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Why Are People So Gullible About Miracle Cures in Education?


Dear Deborah,

Teacher-bashing has become the motif of the day. It is usually cloaked in some high-minded rhetoric that pretends to praise teachers. Say the bashers: We need great teachers; great teachers can solve all our problems; great teachers can close the achievement gap; if you don't have great teachers, you are doomed; blah, blah, blah. What they really mean—read between the lines—is that they think most of the teachers we now have are no good. We have to start firing the stragglers, the ones whose kids don't get high test scores. The theory is that—emulating Jack Welch at GE—we should fire the bottom 10 percent every year, and over time we will have a staff of "great" teachers because all the bums will be gone.

Recently, I attended a conference where a well-known scholar actually proposed this as the way school systems should function. Just keep firing the "weak" and replacing them with newbies. That way, the teaching force will get continually better.

Part of the reasoning is founded on the belief that recent graduates of the Ivy League colleges (aka the best and the brightest) will fill the ranks of the teaching corps and recruitment of "great" teachers will not be a problem. I am still trying to understand the math. Teach for America brings in 5,000 or so teachers a year; there are 3 million teachers in America. I don't believe that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, and Berkeley will ever supply enough teachers to fill the need for new teachers. Nor am I persuaded that someone will definitely be a great teacher just because he or she graduated from a highly selective college. I know people, as I am sure you do, who are utterly brilliant, highly educated, with degrees from the best colleges, who were failures in the classroom. And I know superb teachers who graduated from state universities.

The quest for the mythical great teacher—the one we must stalk like some rare beast of unsurpassed beauty—is tinged with contempt for the large majority of teachers who did not go to Princeton or Swarthmore or Harvard. I habitually read news articles online about what is happening across the nation in education, and I frequently read the comments. Whenever there is an article about teachers, it is often followed by a series of comments that express rage toward teachers. "She got what she deserved." "These lazy teachers, they teach only 10 months a year, and they have the nerve to complain." "No wonder our kids are failing when we have teachers like that!" "Why should they get a raise, they have an easy job." On and on the complaints go. I have tried to figure out where all this anger toward teachers comes from. I just don't get it.

One other thing: You mention the hype and spin that we often see in the media. It seems that many journalists won't write about education unless they can find a miracle to write about. So they find a teacher or a school where kids who were completely indifferent to learning were suddenly transformed by the inspiration of one teacher or one school. A classroom full of sullen thugs turns into mathematical geniuses or poets. When people see this narrative again and again, they must wonder why every teacher is not performing similar miracles. After all, they went to the movies and they saw an existence proof. And, as many of our illustrious peers often say, "If it can happen in one school, it can happen in all schools."

As long as we expect schools to perform miracles, we will continue to be bitterly disappointed. Perhaps it is this phony expectation that has created so much anger and frustration among the public. Surely they wonder why all teachers can't be like Jaime Escalante or any of a dozen other miracle-workers.

I was struck, too, by your mention of the journalists who see a miracle where there was none at all. Geoffrey Canada's school, as described by Paul Tough, is one such. It really was a story of Canada abandoning the kids who started at his charter school because they couldn't get the scores he wanted. So out they went. No miracle there!

Or another miracle was reported in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. It seems someone administered a test (I think it was the Graduate Record Exam) before and after the presidential election to a group of African American adults. Before the election, there was the usual achievement gap between the races; after the race, the gap closed. I had an extended email exchange with a friend about this "study." He wanted to believe that it was true. I finally gave in and said, "Yes, yes, we can stop worrying about the achievement gap. Now that Obama has been elected, everyone will read at grade level, none below. I can't wait to see the results of the next state tests. We can all stop worrying now. The kids who couldn't read last year will now be proficient."

The great mystery is why so many people are so gullible about miracle cures when it comes to education. They certainly don't expect miracles in any other part of their life. But the schools just can't seem to shake this belief that all children will learn to the highest standards when: 1) all teachers are great teachers; 2) every school has a brilliant leader as principal; 3) every superintendent has an M.B.A.; 4) every school is run by entrepreneurs; 5) every school is organized around a theme; 6) every school is small; 7) all schools are charters. I know that multiple-choice questions are supposed to have only four answers. In this case, I could have added another 10 or 20.



So much of the problem is that few commentators have much practical experience in schools to it is easy to sell them on the propoganda you just described. Over and over, these instant experts get quick tours - often of a Potemkin Village - and think they've toured a school. The worst come out saying, I saw teachers with the same kids ..." But ask these experts and you realize that they didn't know that they weren't seeing the same kids.

Here's a simple example. How many of these experts understand that there is no comparison in an inner city school between teaching Algera I and Algebra II? Algebra I tends to be full of freshmen with skills that are five years or so below the required skill level. By the time juniors take Algebra II, they have two more years of maturity, and about half of the freshmen have dropped out. Their skills may be low, but the survivors had the goal of graduation in front of them in an obtainable manner.

