What We Tolerate (and for Whom) v. What the Rich Demand: On Teacher Quality

Two of the best teachers and education advocates I respect and listen to carefully, Nancy Flanagan and Susan Ohanian, had an important exchange on Twitter recently:

Prompted by the Vergara court case in California and a related article in The Atlantic, Flanagan and Ohanian share a concern about the political, popular, and media claim that “bad” teachers work in “bad” schools with “bad” students (all of which is the result of a flawed misreading of the conditions common in high-poverty schools that serve high-poverty communities).

Before examining the issue of teacher quality raised above, please take note of a Big Picture problem at the heart of the Vergara ruling: All professions, including teaching, have elite, solid, and weak practitioners, but to suggest that teacher quality is the or one of the primary causes of educational problems is simply false, a manufactured scapegoat to keep the public view off the real problems facing us—mostly social and educational inequity.

Let’s look carefully, now, at how the complex issue of teacher quality is further complicated by high-poverty schools:

  • Teacher quality represents only about 10-15% of measurable student outcomes (test scores); thus, since high-poverty students are disproportionately likely to produce low test scores, it is a mistake to read raw tests scores as a reflection of teacher quality (or even student learning) since those test scores are primarily a reflection of out-of-school influences. (Also note that outliers to that dynamic do not disprove a generalization and do not suggest what the norm should be; as well, all claims of such “miracle” schools have been discredited.)
  • High-poverty schools and high-poverty students are staffed and taught by teachers who are disproportionately new, early career, and/or under-/un-certified. That dynamic does contribute to “teacher quality,” but not in ways popular claims mean (for example, a new teacher is not “bad,” but experience certainly contributes to greater teacher effectiveness—although that is not necessarily reflected in measurable student outcomes).
  • High-poverty students and their parents value education as much as more affluent students and parents, but living in poverty is existing in a state of scarcity that taxes adults and children physically, psychologically, and mentally—often leaving them less capable of advocating for education and benefitting for learning opportunities. Conversely, students and parents from relative affluence are afforded the slack necessary to advocate for education and fully engage with learning experiences. The important point here is that teaching, parenting, and learning in conditions influenced by poverty negatively impact nearly everyone involved, but by changing those conditions (and not the people), those same people would perform differently. (This contradicts claims that we need to rid schools of “bad” teachers and instill poor students with “grit”—both of which focus the problems in the people and not the system.)

Flanagan and Ohanian, then, are right that high-poverty schools are not overburdened by “bad” teachers; many wonderful teachers work in high-poverty schools (but some genuinely weak teachers are protected by the mask of affluent students, affluent schools, and affluent communities)—and high-poverty students are potentially as capable of learning as their more affluent peers (impoverished students don’t need to be “fixed” and don’t need to be taught “grit”).

But those facts are harshly clouded by the knee-jerk conclusions drawn from raw test scores—just as most people erroneously believe private schools are superior to public schools simply because the outward evidence appears to suggest so.

What do the data show, then, when we look at teacher characteristics (interpreted as “quality”) in high-poverty schools along with student test scores as that contrasts with teacher characteristics and student test scores in affluent public and private schools?

As a society, we tolerate the worst possible conditions for the students with the most need (teacher characteristics, school conditions and funding, and high percentage of children living in poverty are the failure of adequate public response and policy) while students living in relative affluence have the advocacy of their parents demanding that they do not suffer the same conditions experienced by children in poverty (disproportionately children of color): high student-teacher ratios, inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers, underfunded schools, facilities in disrepair, and worksheet and rote instructional practices aimed at test-prep.

The cruel reality is that high-poverty and high-minority schools are not staffed by “bad” teachers forced to teach “bad” students, but that those teachers and students have the most challenging conditions in their lives and schools to overcome while affluent students have slack in their lives and the best conditions in their schools.

Instead of misguided commitments to value-added methods (VAM) for finding the best teachers (which do not work), policies that address equity would serve us much better:

  • No child should be taught by un-/under-certified teachers.
  • No child should have new or early career teachers for several years in a row.
  • Teacher quality must be re-imagined as an effective matching of teachers with students and not reduced to measurable outcomes.
  • Student achievement must no longer be reduced to measurable outcomes.

As with much of the flawed education reform agenda, the teacher quality issue reflects the overuse and misuse of test scores.

Until we address the scarcity in children’s lives and schools, addressing teacher quality is a futile distraction, just as continuing to change standards and tests is a futile distraction.

Instead of labeling, ranking, and then firing teachers, our first best step would be to end the cult of high-stakes testing because the problems of education are mostly systemic (social and educational) and not the adults who choose to teach or the children we seek to serve.

