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.