Similarly, outsiders complain that our middle schoolers have a 90% plus pass rate in Algebra I (because only honors students take algebra in middle school in most places)while freshmen who take the course have a 15% pass rate. So, obviously freshmen teachers have low expectations. But often the same teachers teach 8th and 9th grade or 9th and 11th grade. Do they become incompetent between one class and another?

We in the classroom all know these realities. Too many outsiders do not because they already have their minds made up.

I have considerable personal experience with what we in the mid-west often call "bi-coastal arrogance". As a foundations faculty member at Kent State, I once attended a 2-day conference at AEI on ways to "get" better teachers. One particular presenter reported on a study he had made of foundations syllabi from the "top" schools (meaning largely east and west coast "ivies"), and decried the finding that none seemed to use readings across the political spectrum. "Why," he moaned, "no one was teaching any of Diane Ravitch's work!" At the time, I was using "Left Back" very effectively with undergraduate preservice teachers; so I raised by hand, was called upon, and stated that fact. He looked at me rather oddly, and asked where I was from. I said, "Kent State." "Well," he replied, Kent State is not on our list."


I may very well end up eating my words here, but I think it's kind of sad that we consider it a "miracle" when low-income kids perform at grade level. If we really believe that, isn't there some implicit classism there?

Certainly, from my college education, we lived, ate and breathed CPESS. Were we decieved? Was there nothing really there worth celebrating?

As for Canada, I don't know how his program is working now, but other posters have talked about how successful his program has become. In a democratic process, mistakes are made, adjustments take place, and we try again. I haven't finished Tough's book (trying to keep a work-life balance), so I don't know exactly what happened with that first class. But do we throw all that he's done since then out because it didn't work the first time through for him?

I think the larger problem, and the point on which we can connect, is that the media represents an under-educated point of view when it comes to the world of education. Those in the public can all pull from their own experiences as kids, and try and extrapolate that out to include the whole education system. That's why the walk-throughs that John is talking about, or the numbers game that occurs in Algebra II flies over the average journalist's head. How to solve that, I'm not sure. But I really, really hope that we don't consider it a "miracle" to have a school of low-income kids performing at or above grade-level. Rather, I would hope that we shoot, whether we ever reach it or not, for it to become a norm.


I am pretty certain that the search for miracle cures is not limited to education. I recall that in my time doing community work we were besieged at Christmas time by well-meaning tourists who wanted to "really make a difference" by giving some kid, or some family, a present--or even a whole load of presents. These people ranged from the types who had just cleaned out their garages and expected tax receipts for donations of musty clothing stuffed into garbage sacks, to earnest and energetic organizers who were willing to sponsor a party, a tree, a wardrobe, the dinner and swimming lessons in the summer. It was of little use to explain to them that their efforts were really nice, but didn't begin to touch the problems of poverty. And some folks would get pretty testy about any attempts to do so. And others wanted to be certain that we were selecting folks who met their definition of truly needy (that is the abject recipients of unforeseen misfortune, not lazy, and properly grateful--and lacking in any existing creature comforts that might better have been sold off to buy food for their children).

And when I wrote grant proposals, it was always the smallest funders looking for the biggest impact for their funds.

When I did talk and tours or exhibits for our local community chest, there was certain to be someone there who had stopped giving back in the sixties--when all those poor folks stood up and went to Washington. If you want to experience bashing--try sticking up for poor folks for awhile. Sometimes even teachers bash poor folks.

Health care is a good place to look for folks wanting miracle cures. I have a teenager with whom I have regular conversations explaining why those expensive cures on television aren't likely to produce any change in his life--let alone the ones that they promise. There are folks in schools who buy into health care miracles as well. My son's first IAT meeting (conveniently scheduled so that I couldn't attend) came out with the mysterious recommendation that I take him to the doctor--for a full work-up. This was their way of tap-dancing around the fact that they couldn't out and out say "please put this child on Ritalin."

What I think that we have to be really careful about though--in our rejection of miracle cures--to communicating the impression that nothing works. That nothing can be done for instance to ensure that low income kids perform at something like grade level. Brian is right. Accomplishment of this one thing ought not constitute a miracle. Certainly we should try to understand any of the islands where this is accomplished. There are days when I might even be willing to look at getting rid of the bottom 10% every year just to shake the machinery. (I am not advocating this seriously, please!)

But I don't know if we are really looking at teachers vs the rest of the world. Teachers flock right along with the rest of us if there is a hint at an easy cure. Teachers have their own personal guides to bashing the culprits (administrators, politicians, business people). I'm not sure where on earth to go with all these. Perhaps, "Step One: Admit that we have a problem."

