In September of 2014, I wrote a column here on Justia’s Verdict, “The Road Show Blaming Teachers for Society’s Ills Moves from California to New York,” describing a well-funded lobbying campaign that is trying to use the supposed crisis in public education to reduce or eliminate tenure for schoolteachers. As it turns out, New York unfortunately presents a rather hospitable environment for the people who want to use teachers as a convenient scapegoat for society’s ills, and to turn a profit while they are at it.
The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has lined up with those who blame the teachers, recently vetoing a bill that would have temporarily prevented some teachers from being fired. Under New York’s new system for evaluating teachers, a teacher who is rated “ineffective” for two consecutive years can be dismissed. But, as one news report described it, the state legislature passed the now-vetoed bill in June 2014 “in response to complaints that teachers had not had adequate time to prepare for the new state tests aligned with tougher Common Core curriculum standards.”
In other words, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have tried to give teachers a fair chance to succeed under the new evaluation system, using a new curriculum. The rollout of the Common Core was widely known to be a mess, but if that chaos results in some teachers being wrongly fired, that is apparently fine with the governor.
Where does such hostility come from? After initially supporting the bill, Mr. Cuomo’s “view of it shifted, particularly after the annual evaluations were released this month, showing that even without the bill’s protections, a relatively small percentage of teachers could be removed from classrooms.” When it comes to giving teachers a fair chance to perform their jobs, therefore, the governor is all for it—unless there are not enough people on the hot seat. The bottom line, apparently, is that some people have to be fired.
Surprisingly, however, it is not just one politically cynical politician with barely concealed presidential aspirations (and his political funders who stand to profit from privatizing the public school system) who buys into the wrongheaded and simplistic idea that many schoolteachers need to be fired. Even some supposedly liberal, supposedly union-friendly observers have blithely accepted some strange ideas about what is wrong with our schools.
In this column, I will first consider an oddly common misuse of statistics that is being used to justify attacks on teachers, and I will then ask what it is that we should expect from the people whom we hire to teach our children. Unfortunately, a popular view of “good teaching” that is held up as a model in these debates mythologizes the idea of the “superstar teacher,” wrongly suggesting that the way to improve education is to celebrate a tiny number of designated stars, and to denigrate and threaten everyone else. That is a recipe for disaster.
Teachers and Student Performance on Standardized Tests: A Strange Statistical Misunderstanding
Attacks on teachers are everywhere, it seems. The starting point in these attacks is often to say that many children are not performing well on tests, and then to insinuate that the fault must obviously lie with the teachers. For example, in a post on Dorf on Law not long ago, I quoted a spokeswoman for the anti-teacher tenure campaigners as follows: “91 percent of teachers around the state of New York are rated either effective or highly effective, and yet 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing or doing math at grade level.” She went on: “How does that compute? I mean, how can you argue the status quo is okay with numbers like that?”
It is one thing for a paid advocate in a public-relations campaign to engage in such misleading nonsense, but it is quite another when the editorial board of The New York Times casually says virtually the same thing: “Fewer than 1 percent of the state’s teachers were rated ineffective in the most recent evaluations, while only about a third of the state’s students in grades 3 through 8 were proficient in math and language arts.”
The people who spout such statistics apparently think that every “effective” teacher succeeds in getting all of her students to be able to read, write, and do math at grade level, while every “ineffective” teacher fails entirely at that task. Thus, all we need to do is to find the two-thirds of the teachers who are teaching the two-thirds of the students who are struggling, fire those teachers, and replace them with better teachers, right? But why would anyone think that those two percentages—the percentage of teachers rated ineffective, and the percentage of students who are non-proficient—should be even roughly equal to each other? Even to ask that question is to expose the absurdity of the premise, yet supposedly smart people with good intentions buy into such nonsense.
Beyond that strange use of statistics, moreover, the very idea that there must be something wrong with teacher evaluation systems simply because many children are underperforming on standardized tests is bizarre. For one thing, if the claim is that New York’s schools are uniquely bad—because they use this supposedly overly permissive teacher evaluation system, which is unique to New York—then that is simply false. As a recent report indicated, New York has been performing slightly above the middle of the national rankings for decades, and there is no evidence that the state’s students or teachers are getting better or worse. Certainly, there is nothing resembling a crisis.
Even so, we all would like to see higher graduation rates, higher college attendance, and so on. Improvement would be better than standing still. How do we explain the longstanding low proficiency that we see on standardized tests, if it is not because of bad teaching?
I will leave aside the debate over the use and abuse of standardized testing, because that topic deserves to be considered at length in a future column. If we simply assume that low student performance on tests is indicative of a real problem, however, what is causing it?
