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Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Teacher?

"We asked Randi Weingarten, the head of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, the second--largest teachers' union in America, to put a number on the percentage of incompetent teachers in New York, where approximately 0.01 percent are fired for cause every year. Weingarten wouldn't say. Pressed, she responded "up to 2 percent." When we repeated Weingarten's estimate to Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia school system, she laughed derisively. Rhee, an outspoken woman who has been trying to watch her words lately, wouldn't offer her own estimate, but it is safe to say that she believes 2 percent is a ridiculously low estimate of the percentage of incompetent teachers in any inner-city school system." Newsweek, March 15

In Bad Teachers: the Essential Guide for Concerned Parents, Guy Strickland says that approximately 5 to 15% of teachers are bad--or bad enough that they need axing. I have no idea where Strickland get this number (and there is nary an equation-with-sigmas to be found), but the figure strikes me as about right--somewhere between 85 and 95% of practicing teachers are doing work on a spectrum from "good enough" to "outstanding." The ratio of good/bad varies widely from school to school, of course.

I have no doubt that most principals could cheerfully pick out a handful of their staff for the boot, although the duds they select may not be the bad teachers identified by parents or colleagues. Teachers are perceived as good or bad in context. One principal's creative teaching virtuoso might be another parent's weirdo with a pony tail.

What about ranking teacher effectiveness based on their students' standardized test scores, then lopping off the bottom tier? Consider a high school math teacher I knew, whose two AP classes had a near-perfect pass rate, but who also regularly failed upwards of half his Algebra I students. He was a brilliant mathematician, but disastrous at teaching goofy, unfocused freshmen. Was he a good teacher or a bad teacher? His students' standardized achievement data would give you distinctly bifurcated results.

These are the bigger and more critical questions: What to do when teachers are identifiably substandard--and when is it worth trying to improve an individual teacher's practice? The talking ed-heads would have us believe that the gene pool for teachers is shallow--that teachers come into the profession as dim bulbs looking for a light load, generous vacations and job security. No talent, little effort and eventually, malfeasance toward students. There are a lot of blog-jockeys who would lay the entire problem of bad teachers at the feet of the teachers' unions.

I believe the entire system is set up to turn a blind eye toward teachers who can't sustain consistently good teaching practice. Few schools provide quality induction, mentoring--or regular constructive critical assessments of practice.

Many principals hope that a mediocre teacher will get better after the window of opportunity to deny tenure passes; there is considerable evidence that high-needs schools recruit and hire haphazardly. This makes keeping a marginal teacher a better solution than using scarce resources to start over. Unions provide due process for egregiously bad teachers for the same reason defense attorneys represent the accused: because they paid their dues and are entitled to the assistance.

Proposed solutions: More comprehensive evaluations? Tougher accountability? Outlawing unions? Eh.

What we need is a different approach to the problem. Rather than focusing energy to ferret out the inadequate teachers, we might direct resources and policy toward producing and retaining genuinely excellent educators, creating a culture of teaching expertise--which could impact all teachers, the rising tide lifting second-rate boats.

That's not as disingenuous as it sounds. Our teacher training, recruitment, induction and development programs were created to put warm bodies in classrooms during the baby boom years. We can't afford run of the mill teachers in this new century, nor can we afford to waste time trying to draw a bright line between still-useful and bad teachers. Let's go for the gold.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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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