It's great to point out the difference between anecdote and systematic study. That said, research does reveal that classroom teachers have a significant impact on student learning. Great teachers aren't mythical - they exist in multitude in almost every school - nor are their results miraculous - we know a great deal about best practices in teaching from research on pedagogy. It's difficult, if not impossible, to identify great teachers before they're in the classroom setting, but that doesn't excuse us from the difficult task of exiting teachers who do not make good use of instructional time to engage students in learning and who are not willing to further develop their craft. How would you support the argument that it's better to leave a known under-performing teacher in place than to take a chance on a new teacher who could also be under-performing, but who, by virtue of a good hiring process, you think will be good, and might even turn out to be great?


Yes, yes, yes! The myths of the "miracle teacher" and ubiquitous "awful teacher" are part of the same phenomenon: a strange belief that we can fix our problems if we make them simple in our minds. Just cast things in terms of good and evil, eject the evil, and there you go!

This, combined with the rash application of so-called "scientific methods" to complex human matters, results in... multiple-choice online teacher screening tools.

I was horrified when I first saw the Haberman Star Teacher Pre-Screener a few years ago. Some districts actually use this tool to determine whether or not a prospective teacher will be successful; other districts have similar tools. The Haberman Foundation claims that this tool has a 95% accuracy rate "in predicting which teachers will stay and succeed." How do they know that those teachers who failed the test would not have stayed and succeeded?

Let's say that those who pass the test are indeed likely to succeed. We're still in trouble. For one thing, the tool does not assess knowledge and love of subject matter, so we might get a slew of "successful" teachers without those qualities--teachers who could stick it out for a few years, manage a class, drive up test scores, and teach children that they can be whatever they want to be, without giving them reason to want to be anything.

I have read too many vague student essays about how you should "go after your dreams and never give up." That is a noble sentiment, of course. But I suspect that many children do not know what that means in the first place.

The teachers who inspired me to "go after my dreams" were not the ones who told me to go after my dreams. Nor did they teach me "strategies for success" (the daily bread of schoolchildren today). They inspired me through their own love of their subject, their singular personalities, and their wisdom. They were not always popular. They dared to stand apart.

The Haberman Star Teacher Pre-Screener does not give points for such traits, from what I can see. It may even weed them out.

Diana Senechal

I have spent many years mentoring brand new teachers who have come through alternative certification programs.
One day, I shall write a book about my experiences.
For now, let me say that I have met some talented people who have come through these programs and I have met some complete disasters who should never have been let near children.
Some of these disasters came from Ivy League colleges.
I cannot tell you how many times I have had to step in to prevent chaos, and in some cases harm from coming to children as a result of sending in people with little or no training.
It is so unfair to children.

One of the results of looking for miracles is that we get tunnel vision in our search for a solution. Jonathan is correct in stating that research has shown that significance of strong teachers.

The problem is that this is then taken to mean that nothing else matters. And if nothing else matters, then the solution lies exclusively in the recruitment, development and retention of strong teachers. But oh, research also shows that teachers peak about their fifth year, so it's really all about recruitment and development. But it's easiest to focus on recruitment, so let's focus on that.

In the meantime, nothing else matters. I read Jay Greene recently state that once you get beyond grass huts, the condition of school building doesn't make a difference. (This was based on research by Eric Hanushek at Stanford.) And this is not an isolated case of using research to reject nearly all attempts at ed fudning. Since teachers are the miracle cure, the thinking goes, everything else is a waste of money.

This is a little bit like treating your tennis elbow with surgery, but not considering what caused the tennis elbow in the first place. Or protecting New Orleans with new levees, but doing nothing about receding wetlands, let alone global warming.

We will attract strong teachers with better buildings and smaller class sizes. More people would want to teach if they knew their students would not be distracted by untreated health problems, violence in their communities, etc. And, most importantly, we could develop much stronger teachers if we invested the practices and conditions that enable teachers to develop, like mentor teachers, preps for planning and PD, administrators and counselors to handle non-teaching responsibilities, and more.

In the search for a miracle cure, we go after one symptom (when there are so many) with no regard to the causes of our malady.

One other point: one of the things that I love about Canada in Tough's book is that he recognizes that the superstar teachers who produce dramatic results are never going to amount to a systemic solution. That's the whole basis for the Childrens' Zone, the idea that it takes many different supports to make a difference for most children. On that point, it seems, Canada and Diane are in firm agreement.

Excellent question. I suspect the answer lies partly in the fact that thorough, incremental, long-lasting reforms are kind of boring.

It is NOT the teachers!

Placing so much emphasis on teachers is misplaced. The students are the most important factor in learning and students must be engaged and have a desire to learn for any learning to transpire. Learning is not a passive activity. A teacher could be an all-star, but if he/she is teaching unmotivated students, then he/she will not be successful.

Malcolm Gladwell recently compared finding successful teachers to finding successful quarterbacks - http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/15/081215fa_fact_gladwell

Good teachers like good quarterbacks excel in certain situations and do poorly in other situations. There are many reasons why someone might be a good quarterback, but a quarterback would not succeed without the rest of the team. Would Joe Montana have been as good in another system? Eddie Debartolo was willing to pay top dollar to get the best players on the 49er’s team and Debartolo’s deep pockets built a dynasty in San Francisco. Bill Walsh and his West Coast offense also played a significant role in Montana’s and the team’s success.

