A false hunt for "bad" teachers

One of the constant questions about public schools is how to identify "bad" teachers. But the problem is the question, explains New York City teacher Brian Jones.

Chicago teachers sent the message that their working conditions are their students' learning conditions (Annie Zirin | SW)Chicago teachers sent the message that their working conditions are their students' learning conditions (Annie Zirin | SW)

IN RESPONSE to my short piece in the New York Times for a "Room for Debate" roundtable discussion on teachers and schools, I received a number of comments on Twitter and on the Times website. Many agreed with me, but I'd like to address a common disagreement. Here was a typical line of reasoning:

I would agree with all of the above IF the Union had a clear, implementable plan to remove tenured teachers who had either burnt out or were just not good enough anymore. It would help if the Union had a good plan to identify the right teachers to award tenure to in the first place.

The great strength of collective bargaining--that it strengthens the voice of the good--is also its great weakness; it allows the bad to remain, destroying the hopes of year after year of students.

This is a very popular argument right now--yes, yes, standardized testing is overdone, so what's your alternative?

The problem lies in the posing of the question itself. And it shows what great success the "reformers" have had in shifting the lines of debate in their favor. They've been at great pains to create the impression in the public mind that the TEACHER is the SINGLE GREATEST factor (some, defensively, might retreat to adding the qualifying phrase, "in-school") that decides student success or failure. It follows that identifying excellence and/or incompetence in teachers is the HIGHEST PRIORITY!

How do we find the great ones? How do we find the bad ones? How? How? How?

Let's take a deep breath and a step back. My piece was brief, but I think some respondents who "agreed" missed this paragraph:

I taught in three different public schools in New York City. Where I was able to be my best depended as much on the class sizes, the conditions, the financing, the materials available to me, the support staff for teachers, the support for students and the climate created by administration as it did on my own efforts and abilities.

The Times wanted 400 words or less, so let me take some space here to expand the point.

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STUDENTS ARE not widgets, and they are not data points. Learning and "growth" does not always (or even, usually) take place in a linear fashion. Teachers are not widgets, either. We should not permanently affix the labels "great," "good," "bad" or even "burnt-out" to a teacher, any more than we would pin them on a student.

Why? Because people change. Or rather, they can change, can grow, can develop. In certain conditions, students can and will do their best. In other conditions, they will just go through the motions. The same is true of adults. In different conditions, I was very different as a teacher. I did my best everywhere, but the conditions of work make a huge difference for teachers and for students.

Rahm Emanuel's kids go to the Chicago Lab School. Take a "great" teacher from that school and drop him/her into a public school, with double the number of students per class and limited access to photocopies and books, and hang the sword of high-stakes standardized test scores over his/her head--then let's see if you still have a "great" teacher weeks, months, years later. Would he/she even stay on the job?

That's what's wrong with the whole idea of "finding the right teachers" to reward or "identifying the bad" ones. It takes our attention away from the conditions of work and places them back on the individual, as if great teaching flowed only from individual qualities, such as effort, and not from great leadership, great conditions and great support.

Nationwide, nearly half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. If the figure was the same for doctors or lawyers, you can bet everyone would be asking the question: What's wrong with these working conditions?

So why are teachers being treated differently? I'll offer three reasons:

1. Sexism: Teachers are overwhelmingly female and are therefore considered less worthy of respect.

2. Privatization: Education "reform" is driven, in part, by people who will ALWAYS argue that the public sector is "bloated" and needs to be privatized. Teacher unions are a serious obstacle to that process, which is why teachers are being targeted as the main cause of success or failure.

3. Racism: Urban school systems are predominantly serving students of color. The powerful and mostly white elites who are driving Ed "reform" are choosing expensive, progressive education for their own children, but want to do education on the cheap for ours.

Essentially, teachers are serving as a scapegoat. As budgets are being cut, and resources for the public are rationed, teachers and their unions are supposed to be the lightning rod for understandable public frustration.

Take the case of Chicago, where teachers just went on strike. Some 160 schools in Chicago have no library. They've got 202 nurses for 684 schools and less than 400 social workers to work with 400,000 students. Some 42 percent of K-8 schools have no full-time arts or music teacher.

Still convinced that the identification of "bad" teachers should be top priority?

The reality is that this hunt (a witch-hunt?) will prove elusive if the conditions don't improve. As long as we're on that quest, we'll never develop the kind of atmosphere that fosters the best teaching and learning. Just like we want evaluation systems for students that are about developing, nurturing and encouraging their growth, so too we need evaluations for teachers that are about developing, nurturing and encouraging great teaching.

In New York City, public school teachers can vote in union elections this year for a new caucus, the Movement of Rank and File Educators. MORE's slogan is "Our working conditions are our students' learning conditions." After the Chicago strike, that slogan is more relevant than ever.

Parting thought: it's no coincidence that the most "free market"-oriented schools (charters), which have this static, "good/bad" view of teachers, also apparently have the same view of students--they can be "fired" at will, too.

First published at No Struggle, No Progress.