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Expecting Too Much From the Best Teachers

It's an article of faith among reformers that recruiting teachers from the top tier of their class will assure top performing schools. The latest example of this thinking was an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Oct. 10 ("Why aren't our teachers the best and the brightest?"). Paul Kihn and Matt Miller of McKinsey & Company cited Finland, Singapore and South Korea's policy of drawing 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of their high school and college classes as the secret of their schools' success.

By contrast, Kihn and Miller assert that the cause of the sub-par performance of schools in the U.S. is the recruitment of teachers from the bottom third of their classes. They go on to explain why low salaries, lackluster prestige and lamentable working conditions deter talented young people from opting for a teaching career, forcing schools to choose from the bottom of the academic barrel.

To buttress their argument, Kihn and Miller write that neither they nor any of their colleagues at McKinsey, who have studied more than 50 school systems around the globe, have ever seen "a nation achieve or sustain world-class educational performance without drawing its teachers from the top third of their class. Should we really bet our children's future on the possibility that our country might be the exception?"

There's only one problem with their case. They say absolutely nothing about the role that poverty plays in performance. According to UNICEF, the U.S. has the shameful distinction of having the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Finland, Singapore and South Korea don't come close. To make matters worse, the Census Bureau report released in September showed that the percentage of Americans below the poverty line in 2009 was the highest in 15 years. The rise was steepest for children, with one in five affected.

I don't believe that even the best teachers can completely overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that poor students bring to class through no fault of their own. They can help narrow the gap between these students and those from advantaged backgrounds, but they can't eliminate it. That's a vital distinction given short shrift in today's debate. It's one thing to improve academic performance in absolute terms, but it's quite another to improve performance in relative terms.

Let's not forget that children from affluent backgrounds are not standing still once they enter kindergarten. They continue to benefit from the enrichment that travel, summer camp and after-school activities provide. As a result, they leverage their advantages in ways that their poorer classmates simply cannot. Education does not occur in a vacuum. It is a continuous process that goes on long after the school day is over.

Nothing I've said is meant to discourage the quest for outstanding candidates to teach in K-12. But I think we set ourselves up for a big disappointment if we persist in the comforting delusion that teachers alone are the answer.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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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