When the NFL implemented salary caps to increase parity in the league, then the 49ers lost their dominance. When Montana went to the Kansas City Chiefs he did not do very well (some people will argue that Montana was at the end of his career and beat-up, but Jim Plunkett was at the end of his career and beat-up when he won a Super Bowl after being traded to the Raiders). So could the success of the 49ers be attributed to Joe Montana, the team, Bill Walsh, Eddie Debartolo’s deep pockets, etc?

A teacher in the inner city might not do very well, but if moved to a private school or a school in the suburbs then he/she might excel and/or be named “Teacher of the Year.” Jamie Escalante (Stand and Deliver) did very well teaching students at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, but failed miserably when he went to a different school. Why? Was it the school, motivation of the students, principal, parents, etc? Circumstances and supporting cast are huge factors in the success of both teachers and quarterbacks.

If a football player is not trying, refuses to work out or run plays, refuses to get along with other players, disrupts practices, etc., then he will be cut from the team. No one would blame the quarterback for the poor attitude and/or effort of a teammate, yet we blame teachers for the poor attitude and effort of the students.

No quarterback would want to have his pay docked for a teammate who refuses to attend practice, refuses to work out, and who refuses to behave. So why do we blame teachers or threaten to dock their pay and/or fire them when their students refuse to do any work, refuse to behave, and/or refuse to go to class?

Football like education is not a passive activity. You must be actively involved to get anything out of it. In football you can be cut from the team for a number of reasons, but teachers are not allowed to expel nonperforming trouble makers. Instead, teachers are held accountable for the lack of effort of their students.

Why do we expect k-12 teachers to deal with nonperforming troublemakers when we would not allow nonperforming troublemakers in our college classrooms, workforce, or on our sports teams? Teachers like quarterbacks will only succeed if you give them a supporting cast that is willing to work hard.

Our society must acknowledge and address that most of the failure of our educational system lies in the lack of effort of the students and lack of parental involvement. As long as we continue to blame the teachers and schools for the lack of effort and self-control of the students, our educational system will not improve nor will we be able to reduce the achievement gap.

esl, I follow, I follow, I follow, but then...blame the students and families? Kick out all kids who cause trouble? Give up all hope?

Your analogy breaks down when you start talking anout teachers (quarterbacks) making cuts. Montana never cut anybody, and he still had to be accountable for his performance while playing the Bears, Giants, etc.

Gladwell's point was that good teachers are hard to identify in advance, but like quarterbacks, they're really important.

I was hoping your analogy would take us to: every public school should be taken care of like the Niners dynasty teams.

Two points:
1. The anger focussed on teachers occurs because learning can be a difficult and painful experience some of the time, and the frustration involved is often projected onto the teacher, who is then irrationally resented.

2. The miracle expectation is the other side of the coin. When we have a eureka moment of learning insight, we project that onto the teacher too, who becomes magical in our memory. All other teaching and learning experiences fail to live up to that experience, no matter how much is actually learned in those more pedestrian classrooms.

Learning is a highly internal and emotional experience, with the emotionality often exacerbated by the high-pressure, artificially-measured structures where it officially happens. This combines with a lack of reflective understanding of how one actually learns to create these shallow and emotion-laden observations on learning.

I have to refute what Joan Vinall-Cox said.

Once I was describing some of my great teachers, and someone replied, "You say they are great. Where's your data? How do I know they're great?" This person implied that I could not rely on my own memory, that only data could show what a great teacher was.

She was wrong. We do not have to bow to data. Memory can distort, but it can also show more truth than a set of figures.

The "magical memory" is not necessarily shallow, nor does it necessarily lead to the "miracle teacher" myth. Even less does it lead me to seek a formula for the identification of miracle teachers.

Some teachers are indeed magical in my memory (including recent memory), but also human. I remember them with their faults as well as their virtues. I do not think they would be the "solution" in any classroom or that every teacher should be like them. It would be impossible; their very nature resists duplicating.

The official quest for the miracle teacher is a bit different. The recruiters want a specific type: young, energetic, organized, freshly graduated from college (Ivy a plus), goal-oriented, unquestioning, etc. They claim "research" has shown that such teachers will be "successful" in the classroom. They disregard the obvious: many of these teachers leave after a few years. Some become great, inspired, deeply committed teachers--but the recruiters really care about the short-term. The revolving door is their ideal; forgetfulness is their god.

Diana Senechal

"I know people, as I am sure you do, who are utterly brilliant, highly educated, with degrees from the best colleges, who were failures in the classroom. And I know superb teachers who graduated from state universities."

This just stunned me. I am wondering if the ice will ever melt off the end of your nose.