Fatalism and Teacher Professionalism

Blogging at Education Week, Larry Ferlazzo posted a series of blogs addressing ways to prepare students for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English/Language Arts. In a response post, Ferlazzo and Stephen Krashen—an outspoken scholar, along with Susan Ohanian, who steadfastly rejects implementing CCSS and the inevitable tests to follow—shared a series of exchanges.

Krashen, in part, argues that implementing flawed practice simply because CCSS requires them is inexcusable:

No. There is no evidence supporting this view. There is massive evidence for the superiority of comprehensible input/reading as by far the best way (really the only way) to develop academic vocabulary and academic writing. Just because the common core demands these competencies, doesn’t mean we should use ineffective and painful methods to try to teach them.

Ferlazzo takes a different view, one committed to implementing CCSS as well as possible since their adoption is a done deal, he believes:

I can think of no realistic political scenario that would stop Common Core from being implemented for at least ninety percent of millions of teachers and students in the United States. I have also not heard anyone else share one, though I am all ears….

Given that political reality on the ground, I think the political capital of teachers, students and their families is better spent on other issues that also affect the working and learning conditions in our schools and the living conditions in our communities — teacher evaluation procedures, adequate funding for schools, class size, parent engagement — just to name a few. In my political judgment, teachers and their allies are much more likely to be able to influence those issues.

While I think it’s useful to debate which instructional strategies might be most engaging and effective for our students and also enable teachers to say they are implementing Common Core, I just [think] it’s less useful to fight a battle that has already been lost.

Given the tremendous political, professional, and commercial momentum behind CCSS, Ferlazzo appears to have a solid point. But this exchange raises an important question about fatalism and teacher professionalism that is much larger than just debating CCSS

Fatalism and Teacher Professionalism

The debate between Ferlazzo and Krashen mirrors a similar debate within the National Council of Teachers of English, one in which Krashen, Ohanian, and I have had little success as we have argued for teacher professionalism and autonomy instead of implementing CCSS and preparing students for the tests with commercial materials focusing on those standards and the new tests.

Concurrent with the debate at EdWeek, as well, has been faculty at Garfield High School refusing to implement MAP testing. Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield, explains:

America faces incredible challenges: endless war, climate change and worldwide economic implosion. Our kids will need both traditional academic abilities and innovative critical-thinking skills to solve these real problems. If we inundate our students with standardized testing year-round, these larger lessons are lost.

Garfield’s teachers are preparing students for the real-life tests they will face, and reject the computer multiple-choice rituals that fail to measure grade-level content — not to mention character, commitment, courage or talent.

Since this act of professional conscience by Garfield teachers, a group of educators has issued a statement of support, rejecting the misuse and abuse associated with high-stakes standardized tests.

If implementing CCSS is inevitable as Ferlazzo claims and if school, district, state, or federal mandates will continue to support those standards and the related high-stakes tests, teaching is reduced to an act of fatalism, and in effect, teachers are de-professionalized and students are similarly reduced to passive recipients of state-mandated knowledge, what Paulo Freire (1998) labeled as “the bureaucratizing of the mind” (p. 102).

Fatalism about inevitable education reform or current policy and practices benefits neither students nor teachers—and ultimately devalues education in a free society.

For students, Freire challenges the prescriptive nature of standards and high-stakes testing stemming from a neoliberal ideology:

If I am a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination, I have no responsibility for my own action in the world and, therefore, it is not possible for me to speak of ethics….It means that we know ourselves to be conditioned but not determined. It means recognizing that History is time filled with possibility and not inexorably determined—that the future is problematic and not already decided, fatalistically….The most dominant contemporary version of such fatalism is neoliberalism….From the standpoint of such an ideology, only one road is open as far as educative practice is concerned: adapt the student to what is inevitable, to what cannot be changed. In this view, what is essential is technical training, so that the student can adapt and, therefore, survive. This book…is a decisive NO to an ideology that humiliates and denies our humanity. (pp. 26-27)

If teachers, then, see CCSS implementation or fulfilling ploicies to implement MAP testing as requirements of their role as compliant workers, they have succumbed to “conformity in the face of situations considered to be irreversible because of destiny,” Freire explains (1998, p.102). Then, “To that degree, there is no room for choice. There is only room for well-behaved submission to fate. Today. Tomorrow. Always,” Freire believes, adding, “I have always rejected fatalism. I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing” (pp. 102-103).

And here is where I must side with Krashen.

To see CCSS or MAP testing as inevitable, to see our roles as educators being reduced to technicians working to implement CCSS or MAP testing as well as possible, to allow students to be reduced to “a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination” is to render both teachers and students fatalistic—both as tools of others’ determinations and as products of those who create the inevitable system.

The financial, cultural, and human costs of fatalism are simply too high.