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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 08/24/2011

Why great teachers aren’t enough to make schools work

This was written by Harold Kwalwasser, former general counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District, an education consultant and writer in Washington D.C. He is the author of the upcoming book, “Renewal, A User’s Guide to Remaking American Schools for the 21st Century,” to be published by Rowman and Littlefield this fall.

By Harold Kwalwasser

We love to talk about teachers — good teachers, bad teachers. Our entire narrative about schools seems to revolve around finding good teachers and firing bad ones.

In a way, it’s not surprising. We love to reduce complex issues to “people stories,” especially when we can paint one kind of people with white hats and pin black ones on somebody else.

As appealing as it is, there are two problems with the “good teacher, bad teacher” narrative. The first is that it plants certain unspoken images in our heads, which we often wind up accepting as true without examination. We unthinkingly know what we know — to our peril.

One of these unarticulated assumptions that takes root as a result of the “good teacher, bad teacher” narrative is that teachers are either naturals or they’re not. The number one strategy, then, is to find and retain the “right” people.

The result in this case? We have wound up betting many of our reform dollars on things like pay for performance, where we are going to pay wonderful teachers whose kids do well on standardized tests. That is going to get us thousands of new and better teachers and motivate the best of the educators already in the schools. We persist in believing this idea is fundamental, even though virtually every recent study on pay for performance based on student achievement has failed to find any improvement in scores.

Similarly, several states have adopted school reform legislation where one of the centerpieces is ending tenure. The unspoken part of the narrative is something like: We’ll now be able to fire lots of bad teachers and replace them with better ones. Unfortunately, there is no great pipeline of new, brilliant teachers waiting in line to be hired. If we fired just 10% of the current public school faculty, we would need a whopping 320,000 teachers to replace them. We don’t have that, and even if we had the numbers, we would have no assurance any of the new recruits would be more effective than those they are replacing.

Which leads me to the second great problem with having a narrative like “good teacher, bad teacher” dominate our thinking. Policy-making can be a “zero sum” game. By doing one thing, you don’t do another. Sometimes it is an intentional choice of preferring “A” over “B,” but sometimes it is the inadvertent result of never even allowing “B” onto the radar screen in the first place.

That is the true tragedy of the preoccupation with the “good teacher, bad teacher” narrative; we don’t think about another narrative, and, since we are not thinking about it, we don’t do anything to act on it.

So let me give a voice to what has been an alternative narrative, which, thus far, has largely been voiceless. I want to speak on behalf of the “system.” The very use of the word explains why it has been faceess, emotionless, and therefore voiceless.

The “good teacher, bad teacher” narrative invites us to ignore most of the context in which these teachers operate. But the truth is that changing fundamental aspects of the way schools operate — the system — will more likely move the needle on student achievement than will the policies that obsess about the “good teacher, bad teacher” narrative.

For example, study after study shows that between one-third and one half of new teachers voluntarily leave schools within five years because of poor training, no support, inadequate curriculum, and a host of other working condition issues. Low salaries turn out to be one — but only one — reason. In fact only a minority of departing teachers claim low salaries as the primary reason for leaving.

In schools and districts that have supported better teacher training, better mentors, and higher quality administrators, retention rates are higher, particularly among better-qualified recruits. The lesson learned: Putting our attention and money on these sorts of working conditions is more likely to support the goal of having lots of good teachers than pay for performance and other like ideas that have been the focus up to now.

Similarly, we have made great strides in our ability to follow closely how well kids are mastering material and quickly intervening to help those who are struggling. This strategy is one of the hallmarks of many high performing schools. But to make this strategy work, we need new information technology that can support frequently assessing kids, and longer school days and school years where we actually have time to provide the assistance required.

We do provide small pots of money for such things, but just small pots. That won’t change unless lawmakers come to see this strategy as far more important than they do now. And that won’t change without a better appreciation that it is not enough to have good people. If one wants improved results, one wants a system that supports and enhances what good people are trying to do, not one that is an obstacle for them to overcome.

A message from the voiceless in the education debate….

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