There may be no magic bullet, but in their quest for fame and fortune, people will continue to claim to have discovered one. Where before we sought the miracle "teacher proof" curriculum, now we seek the miracle "poverty proof" teacher. I heartily concur that disdain for the profession runs through the current rhetoric, and that most people still cannot admit that they have no clue about what really happens inside classrooms. I am dismayed but always hopeful, because the teachers in my courses inspire me to be optimistic. One thing they seem to understand very well is that it isn't enough to look at outcomes and claim that learning was successful. They also want the learning to be good. Everyone recognizes that endless test prep may raise the scores, but it is not good learning. In fact, it's learning that hardly sticks at all. They also know that there are domains over which teachers have some degree of control, and there are others that are not within their reach. Fenstermacher and Richardson (2005) make this point very clearly when they state that learning, to be both good and successful, requires:
1. willingness and effort by the learner
2. a social surround supportive of teaching and learning
3. opportunity to teach and learn
4. good teaching
We simply can't put all our eggs in the good teaching basket. We must also look at working conditions for teachers and supports for learners. No one will stay in teaching if they are essentially asked to supervise 30 children while they fill in bubble sheets all day long.

Well--Alexandra and esl would prefer to blame students and their families, while Diana goes after science (or the reliance on research and data). John is more general about "outsiders," echoed by Alexandra, who suggests that only teachers understand what happens inside of classrooms. And then there are the free-floating associations with ivy vs non-ivy college preparation.

Over on Leader Talk, there is a post about the show Super Nanny--and what one might learn from it about consultation. A key point is that it is up to the parents on this show to accept responsibility for being the adults in a situation. Never mind the horror-show that the kids are putting on. The adults have not only the ability, but the responsibility, to change their behavior in ways that will impact the children.

While I am quite certain that if parents crossed the line into official abuse or neglect there would be phone calls made and we wouldn't see that show. Just as teachers who fit into that category need to be, and one hopes are, removed from responsibility. But in most cases, kids are responsive to the focus on doing a small number of things differently. Not to say that this is easy. Many shows record the struggle to set a bedtime or enforce and "everyone sleeps in their own bed" rule. What is happening, though, is that parents are establishing their own responsibility for defining the limits of acceptable behavior. It is hell--at first. Some kids take a whale of a lot of those unconversational returns to their bed before they wear out and give up. And the parent by that time has collapsed in the hallway. And, if this were to be the way things continue--well no one would continue. But the reality is--it doesn't continue in this way (unless the parents give up halfway through).

But, what has happened is not simply that a "new behavior" has been taught. What has happened is that the parents have reclaimed from their children something that they had ceded over time out of just getting tired, giving up and harboring inaccurate beliefs about what they could in their kids were capable of. This is important learning that carries over to other situations.

In best Vygotsky style, the Nanny ensures that the area of new learning is introduced--and then supported--and then trialed without supports, and evaluated--and at the end accomplishments celebrated.

The outcomes that are evaluated are not related to how difficult the kids are, or how much the parents love their children. The evaluation is simple--did the kids go to bed when they were supposed to? And the change comes because the adults were willing to accept responsibility.

The hard work that goes into building a solid foundation does not make interesting reading or good movies.

The piano virtuoso who practices several hours a day, or the honor student who stays in and studies makes for a rather boring script.

As for a "business case" of why there is no single solution (silver bullet, one-size-fits-all, miracle breakthrough, etc), read "Why Your Startup Shouldn't Copy 37signals or Fog Creek." (http://onstartups.com/home/tabid/3339/bid/8354//Why-Your-Startup-Shouldn-t-Copy-37signals-or-Fog-Creek.aspx).

Basically, the miracles are the outliers.

Jason Fried takes this farther in his response, "Why you shouldn't copy us or anyone else." (http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/1561-why-you-shouldnt-copy-us-or-anyone-else)

He explains that the foundation, the reason for having things the way they are now goes back to how and why the process developed the way it did.

I had a different take on the Vanderbilt study about the impact Obama's election may or may not have had on scores of African-American students--temporarily or long-term.

If this bump did occur, I wouldn't consider it a "miracle" at all. It would instead, once again raise questions about what it is that standard tests are actually measuring?

Your sardonic remark to your friend about the end of the achievement gap, brings to mind Gloria Ladson-Billings' speech at the AERA convention a few year ago, when she made the case that it's not the so-called "achievement gap" we should be worrying about, but rather the "education debt."

It's not surprising therefore, that removing one brick from the wall of historic social/political inequality and boosting the morale of students who had little hope in advancing in society's mainstream, would also bump up some test scores. Just imagine what the bump would be like if more kids came to school well-fed, or in good health, or from employed families.

Dear Diane and Deborah,

I think most people desire simple solutions for extremely complex problems. Many misleading statements have been repeated often enough that the masses believe them.

For example, there is nothing false about Jonathon M Pratt's statement:
"It's difficult, if not impossible, to identify great teachers before they're in the classroom setting, but that doesn't excuse us from the difficult task of exiting teachers who do not make good use of instructional time to engage students in learning and who are not willing to further develop their craft."

