers) who can provide useful data. Has anyone thought of asking the children themselves...especially those old enough to take an honest (anonymous) survey?

  3. The parents usually get verbal and non-verbal feedback from their children regarding their teacher's performance. Any parent can usually tell within the first 6-8 weeks of the start of the school year if their child is excited about school and learning or not. If a child comes home asking questions or commenting on things they were not recently exposed to at home, it is a good sign the teacher is doing a good job. If a child comes home and picks up reading materials more frequently than usual, it is a good sign the teacher is doing a good job. When a child is excited about going to school most mornings, it is a good sign the teacher is doing a good job. When the child is sleeping well, it is a good sign the teacher is doing a good job. When the teacher shows good planning and shares information regarding weekly lessons with the parents via the web or on paper, this is a sign of an excellent teacher that understands the value of partnership with the child's parents to enhance learning. When a child is afraid to go to school or is suddenly disinterested in learning, it is a good sign that the teacher is missing something very crucial and needs immediate intensive help. Rather than waiting for teachers to fail by reviewing them at the end of the year. Schools should conduct parent surveys with the above mentioned ideas, such as, "Is your child excited about going to school most mornings?" The surveys should also include a question if their responses relates to the child's teachers or peers. Then, based on the the results, schools can make proactive changes to their program. For example, if a classoom survey shows only 1 or 2 children having issues and they are not peer related, consider assigning those children to another teacher with different personality traits than the originally assigned teacher. If survey results indicate a peer issue, use that as a "teaching moment" to promote diversity and positive behavior supports and incentives. If survey results indicate a teacher issue, then the teacher should be provided with the assistance of the best rated teachers to observe, help problem solve, possibly co-teach, provide training, and implement a system of relief stategies (such as implementing rotations to give an overwhelmed teacher different perspectives to bring back to the classroom). It also gives schools a means of identifying and seeking help for teachers who are just having a bad year. This also meshes with the school schedules of having professional development days 10 weeks after the start of school allowing teachers to get professional training that are directly applicable to their needs.

  4. Whoa! Before everyone reaches for h/her crop to flog the teachers collectively, perhaps another view from a veteran teacher might give you something to think about.
    In 34 years I worked under more incompetent principals than the teachers. Not even close in comparison.
    1. Principals running the schools in a military-style format. Harsh discipline/harsh punishment
    2.Establishing an environment lacking "love of school" or love of learning. Draconian rules, lack of creativity.
    3.Establishment of cronyism; suck up to the principal and get the plum jobs (lower class sizes, advanced students)
    4. Principals who took very capable teachers and reassigned them to courses wherein they lack a depth knowledge to inculcate sufficiently.
    5. Principals who brought their religious or political ideology into the school house and expected h/her teachers to align themselves to his religious or political tenets.
    5. Principals who put athletics (especially football and basketball) over academics
    6. Favoritism: Math department received more monies than the history department which results in newer technology, textbooks, ancillary materials.

    Are there bad teachers out there? Well, yes, just like any profession. But teachers do not hire teachers, principals do.
    Contrary to what is read/heard in the media, the number of bad teachers out there is very small. The number of de novo trials is so small as to not register as a big fuss with the court clerk.
    Even more unfair is to suggest that it is hard to "get rid of bad teachers". That statement is extremely offensive in that teacher organizations work to defend teachers who have been denied due process. Due process is negotiated, and it falls under state law.
    As prez of a teacher association I have seen more principals try to "write-up" or fire teachers over such things as clothing, hugging students (not sexual exploitation), failure to sign in (as if on a time clock), disagreeing with principal over pedagogy; smoking on school grounds, and on and on.
    Merit pay is insulting as well, in that you can pay a doctor/lawyer a $1,000,000 a case and he won't be any better than he was at $3,000 per case. The same could be said for teacher.

    Merit Pay is in the marketplace of ideas by the folks on the right who have sought to dismantle public schools for years. Sound bites for merit pay, vouchers, charter-schools, home-schooling always sound great but they lack merit and a history of success.

    The biggest myth out there is the old chestnut "We shouldn't throw more money at education without better results". What blather!. This nation hasn't spent anything on education compared to Euro/Asian nations. In fact the last major infusion of $$$ into ed. occurred during the race for space era and the results of said money was overwhelming.

    Jim, you should know full well that 1/4 of education goes to special education and it has certainly taken its toll on common ed classes nation wide.

  5. I work for one of the best school systems in the entire country. I witnessed a principal, dir. of sp. ed, and superintendent "protecting" a highly incompetent sp. ed. teacher for several years rather than remove her, until finally they were forced to act because a staff member threatened to go public with the situation. Why would they do this? Two main reasons: Fear of a lawsuit from her, and 2) her students (severe needs) were low priority and unable to report themselves, so therefore a low priority threat as well.

    I think this situation might be common.

  6. I completely agree that the problem with the drive for increased accountability is who determines what constitutes a good teacher? Do we want to fire the teacher whose students do great on standardized tests, but hate every minute in class, dread school, and fantasize about dropping out, or do we want to fire the teacher whose students perform below-average on standardized tests, but look forward to school, are intrinsically motivated to learn, and enthusiastic about continuing their education? Obviously these are not mutually exclusive, but how do you measure both and how do you weigh them against each other?
    Aside from standardized test results, a lot is subjective, and I think that administrators who haven't taught in decades, if ever, are not always the best people to make these decisions.

  7. Wow some great comments here.

    Thanks Jim for your kind words; they mean a lot coming from you.

    Any other ideas about how to determine which teachers are good and which are bad? I like the idea of parent surveys as an additional factor. Maybe ther should be multiple indicators?

    Thanks for the comments,


  8. Besides blaming teachers (and lord knows there are some that really suck)and demanding accountablitity, we need to first,look at how school districts choose curriculums and how effective they are, especially in reading and math! If we give a good teacher a program that is ineffective with students, then there will be failure and it is not the teachers fault! I have been writing a series of articles about the poor chioces of reading methodolgy schools pick for sped students. They don't realize that Sped students are not "at risk" readers, they are dyslexic. Most MS sped programs do not teach proper reading insturction that work for dylexics.
    Please check out a series of articles on my
    San Francisco Special Ed examiner column:


  9. Thanks for your views Robin