Teacher Quality: On Hyperbole and Anecdotes

In 2011, 3,764,698,318 retail prescriptions were filled in the U.S. If 0.01% of those prescriptions were filled incorrectly (and thus jeopardizing the health or even lives of patients, including children), 376,469 events could have constituted the danger of tolerating “bad” pharmacists.

Every day, patients are also served by doctors and surgeons who completed their degrees at the bottom of their classes.

Just how many “bad” doctors and “bad” surgeons are we willing to tolerate?

But in the scope of political and media scrutiny, it appears the greatest danger facing our children and society is the ever-present “bad” teacher. When Cindi Scoppe, Associate Editor for The State (Columbia, SC), explored her own experiences as a student, she concluded:

It only takes one lousy teacher, out of 50 really good ones, to leave indelible scars on a child’s education — and on a parent’s political perspective. It only takes one lousy teacher who returns to the classroom year after year to convince a parent that the public schools care more about preserving jobs for incompetents than providing every child with a good education. It only takes one lousy teacher to make a parent susceptible to the siren song of private school “choice” and “scholarships.”

Scoppe’s impassioned claim drawn from anecdote is both compelling and deeply misleading—both in the hyperbole (“one lousy teacher” and “indelible scar”) and the implication that anecdotes are generalizable and valid (some are, and some are not).

I have been a teacher for 31 years, and if we asked one student to pen a similar piece about me, it is possible she/he would draw the same conclusion because I have on occasion been the one “bad” teacher for a few handfuls of students—at least that would be their perception. And some who think I was “lousy” are entirely justified because I was (despite my best intentions), some who think I was “lousy” are, frankly, wrong, and some who think I was “lousy” are examples of how a teacher can be perfect for one student and lousy for another (and this is often the case on my student evaluations which include several students identifying me as the best teacher they have ever had and then one student saying I was the worst).

But the hyperbole grounded in anecdotes about “bad” teachers (and the related handwringing about the urgent need to be able to fire all those “bad” teachers) is more than a public and media failure; the hyperbole is driven by a political agenda as well, notably the recent announcement under the Obama administration that colleges of education are next on the reform agenda (including another round of accountability based on the test scores of students taught by their candidates).

So since the early 1980s, the education reform agenda has tried the following:

  • Link student promotion/retention and gradation to high-stakes tests.
  • Create school report cards based on high-stakes tests.
  • Base teacher promotion, pay, and retention on high-stakes tests.
  • Label and rank teacher education programs based on high-stakes tests.

There is a fatally flawed motif here (high-stakes tests), but even more troubling is that all efforts to reform education through accountability based on those tests have failed as well as increasing the exact problems the accountability advocates claim to be addressing. Exit exams increased drop outs and non-completers, school report cards stigmatized schools and reduced funding for schools most in need, teachers have been dismissed falsely and teacher attrition has increased under merit-based systems, and soon teacher education will suffer negative consequences as well.

So let’s return to the teacher quality problem in education.

On one important level, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that no child should have a “bad” teacher. But those who make that political and public claim appear insincere or misguided when we consider a few important foundational questions and contradictions:

  1. Where is the evidence that teacher quality is a fundamental or primary aspect of the causes of educational failures or weaknesses? And even if we have such evidence, teacher quality constitutes only about 10-15% of those factors impacting student achievement. Teacher quality, although important, is a minor issue in the context of what reform needs to be address.
  2. In the one area of teacher quality that has a large research base—poor, African American, and Latino/a students disproportionately are assigned inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers—the same political advocates of increasing teacher quality also endorse Teach For America, which is designed to assign inexperienced and uncertified teachers to poor, African American, and Latino/a students.
  3. By labeling and ranking teachers (and teacher education programs), we are insuring that we will always have “bad” teachers by the very nature of ranking and since we can never achieve the Lake Wobegon ideal of everyone being above the average.

It seems likely that education must always be in a state of reform. All children in fact do deserve excellent teachers and excellent schools—and thus we must always be working to that end, regardless of it not being possible to achieve it..

There also appears to be a need to maintain the perception of the “bad” teacher and the inability of schools to fire those “bad” teachers—regardless of the accuracy of the perception or how that contributes (or not) to better schools for all children.

Thus we must confront the corrosive nature of using anecdotes and hyperbole in the context of actual policy.

“Bad” teachers, the inability to fire those “bad” teachers, and the quality of teacher education programs—to be blunt—are calculated distractions in the big picture of What Is Wrong with Our Schools.

Political capital, however, can be built on and perpetuated by attacking these exaggerations in the ways that we have experienced for three decades now.

I have had “bad” teachers, and I have been perceived as a “bad” teacher. I have suffered a teacher certification process that I think was lacking, and I have participated in aspects of teacher certification I know are stymied by bureaucracy.

I strongly advocate for reform. I have no patience for “bad” teachers and for the status quo of teacher certification.

But I cannot tolerate education reform grounded in misleading anecdote and hyperbole, and I cannot support policies that, in fact, reinforce the exact problems we are facing.

And we must stop creating policy that seeks ideals beyond the scope of human control. Like 100% student proficiency in No Child Left Behind, having a school system with no “bad” teachers (or all excellent teachers) is unattainable. The goal itself insures failure. (“You know, my firend’s daughter had a bad teacher last year…”)

Again, where is the public, media, and political call for no “bad” pharmacists—a goal that seems far more pressing and necessary?

There is no political capital is bashing pharmacists, however, and that is the ugly secret about the “bad” teacher mantra: Bashing teaching is bashing a “woman’s” field, and pretending educational failure is mostly the fault of those teachers masks the racial and socioeconomic realities driving those failures.

No abusive teachers? I’m on board.

No predatory teachers? Absolutely.

No hungry child? No child without healthcare? No children living transient lives because their parents cannot find stable employment? Let’s move these to the front of the line, please.

But no “bad” teachers? Mostly hyperbole and disingenuousness so I call “calculated distraction” and demand no more “bad” politicians.

Anyone? Anyone?

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3 thoughts on “Teacher Quality: On Hyperbole and Anecdotes

  1. Even the one at the bottom of academics of med school get to be called doctor. In their defence, they are only human and he who does nothing never makes a mistake. It is a calculated risk seeking medical advice, and remember Sh-t happens.
    Leslie

  2. Pingback: Teacher Quality: On Hyperbole and Anecdotes | Educational Policy Information
  3. Great article. Unfortunately, hyperbole is very popular right now and the heightened/inflammatory rhetoric clouds virtually every issue covered by the media (particularly the mainstream media). I too am a teacher (over 20 years) and have found that genuine parental involvement and open, non-judgmental communication has been a tremendous help for I too make mistakes. With parental support (rather than knee jerk condemnation) I have learned to set things right or at least properly address my errors. After all, mistakes are the best thing human beings do but what we’re not so good at is learning from them. Confucius said, (rough paraphrase), the only true mistake is not learning from the ones we make. Thanks!

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