This statement is not false, but very misleading.

There is evidence demonstrating that quality teachers make for good instructional results, but none that prove that our current situation is the result of too many unqualified teachers.

Perhaps it's only difficult to predict teacher success because no one has ever tried creating a predictive model. All I've ever heard is anecdotal evidence. You'd think that teachers hired themselves based on all the bashing. I have to laugh when I hear the phrase "Teacher Recruitment." Trying to get a teaching job is like trying to get a driver's license, but takes 10 times longer and the DMV is nicer.

The job itself weeds out most of the people who can't cut it; Jack Welch isn't necessary. Most importantly we have probation and tenure. School supervisors are to blame if they grant tenure to unqualified teachers. Teach for America is not successful because of the candidates they select so much as that they give an incredible amount of support and follow-up after the training process. If the NYCDOE gave as much support and follow-up as TFA, I guarantee that it would have the same level of success.

And finally Jonathon I defy you to find ANY teachers who do not make good use of instructional time to engage students in learning and who are NOT willing to further develop their craft.

First: Make up a list of the teachers who don't make good use of instructional time to engage the students in learning.

Second: Bring the list to me and together we'll fire ALL of those who are unwilling to further develop their craft.

The misleading part is that everybody presumes that these teachers fill up our schools.

On the face of it the concept of only having the best teachers in our schools is highly unlikely to occur for budgetary, teacher culture, and process reasons. The question I often ask is how do the mediocre teachers in other countries achieve far better results than our mediocre teachers. You could argue the students are more interested in learning. I would also argue that the entire education process in many of these countries is designed to make it easier to succeed as a teacher. Whether it is a well defined set of national standards combined with remarkably specific teachers manuals (as are provided all teachers in Japan) or online supplemental programs like Heymath.com that is used by 85% of the students in Singapore. The focus in these education systems appears to be on how to insure every student has the best chance of getting an education by creating a teacher friendly process that is fully supported with as complete a tool set as available. Yes they work more hours, and have far more students in their classes, but the spend far more time preparing than our teachers. Our system appears to be designed to create the opposite result. The US system has structural defects including but not limited to; funding based on property tax, teacher seniority determining where a teacher works and the lack of any consistent content standards for any subject. It’s a miracle a middle class student from the burbs can spell let alone be competent at algebra. As usual we continue to focus on “a bridge to far” rather than what has been proven to work.

I finally get it. The reason we don't have only great teachers in every school is due to the unions.

The unions go to non-Ivy league colleges and recruit people who can't get real jobs. The unions hire special hypnotists to fool the poor unsuspecting MBAs and Lawyers who loyally and humbly serve our children. Under a spell, they have to hire these unqualified teachers and place them at low performing schools. Meanwhile, at the best schools the principals want to get rid of their highly qualified teachers and send them to the low performing schools but the union has fooled the principals at the low performing schools into believeing that they don't want those teachers.

It’s not about blaming students or families; it’s about finding the right place to look for solutions to academic failure.

The fact is, achievement differences attributable to teachers are miniscule compared to the differences attributable to SES.

How’s this for a plan we can all agree on:

Let’s look at the top ten percent of teachers in poor, minority schools. If their students are mostly on grade level, then we should figure out what those teachers are doing and have everyone else do the same. Problem solved.

But if even the best teachers are leaving too many children behind, then let’s agree that the better-teachers thingy is not going to get us where we want to go, and let's bend our efforts in some other direction.

On the other hand--I just followed this click from ASCD--on recommendations from a Florida group seeking to improve outcomes for African American males. I have to admit--I haven't read the report yet, just the headlines, which deal with a moderately sensible recommendation, provided it can be supported with resources. http://blogs.tampabay.com/schools/2009/02/should-teachers.html

But if only half of the respondents who claim to be teachers actually ARE teachers, well, Houston, we have a problem--and it isn't that teachers are targetted for bashing, it's that they are actively volunteering.

Sorry--that's why I enjoy hanging out here. I can believe the best about the majority.

Margo: Interesting comparison between teaching and "Super Nanny." I like watching that show - always fun to see how Jo whips the families into shape. I agree with you to a point: Teachers can set expectations for their students and use rewards and punishments to achieve the desired results.

But there is a flaw in the comparison: Teachers only get the students for about 45 minutes a day (in middle/high school). Teachers are not the final arbiter of punishments and rewards: The parents, guidance counselors, principals and VP's all have their say. As a former teacher, I cannot tell you how many times I enforced a consequence (often to a school-wide rule!) only to be overruled by the administration after the student or his family complained.

For example, I worked at a school with a "three tardies = detention" policy. I dutifully recorded all my students' tardies, and then assigned detention to the students who received three tardies in a given time period. The students complained (I think one student's detention would have made her miss track practice). The administrators took the side of the complaining students. The students did not attend detention and were never held accountable. They never believed me again when I said they would get detention for being tardy.


