Don't Blame Teachers For Poor Education System


Education policy in conservative circles has basically become a crusade against teachers. Conservatives generally argue that firing bad teachers would substantially improve educational outcomes. Emphasizing teachers is valid, since they are the most influential school-based factor in influencing educational outcomes, but the idea that firing bad teachers alone would do any good is hyperbolic and confused.  

In a study released in December, economists at Harvard and Columbia measured the effectiveness of teachers on their students' life outcomes. They concluded that students who have effective teachers are more likely to attend college and earn more money, and less likely to become pregnant teenagers. Advocates on both sides of the political spectrum saw the study as valid confirmation of the impact that teachers can have on their students in the long run.

Those who favor merit pay saw this as a vindication of their plans to evaluate teachers based on "value added" — the difference in students' standardized test scores from one year to the next. Teachers unions (and the researchers themselves) suggested that such plans narrow curriculums and are highly prone to teacher cheating, particularly if implemented in a high stakes environment. Their concerns are legitimate. When tests are high-stakes, they lose their ability to effectively measure teacher quality. 

At the extreme end of the ideological spectrum, many (mostly conservative-minded) folks point to the difficulty of firing bad teachers as the primary education problem that needs resolving. They think that firing the worst 5%-10% of teachers would significantly improve educational outcomes. Though conservatives often exaggerate administrators' difficulty in removing unsatisfactory teachers, I am partially sympathetic to this concern. Administrators would benefit from more flexibility in staff decisions than they currently have. But, those decisions would be best made by administrators at the ground level instead of a top-down government mandate using imperfect measures of teacher quality. 

Removing the worst 5%-10% of performers in any profession may or may not result in better outcomes depending upon who replaces them. There's little reason to think that, other things equal, there's an army of top performing teachers waiting in the wings. As evidence, consider that half of all beginning teachers — who perform relatively worse than veteran teachers — leave within the first five years. Perhaps we should devote more efforts to discovering ways to retain good teachers instead of firing bad ones. 

There's little reason to think that increasing the attrition rate would result in any meaningful impact on the whole system. This is why conservatives tend to focus their arguments on grounds of fairness rather than consequences, for example, with statements like "In my profession, if you underperform, you're fired." 

However, improving the crop of teaching talent would certainly positively affect educational outcomes. The question conservatives have been asking is "How do we get rid of all these bad teachers?" when they should be asking "How can we attracted more talented individuals to the teaching profession?" The obvious strategy for increasing talent is professionalizing teaching — providing teachers a level of pay and prestige similar to our engineers, lawyers, and physicians. Colleges also need to revamp their teacher training programs, so that teachers are effective as soon as they enter classrooms, rather than several years into the profession. 

In education, we need major changes. We need a machete, not a scalpel. I've previously argued for substantial reforms like school choicespecialized CTE and liberal arts academies, and aggressively scaling up schools' rights and responsibilities. 

While focusing our energies playing the Blame Bad Teachers game, we're missing an opportunity for real reform. 

Photo Credit: Proctor Archives