The answer to that question comes in two parts: what happens outside of the schools, and what happens inside. The sad fact of life in America is that economic deprivation and educational underperformance go together, due in part to outside factors in poor areas, and also probably due to the quality of schools in those areas.
Given the high concentration of subpar test performance in poor schools, it would be surprising indeed if the explanation were primarily a matter of bad teaching. Even though better teachers can sometimes avoid teaching in poor schools, can it really be the case that nearly every teacher in every poor school is a bad teacher? If, as we have every reason to believe, that is not true, then what is happening?
The glaringly obvious explanation is that poor children’s outside-of-school circumstances make them harder to teach, and their ability to learn is not where we would like it to be. Children arrive at such schools poorly nourished, often from homes in which there is little if any support for educational achievement.
Still, we would like to believe that schools and teachers can have some impact, even against those longs odds. True, we might not be able to overcome those odds well enough to bring all students up to the highest levels, but we must try to improve matters. What can be done?
What Works and What Doesn’t? The Myth of the Super Teacher
Before discussing teacher quality directly, it is worth noting two other relevant considerations. First, in a field that has been extensively studied by researchers of all ideological persuasions, the only factor that seems to be almost universally correlated with higher student achievement has been small class sizes. That is, we have reasonably strong evidence that teachers who can provide more time and attention to each student are able to “teach better,” in some meaningful sense of that word.
Second, there is no serious evidence that making it easier to fire teachers—including eliminating tenure and other job protections, undermining or eliminating unions, and so on—has ever resulted in better student outcomes. There are plenty of states that have experimented with any number of changes, large and small, in teachers’ job protections, but none of them can boast that they have unlocked the key to improving student performance. They simply end up driving away good teachers and potential teachers, who understand that they might be blamed for something that is ultimately beyond their control.
Even so, many apparently well-meaning commentators have bought into the idea that there is some way to identify and reward the very best teachers, so that they can heroically pull up the standards of all teachers.
In essence, this idea rests on the assumption that the best way to recruit and retain the most talented teachers is to identify the handful of superstars. A prominent op-ed writer at The New York Times is enamored of this idea, recently writing (in a column that otherwise contains some utterly reasonable observations) that it is essential to engage in “more aggressive recruitment and rewarding of exemplary teachers.” Who could be against finding and appreciating good teaching?
The problem is that the word “exemplary” carries with it the idea that there are only a few people—people who can be held out as examples for all lesser souls—who are truly good teachers. Those role models should be given extra rewards, while everyone else should apparently be kept on a short leash.
In fact, that same op-ed writer published a column last fall extolling the virtues not of superstar teachers, but of superstar principals, who supposedly have the ability to turn underperforming teachers into solid citizens. In the same column, he praised the state of Colorado for entirely eliminating tenure for teachers. The message to teachers: Live up to our arbitrary standards, or you’re out.
The underlying assumption is that the Average Joes and Janes in the teaching world are not deserving of any job security beyond what their schools’ principals (superstar or not) deign to provide. Indeed, the idea apparently is that it is important to be able to fire people quickly. That, in any case, is the assumption behind Governor Cuomo’s angry outbursts, and it is built into the belief that teachers must be forced to agree to allow their professional futures to depend on their students’ test scores.
This model of education, then, says that the vast majority of teachers must be kept in constant fear of losing their jobs, and only by entering into the stratosphere of heroes can they expect to be amply rewarded for their talents. This winner-take-all approach has become all too common in many areas of society over the last few decades.
No matter what one thinks about that trend in general, it is absolutely destructive to a profession like teaching. The idea should be to reward teachers who do their jobs, day in and day out, applying their advanced training in the face of often daunting odds of success. The goal is not to create a small cadre of superstars, but to nurture an entire profession of dedicated professionals.
Some aspects of this debate are easy. It truly is ridiculous even to suggest that somehow we should fire (or denigrate) two-thirds of a state’s teachers because two-thirds of the students have not “performed well.” But beyond that silly (but pervasive) misunderstanding, the bigger problem is that too many people have decided that the way to improve our schools is to scare and intimidate the teachers, and shame them by holding up supposedly ideal role models who are the only truly worthy teachers.
The better answer is to do what the teachers and their unions have already been doing for decades, across the country. Teachers need to be evaluated fairly, sent to teach in classrooms that are not overcrowded, and not punished when they cannot perform miracles. Teachers’ unions have been, and continue to be, at the forefront of trying to improve teaching and the evaluations of teachers. Mocking a new and improved evaluation system as “baloney,” as Governor Cuomo did last week, merely because it fails to declare sufficient numbers of teachers to be bad at their jobs, is irresponsible and harmful to both teachers and students.