I think you see the same result when Mommy and Daddy are not on the same page. It's still up to the adults to get their collective act together.

Margo: I agree that the "adults" should get their collective act together. But many op-eds place the blame for failing to institute clear consequences solely on the shoulders of the teachers. In my experience, teachers have little control over whether the parents, principal, counselors and other adults involved in the student's life are on the same page with regard to structure and consequences. For instance, I once had a student whose mother allowed him to stay out until 2am on week nights on a regular basis. As his English teacher, what legal authority did I have to force the mother to impose consequences on her son for staying up late?

I totally agree with Margo that the search for miracle cures is not limited to education. It happens in any field. I would say that it has to happen in any field. If I got engaged in a conversation with a policeman, he would probably think I foolishly expected miracles. That's understandable. I know nothing about law enforcement. Some realities that are painfully obvious to a policeman would be totally absent from my thinking. If I got engaged in a conversation with a city planner, I would probably again come across as foolishly expecting miracles. It's inevitable.

The general public knows something about education, from many sources, but they cannot know some things that are painfully obvious to practitioners in the field. So it seems that they expect miracles. Of course! It has to happen in any field.

I am much more concerned with educators expecting miracles. Progressive education, and its many derivatives, has for about a century new believed in variations of what I call the "interest first fallacy" - the idea that our job is to somehow inspire interest in a subject matter and then just get out of the way. We don't need to assign and grade homework. We don't have to give tests or grades. We don't need to lecture. Worksheets are boring and a waste of time. We don't have to use punishment. Students will take on projects and activities that are self motivating and everything will be wonderful. Learning will be fun.

That, to me, is expecting a miracle. That is not reality as I know it.

Unfortunately, to say that is to set myself up as a grinch. I'm the bad guy who thinks school should be drudgery. I'm one who has said more than once that school is a place of coercion. That is true in one sense, and it is important. But it is not the whole story. School is a place of coercion in the same sense that a highway is a place of coercion. If you don't obey the rules of the road there are very serious consequences, both natural and mediated. But if you do obey the rules the highway offers tremendous freedom, and tremendous potential.

Learning can be very rewarding to learners, and teaching can be very rewarding to teachers, but only when we understand the realities. I believe most teachers understand the realities of teaching and learning in an intuitive way, in an operational way. We have "street smarts" in doing the actual job of teaching. But I think we lack an analytical understanding of what we do, and I think we are not very good at communicating what we do. So many of us are suckers for fads, and our research is mushy and unhelpful.

From this perspective, it is not at all surprising that the public has unrealistic expectations, and occasional disdain, for education.


One of the benefits I enjoy as a single parent is that I don't have to go through these difficulties at home. I would agree that it is very difficult to make other adults do what you want them to do. However, I would assert that there are far more problems in schools that result from internal dissension between the adults in the school not working together than from those on the outside being able to interfere. In my social work experience, it was the staff working cohesively that allowed us to set expectations in our building and during our time with children that determined a whole lot about kids' behavior--not whether their parents were operating in the same way at home. This didn't negate the obvious benefits of having parents who were supportive and on the same page, and we worked towards this end.

But I would say that principals, counselors and teachers have some responsibility to work together. It goes back to the ownership thing that Deb was talking about. As kids get older, you can get more bang for your buck by including them as well.

A few comments:

1) Scalability is key. Yes, the miracle teachers are amazing, but we know that there aren't enough of them to fill every school. So, they/we need to think about what we can do to improve teachers across the board. (Think about it this way: One of the really good things about NCLB is that it forced people to look at disagregated data. It forced schools and districts to think not just about the the top handful of students or even the overall average. That is how we have to think about the teaching force. The top teachers are impressive, yes. But we need to think about what can be done to make the entire teaching force strong.)

2) Let's be honest here about teacher quality. It is not what it should be, and not what it can be. Rather than focusing on the kinds of lessons that can make a long term difference for students (e.g. Deborah's Habits of Mind) and the kind of leadership and PD that supports the development of teachers who can instill those lessons we are...well, we are engaging in the factory model and standarized testing of testable trivia. It's no wonder that we don't have millions of great teachers -- and we don't -- given a system designed for lessons incompatible with great teaching.

3) This means that teacher quality is not merely an input into the system. It is an output, or at least an intermediate factor. (In my view, schools built around encouraging thoughtfulness in students encourage more thoughtful -- and better -- teachers. That means curriculum, leadership, student evaluation and expectations of stakeholders.)

It would be great if the schools actually offered literature, history, and other subjects, instead of their watered-down versions. Then teachers who loved those subjects would be drawn into teaching, with good reason. They would get to teach them.

That, in my view, would do more to bring in good teachers than the quest for for the right personality, the right alma mater, or the right pedagogical attitude.

My favorite teachers differed in all sorts of ways and still do. But they all knew and loved their subject, and they all had the opportunity to teach it.

Diana Senechal

Diana S.

Have you written about those favorite teachers that you refer to? Write a book. I think it would be very beneficial to educators.

