The Ugly “Good Teacher” Discussion Few Are Confronting

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”

Matthew 25:40

The gold standard, I think, for thinking about education reform and more narrow concerns such as teacher quality is the complex and confrontational approach of Lisa Delpit, who anchors her perspective with how we teach and treat “other people’s children”—black and brown children, impoverished children.

And from that perspective we have the ugly “good teacher” discussion few are willing to confront: Vulnerable populations of children and their families are where and how we experiment with education, where and how we adopt policies and practices no affluent and white families would tolerate for their children: Teach For America, “no excuses,” zero tolerance.

High-poverty and majority-minority schools are burdened not just with social inequity hurdles but also with systemic and often unspoken practices that include having incredibly high teacher turn over because these “problem” schools are entry points for teachers to find “better” jobs (see Teachers at Low-Income Schools Deserve Respect).

Just as insidious is the systemic and often unspoken practice in all schools that “low-level” classes of students are assigned new teachers, who must endure those populations of students until they can have the “good” classes within that school.

These ugly practices grounded in racism and classism are at the root of why advocates for education reform who focus on race and class remain mostly dissatisfied with both sides of the mainstream education reform debate.

The edu-reformers are all-in on race and class tone-deaf practices—TFA, “no excuses,” zero tolerance—but the advocates for public education and progressive reform have failed to admit how the traditional public school system has historically failed “other people’s children” through the wink-wink-nod-nod approach to assigning teachers.

Too often, teachers are complicit in and fail to confront the system that marginalizes vulnerable populations of students as collateral damage of teacher advancement.

During my 18 years of public school teaching, even among teachers, the common sense attitude was that “good” teachers were assigned Advanced Placement, and teaching “low-level” classes was a negative commentary on the teacher’s ability. As department chair, I worked to assign each teacher a couple classes she/he requested, and then tried to balance every teacher’s load with a range of class levels and types.

While I was working on my dissertation, writing a biography of educator Lou LaBrant, I was profoundly struck by a point of irritation she expressed in her memoir. LaBrant noted that she had her best teachers in her doctoral program, at the end of her formal education, but that progression, she believed, is backward in that children need their best teachers in the beginning of formal education, not the end.

Our vulnerable populations of students must be served first in our public school system: assigned experienced and qualified teachers, placed in classes with low teacher/student ratios, guaranteed access to the most challenging courses and curriculums, and promised safe, diverse schools with equitable, supportive disciplinary practices.

Everything else is a distraction from what truly matters.

Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB

While the transition from NCLB (the federalization of accountability-based education reform) to ESSA (returning accountability-based education reform mostly to the states) is a microscopic change at best, it appears that teacher quality will remain a key mantra of those seeking reform—even though the use of value-added methods for evaluating teachers appear to have lost some steam.

My home state of South Carolina has been an early and dedicated home for education reform based on standards and high-stakes tests. SC is also a very high poverty state—ranking 5th in highest childhood poverty in the U.S. These pockets of poverty have been well documented by Corridor of Shame and years of court battles over equitable education funding across the state.

SC also shares with the entire U.S. a pattern of resegregation in public and charter schools as well as the historical and current reality that impoverished students, black and brown students, English language learners, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned to new and early-career teachers, and un-/under-certified teachers (notably in math). Compounding those inequities, these vulnerable populations of students also sit in high student/teacher ratio classes and are less likely to have access to challenging curriculum (such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and gifted and talented programs), courses often taught by experienced and highly qualified teachers.

Recently, Associate Editor Cindi Ross Scoppe (The State) has argued: Key to improving poor schools: a good teacher in every classroom.

This call for a post-NCLB focus on teacher quality, I must note, does admit that teacher quality is a key part of in-school only influences on student achievement; however, we must begin to frame concerns for teacher quality in ways political leaders, the media, and the public fail to do.

First, we must note that the impact of teacher quality is dwarfed by out-of-school factors:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998Rockoff 2003Goldhaber et al. 1999Rowan et al. 2002Nye et al. 2004).

However, that assessment is relative conservative when compared to Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage by Donald Hirsch (JRF, 2007):

Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.

So the caveat for focusing on teacher quality must include that as long as we use measurable data for determining student achievement and teacher quality, failing to address out-of-school factors likely guarantees we’ll see little change in measures such as test scores.

Nonetheless, we must address teacher experience and qualifications/expertise at high-poverty, majority-minority schools; however, without social reform that alleviates the burdens of poverty on the lives of students and their families, we are unlikely to see the sorts of changes in data that would justify any in-school only reforms.

