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Superstar Teachers - The Super Cure for Closing the Achievement Gap?

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As I wrote on Wednesday, I've spent some time lately combing through the pages of Diane Ravitch's book The Death and Life of the Great American School. As a public school reformer myself, I appreciate her informed, unique look at the state of the P-12 system in the U.S. Considered a liberal early in her career, she was initially a supporter of reform issues considered "conservative" today like the No Child Left Behind Act and the establishment of public charter schools. She has since returned to her roots, at least enough to call herself an Independent, and attacked some of the most popular theories for reform.

I talked about the way that schools of all types (traditional public, private and charters) game the system when it comes to accountability standards in my last post - a myth that on the surface may look like learning is truly being achieved based on predetermined standards and practices like teaching to the test. Today I want to look at another myth of the contemporary P-12 system that Ravitch also dispels in her book: the myth of the Superstar Teacher.

You are probably familiar with the concept, particularly since it is perpetuated in popular culture through movies like the classic Edward James Olmos film "Stand and Deliver" and 2012's "Won't Back Down." The idea is that with the right teacher - a committed, bright, in-tune, talented teacher - P-12 problems like the achievement gap and high dropout rates will cease to exist. If only every student had a standout teacher like the ones portrayed in these shows, the very P-12 system as we know it would be transformed for the better.

I do believe in the power of teachers, both positive and negative, on their students. I train educators for a living and have written books about following "the calling" to become a teacher. I do think that teachers make a difference - but like Ravitch, I cannot put all of my faith in these "superstar teachers" to reform the education system the way that is truly needed.

For one thing, the schools that desperately need some sort of superstar saviors are often unable to attract them. In a study on urban schools and poverty released by the National Center for Education Statistics, urban administrators said that they had difficulty attracting and retaining high-quality teachers. This observation, coupled with the fact that schools with higher percentages of students living in poverty had less resources available for teaching, is a recipe for disaster when it comes to counting on these "superstars" to close the achievement gap, lift standardized test scores and increase graduation rates. These urban schools are the very places that need all of those factors to happen to improve student achievement and the long-term overall quality of life in those communities. So if the answer falls solely on strong teachers, these places are in a lot of trouble.

I also think it is unfair to count on, or to blame, teachers solely for the performance of their students. Yes, they play a role in shaping the young minds in their classrooms and yes, they should be held accountable for that. It seems to me that the root of issues in classrooms that tend to cause the most problems for students (like poverty and ill-equipped or uninvolved parents) should be the target of any true reform. Teachers come and go, moving from school to school or on to different careers. Strong programs that address equality in education and focus on social issues at the root of learning challenges are what will truly make an impact on what students learn and retain, and whether those students succeed.

What are your thoughts on the roles of teachers? Are there enough "superstars" to transform the system?

Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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