In one of your comments above you say you want to "refute" the comments of Joan Vinall-Cox. That surprised me. I thought her comments were simple common sense. But after rereading a few times I saw your point. My view, after a bit of reflection, is that we are considering two poles of a continuum. On the one side - perspective number one - is the idea that subjective impressions are very fallible, and that objective data can be much more dependable. I agree. On the other side - perspective number two - is the idea that objective data can be utterly irrelevant at times, and grossly misleading at times, whereas intuitive analysis can be insightful and invaluable. I agree with this also. Both perspectives, in my opinion, can be very benefical at times, and useless at others. The two perspectives may be in conflict at times, but many times they are not. Many times they supplement each other.

In the field of education I think we need a lot more of perspective number two. Data we have, in profusion, if we want to go digging for it. But much of it is utterly worthless, and much of it is misleading. Intuitive insight is as rare as hen's teeth.

I have been arguing for some time now that the field of education lacks a basis in simple description. I have expanded my thoughts in an article on my website. Description is not magic, but it is a necessary foundation for analysis and insight. In my comment of two days ago I said much of our research in education is mushy and unhelpful. I believe it is that way because it is not guided by insight.

I was still young when I formed the opinion that an ounce of insight can be worth far more than tons and tons of data. I still think that's true. I expect your descriptions of your favorite teachers would have more than a few ounces of insight.

I keep telling people, it's NOT the teachers fault, not even the administrators fault, everyone is just following the leader here. You want to know whose at fault for real? Find the Reading Coordinator in EVERY school district, they're pompous, know-it-all's, with nothing in their brains. They give the teachers terrible reading programs and then blame the poor teachers for not performing. Given a good reading program, any teacher can perform well.
Even teachers tend to blame each other for students who don't perform. I keep telling them, it's NOT the teacher, they're just doing what they're told - Here in NYC it's that "Teacher's College Model".
Keep speaking out Diane! You're the best!

Let me second esl's recommendation of the article...


I did not look at it, at first, because I have no knowledge of (or interest in) football, quarterbacks, etc. However, the article points out some interesting research on teacher quality and student outcomes by Eric Hanushek of Stanford University.



I am honored that you gave so much thought to my comment, which in retrospect was not as clear as I wanted it to be. You are right--both subjective impressions and objective data have something to offer, and both have pitfalls. Without insight, either one can become murky.

I read your article and found it quite interesting, especially where you discuss the description of the math class. That description is effective, I believe, because the author has insight.

What is insight? How is it different from belief, observation, hunch, mush? It seems we know it when we see it: it cuts through misunderstandings, sloppy conclusions, and so forth, and it is much more interesting than facts or feelings alone.

I think about my teachers often. I love the idea of writing a book about them. I think it would have to wait a while, so that the thoughts and memories could take shape. It would be difficult to do my teachers justice, but an attempt could be worthwhile. Thank you for suggesting this idea.

I see some truth in Joan Vinall-Cox's points after all. Our memories of teachers are indeed emotionally charged, and with good reason. But that does not have to lead to false idealization or to its counterpart, condemnation and blame. When people tell me about their past teachers, their accounts are often complex. The airy eulogies come from elsewhere.

I think you'd enjoy a book I just finished, And Madly Teach by Mortimer Smith, published in 1949. I learned about the book from Diane's The Troubled Crusade and was delighted to find a copy. Here's a quote regarding facts and memory:

"You may have forgotten the rules of syntax and how to parse a sentence, but your study of grammar has left you with an instinctive sense of how to construct a sentence. You may have forgotten the dates of the reign of Henry VIII and the adoption of the Monroe Doctrine, but you have a sense of the chronological order of man's history on this globe. You may not be able to name off-hand the ten principal rivers of the United States or the capitals of all the states, but you have an ordered geographical picture of your country and other countries. Call these dull facts if you wish, but thye are the indispensable background of a well-ordered, that is, a well-educated, mind."

And lest one conclude that Smith cares only about order, here's this:

"Psychology needs a touch of imaginative humility. The psychologist needs to remember that in dealing with the human psyche there are imponderables, and when he approaches it with his tests and formulas and measuring rods, he should assume that his answers are tentative and do not necessarily amount to ultimate truth."

This seems close to what you were saying in two different comments: that much of teaching and learning is hard work, but that hard work brings us to understanding; and we should be aware of the "imponderables" as well as the limitations of our own approach to truth.

Diana Senechal

So many people do believe there are miracle cures for education without realizing the hard work the students themselves must be encouraged to do. I have seen so many students expect less out of their students, creating students and a society that expects nothing out of themselves. Deb and Diane have really hit the nail on the head with their comments and viewpoints for students lost. Students must be encouraged and cultivated like so many of these posts have outlined so eloquently. A wonderful resource for students and mentors alike is an inspiring video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDfew0YcDTo
We need to believe in the opportunities we all have available to us in education.
Azahar (EducationDynamics)

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