Also, the teacher quality debate often fails to make clear at the outset just how we are designating “good” or “bad” teachers (as well as “good” and “bad” schools). We must make sure that we are not using labels of quality as markers for those out-of-school factors. In other words, we tend to say schools and teachers are “good” when the student population is affluent, and both are “bad” when the student population is high poverty.

We are also apt to overreact to outliers (when so-called “bad”—high poverty—schools or teachers of poor students have higher than typical test scores) as if those outliers prove some possible standard for all teachers and schools. However, outliers are just that, outliers. And research shows that high-flying schools simply are extremely rare, and often not as high-flying as originally claimed.

Also the teacher quality discussion suffers from the false belief that “teacher quality” is a distinct and permanent quality. In fact, teacher quality is dependent on many factors and contexts. I often am a great teacher and an ineffective teacher for two different students in the same class.

Teacher quality is hard to identify and often relative to dozens of factors, including changing student populations and content being taught.

As a result, so-called low teacher quality in high-poverty schools in SC is likely a mislabel in some ways for the state being the fifth worst child poverty state in the country. But teacher quality is also a marker for our failure to address teacher experience, teacher certification, and funding at high-poverty schools.

So, yes, SC does need to insure high teacher quality for all students, addressing directly the historical and current failures associated with the most vulnerable students in the state’s high-poverty schools.

Jobs programs, comprehensive healthcare reform, food stability legislation, proving books in the homes of all children, and addressing directly the teaching and learning conditions of all schools—these reforms are likely to show greater positive outcomes than traditional approaches to the teacher quality problem.

Therefore, without addressing poverty broadly or how we determine quality teachers and schools—including moving past test-based rankings doing both—we are likely to be again disappointed with any teacher quality reforms we attempt.

See Also

Teachers at Low-Income Schools Deserve Respect, Bruce Hansen

Lou LaBrant and Teacher Education’s Enduring Legacy

A colleague of Louise Rosenblatt at New York University, Lou LaBrant faced mandatory retirement when she turned 65 in 1953. Reflecting on her work at NYU as a teacher educator from 1942-1953, LaBrant wrote in 1988 “Public School 65, Down on the Lower East Side” as she turned 100.

LaBrant noted “that [New York City] requirements seemed to me inadequate for those who already spoke the language clearly but needed a richer background” (p. 6). Candidates for teaching English, LaBrant argued, needed greater linguistic understanding and experiences grounded in the complex Germanic and Latinate roots of English.

But other regulations also impeding LaBrant’s goals, including restrictions on the number of student teachers placed in each school. Circumventing that restriction, however, LaBrant placed 6 teacher candidates at “P.S. 65, a junior high school on the Lower East Side, known as one of the worst slum areas in the city” (p. 7). LaBrant then explained her choice (p. 7):

two years below

Next, LaBrant built her program and the experience for the student teachers on the characteristics of the students being taught—a progressive and student-centered approach to scientific education. The students at P.S. 65, they found, had very limited experiences with the wider city, lived in cramped and poorly lit housing, had no books or reading materials in the home, had life experience unlike the national research on student reading interests, and attended a school in which “[t]eachers did not welcome an assignment to the area and within ten minutes after the final gong were on their way to the subway to avoid the five o’clock rush” (p. 8).

In that context, LaBrant’s program included taking students on bus trips to explore the city, having librarians provide students time and opportunities to examine and choose books that matched their interests, committing to not requiring book reports, and creating an overarching goal that “[s]chool was to become a pleasant place” for students and their teachers.

Key, as well, was LaBrant’s rejecting deficit views of race, literacy, and poverty that pervaded popular practices: “This simple program did not depend on the theories about word count, word recognition, left-handedness, or any of the educational fads then popular” (p. 9). This “simple” approach to teaching reading was a hallmark of LaBrant’s work, including her rejecting reading programs as “costume parties” (LaBrant, 1949).

And while LaBrant admitted she did not know the long-term results of her work, she did note that this year, this “simple” experiment with teaching a vulnerable population of students (impoverished, racial minorities and English language learners) resulted in reading levels that “[rose] from two years below to two years above” in the city testing.

Today, we can see LaBrant’s legacy endures: public education policy that impedes teacher education, reading programs and “fads” that overcomplicate and distort literacy education, and the lingering challenge of teaching vulnerable populations of students who have strengths and unique needs that cannot be addressed through deficit ideologies or “silver bullet” approaches to schooling.

In 1940, LaBrant implored: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Again, teacher education and teaching children to read are, in fact, “simple”—if we allow them to be.


LaBrant, L. (1988). Public School 65, down on the lower east side. Teaching Education, 2(1), 6-9.

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.