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Bad Teacher Boogie

"I don't think America is overrun with bad teachers. I think America is overrun by poverty -- too much poverty among children."

Diane Ravitch, The Daily Show, 3/3/11

I had to snort gently when I heard Ravitch say this--the "bad teacher" has become a stock villain in the shock-doctrine narrative about how our schools are responsible for pretty much every terrible thing that's happened to the American economy. Suppose we could, in fact, pluck these crappy teachers out of the second-hand, 1970s furniture in the teachers' lounge and replace them with dynamic, fresh recruits. Just how many bad teachers are we talking about?

In Bad Teachers: the Essential Guide for Concerned Parents, Guy Strickland (an uber-critic who endorses swift and decisive action when parents decide their child's teacher is inadequate) says that approximately 5 to 15% of teachers are bad enough that they need a new career. I have no idea where Strickland gets this number (and there is nary an equation-with-sigmas to be found), but assuming his figure is roughly believable--somewhere between 85 and 95% of practicing teachers are doing work on a spectrum from "good enough" to "outstanding."

I have no doubt that many 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--or standardized test data. Teachers are perceived as good or bad in context, and one principal's creative teaching virtuoso might be another parent's poetry-writing space cadet who lost little Tyler's diorama.

Even teachers of subjects where standardized tests make some sense as an indicator of teaching effectiveness aren't easy to quantify. I am thinking about a high school math teacher I know, whose two AP classes have near-perfect pass rates, but also has a reputation for failing upwards of half his Algebra I students. A brilliant mathematician, but disastrous at teaching goofy, unfocused freshmen. Good teacher or a bad teacher? His students' standardized achievement data would give you distinctly bifurcated results.

There are really only a couple of critical questions here: What do we do when teaching practice is identifiably substandard? Can a teacher be "fixed?" The market-based "reformers" would have us believe that the gene pool for teachers is shallow--that traditional teachers come into the profession as dim bulbs looking for a light load, generous vacations and job security. No smarts, little effort and eventually, malfeasance toward students. A lot of blog-jockeys would lay the entire problem of bad teachers at the feet of the teachers' unions.

But --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 early, intensive professional development--or regular constructive critical assessments of practice. The kinds of 360/comprehensive evaluations other organizations use to sharpen work--with feedback from above and below--are unheard of in schools.

Some principals hope a mediocre teacher will get better, and grant tenure. Why? There is considerable evidence that high-needs schools recruit and hire haphazardly, making keeping a marginal but reliable teacher a better solution than using scarce resources to roll the dice again. And 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.

What we need is a different approach to this problem: Rather than spending energy trying to ferret out the inadequate teachers, we might focus on producing, and retaining, genuinely excellent educators, creating a culture of teaching expertise. This would impact many teachers, the rising tide lifting second-rate boats.

That's not as disingenuous as it sounds. Our teacher recruitment, training, induction and ongoing learning protocols were created to put warm bodies in classrooms during the baby boom years. We can't afford run of the mill teachers any more, 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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