The problem with ‘the problem with teachers’

We hear plenty about the problem with teachers. Here’s a piece on the problem with that problem, written by Marcus D. Pohlmann, professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis. He has written extensively on race, poverty and education.

By Marcus D. Pohlmann

Every so often on the nightly news, we are uplifted by a story about an amazing teacher who is making a difference in the lives of students in an American city school. So why, we ask, can’t all teachers be like that?

The truth is not all teachers are “great,” just as not all doctors, lawyers, politicians or any group of professionals are great.

But judging by the cries for school reform that are sweeping the nation, it would seem that the highest level of excellence and performance is expected of every teacher in every school. Here in Tennessee, for example, the Department of Education has just made it more difficult to become a teacher and to maintain one’s license. Yet here, as in many states, it’s not clear that the necessary high-quality mentoring and training accompanies such mandates, not to mention the requisite compensation.

We want the best public education possible for our children, and teachers are a key component in providing that education. So naturally we want to find the best people we can to teach our children. And we want government to follow up in a systematic way to make sure that a high level of education is actually taking place.

There are, however, several problems with attempting to hold our public schools and their teachers to a standard of “greatness.”

Most heart surgeons fail to rise to greatness. Other than teaching, every profession hopes to have a few super-talented people scattered amidst its many adequate practitioners. Training is provided those who require it, and those with no hope of rising to at least the adequate level are weeded out.

Ironically, the one profession from which we demand perfection is held in very low esteem. Can you name another career choice where the starting salary is as low as it is in teaching, especially given the number of years of advanced education required? Is it any wonder that the best and brightest students in our nation’s elite colleges and universities choose more lucrative professions than grade-school or high-school teaching? If we desire a disproportionate share of the cream of the college crop to aspire to be teachers, then we must provide salaries and working conditions commensurate with what the top professions provide.

Meanwhile, if average teachers are run off instead of being mentored and encouraged to improve, where exactly are all these great teachers going to come from? Even if our schools could fill their classrooms with great teachers, it is still not clear that student educational performance would automatically improve, especially in the inner city where much of the school reform movement is being directed.

That uplifting TV news segment omits mention of the fact that students in poor urban areas spend less than 10 percent of their first 18 years of life in school. They spend a lot more time with parents or guardians, who typically are poor and undereducated themselves. So we see children from these circumstances arrive at school years behind grade level. They underperform and rarely fully catch up, no matter how great their teachers happen to be.

Blaming teachers for the repercussions of our economic class structure gets us beyond nowhere. Every day, capable, caring teachers and prospective teachers opt out of the profession simply because they see that the buck stops unfairly at them, that it is the teacher’s fault that they are not great enough to accomplish the impossible.

Placing blame also can and will break one of the last labor unions capable of delivering middle class compensation packages for its employees and damage teachers’ political clout.  Even indirectly blaming teachers for the symptoms of poverty can divert attention from those who profit from having the poor available to do menial work for subsistence wages.

There are relatively obvious ways of effectively evaluating teachers if the goals are to get the most out of those we attract to the profession and to fairly weed out those not cut out for the job.

We can begin with the kind of supervised residency program we see in the medical profession and follow that with the equivalent of the law profession’s bar exam before one is allowed into the teaching business in the first place. Independent teacher evaluation teams can then be selected and trained to periodically evaluate each teacher and develop realistic improvement plans utilizing best practices criteria.

At that point, we can be reasonably confident that the teaching is sound. If the children are still struggling at a particular school, the problem obviously lies elsewhere. It’s time to quit calling the latter “failing schools” and more accurately call them “failing students” in a society in which some seem to derive benefit from the existence of inter-generational poverty.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · July 25, 2013