Blame The Teachers?!

An article in last Friday’s Las Vegas Review-Journal was called, “School district fails to meet ‘No Child’ goal.”  Apparently, the culprit behind our city’s epidemic academic failures is obvious to the media: blame the teachers!

Gee, why didn’t they call it “Local students fail to meet ‘No Child’ goal,” since they’re the ones who actually failed the tests?  Or how about, “Local parents fail to meet ‘No Child’ goal,” since they’re the ones who have failed to raise more studious children? 

Where are the headlines that say, “Doctors fail to meet heart disease goal” or “Clergy fails to meet Sabbath keeping goal?”  Aren’t those professions also responsible for the private choices of their constituencies, or is it only teachers who magically control what other people do with the tools and information they offer?

4 comments on “Blame The Teachers?!

  1. Huston,

    But wouldn’t the headline be “Police unable to stop rash of [insert crime here]”, yet the police didn’t make the criminals break the law? If there were a rash of fires, wouldn’t a reasonable headline be “Firefighters unable to control rash of blazes?”

    While there are many aspects of education that are outside of a teacher’s control, there are many that are within their control. Teacher quality is recognized as the biggest school-related factor in student achievement. A good teacher can have a positive effect on student academic achievement just as a bad teacher can have a negative impact. Teacher’s don’t deserve all of the blame for poor student achievement, nor do they deserve all of the credit when students do well.

    Some schools are having more success at getting poor and/or minority students to master the content for their grade-level as evidenced by standardized tests. It isn’t merely a case of more involved parents or a greater cultural value on education. It is a matter of what’s happening in the classroom. I fear that some educators simply give up on students based on their socioeconomic status or ethnicity when their usual teaching strategies don’t work. Well, just as police and firefighters must learn new techniques to be effective in their jobs, educators can learn from those schools that are having greater success with similar student populations. If students aren’t successful academically, perhaps it is time to look at our classroom strategies and see if there are changes that would a greater benefit to students rather than the usual blaming parents, cultural background, poverty or a lack of sufficient funding.

    Dave

  2. Dave, great comment, and I completely agree that “teachers don’t deserve all of the blame for poor student achievement, nor do they deserve all of the credit when students do well.” In fact, I don’t think teachers deserve much credit at all when students succeed (it would be heinously disingenuous of me to claim otherwise!)–pass or fail, the students ultimately make the choices and do the work.

    The article in the local paper referenced above cites some schools as failing and others as improving, and quotes the principal of an “improving” school about what he’s done to change things.

    A couple of points are in order here, and they relate to your thoughts as well:

    First, if principals like this knew what changes would improve things, why weren’t they doing those things in the first place? This actually makes me think that they didn’t make serious changes, or that those changes aren’t responsible for student improvement.

    Second, editorials that excoriate the practices of failing schools and praise those of successful schools imply–with no evidence or examples–that the two kinds of schools are different. Not true. In their curricula, texts, and even resources they’re all very similar. Some failing schools here have MORE technology than the succeeding schools. Is it the teacher quality, then? No, teacher turnover and mobility is very high here, and every campus’s staff is fairly level with every other staff. The only salient difference is student population, and the character of the parents there.

    Yes, many factors of education are within teacher control, but this profession is unique in that the final results of their work are entirely beyond their control; indeed, often the deciding factor are the arbitrary statistical facts of the population or the whims of the students.

    An editorial in Sunday’s Review-Journal banged the drum for evaluating teachers by student achievement, but only paid lip service to “making allowances for teachers saddled with excess ‘problem kids'”–what exactly would that look like? How would it work? I’m not saying it’s impossible–and I actually think that it’s ultimately a very good idea–but it would have to involve some way of accounting for subversion.

    Your firefighter analogy is good. That is very much what teachers do: when the actual people who are responsible have created a dangerous problem, we’re the ones left with the public burden of dealing with it. Thanks, all you lazy, pyro parents!

  3. I agree almost completely.

    I think the one place where I’d diverge from your response is in the area of the differences between successful and failing schools. Well, actually, I agree that some of them are very similar. There are however successful schools that used to be failing schools. Those are the schools who have changed practices and those are the schools that should be the models for other schools.

    In my day job with an education reform organization in California, we identified 214 schools out of about 10,000 in our state last year that were closing achievement gaps and raising student achievement. When we look at the practices in those schools and schools like them in previous years, we have found that those schools differ dramatically in a number of important areas from failing schools.

    I would agree with you that some schools are successful primarily due to geography. They have a highly motivated, relatively wealthy parent population who make certain their children do well. Similarly, there are schools that because of geography are considered destined for failure by the educational establishment. Those schools get extra funding to continue the same practices that haven’t worked. Those schools get help from their district office (or in California, County Office of Education) who allowed them to languish in failure for years. In California, and I suspect in other states as well, educators and policy makers make noises about improving schools, but the reality is what they’re doing is simply looking for greater funding to do what already isn’t working.

    One thing that high-performing, high-poverty and/or high-minority schools have is a principal who is an effective instructional leader rather than someone who got tired of the classroom and is waiting for retirement. That effective leader, partnered with a staff of teachers who are willing to make changes when practices aren’t working can accomplish great things when it comes to improving student achievement. They do it with the same unmotivated students with uninvolved parents as their failing peers.

    Regarding merit pay, part of the burden that good teachers like yourself face is that students get passed from grade to grade without any regard as to whether they mastered the content for that year. Social promotion hurts everyone. If you received a class of students who had either mastered the content or had repeated a grade until they did so, you’d have a lot better chance of getting them to master the content for your year. Why should you be expected to make up for your colleague’s failures. I think in order to be fair, any value added or merit pay system would need to look at where the student started the year vs. where they ended, as well as how much progress they made in previous years.

  4. Dave, I likewise agree with what you’ve written. When I say that most teachers and even campus administrators are basically the same, I should put an asterisk and hasten to add that of course there are some that are untalented or unmotivated. At any school with which I’ve ever been familiar, there are at least a few people working there in any given year who really have no right to do so. I wouldn’t consider that one of the greatest factors in overall student failure, but it is true.

    Another reason why I’m skeptical about measuring school performance the way that many people assume it can be done is that the leaders of schools and districts lie through their teeth; many times the way that they can twist the reporting of how many students took a certain test, or how many graduated vs. dropped out, is just as slick as any political spin doctor.

    But like I said, I’m not against measuring teacher performance, just doing it based on factors they can’t control. I do agree with everything you wrote about the value of having students whose teachers have been better assessed in the past, but any such system would also have to have tight controls to prevent teacher cheating, too! I hate to say it, but I’m sure plenty of teachers, if given a financial incentive, would find ways to trick the system, at even worse student expense. We might end up with the illusion of greater achievement, rather than actual achievement.

    In a perfect world, you know what would be a great component of teacher measuring? Peer evaluation. If there could hypothetically be a way to control for personal bias/friendliness, and make it anonymnous, trust me, the majority of teachers on any campus could tell you exactly who the ineffective teachers are. That’s not realistic, I realize, but fun to dream about.

    Could someone please offer a specific suggestion for a teacher measurement tool that would control for environmental factors? Are there models in place and being used effectively somewhere? I’m open to the idea; I just don’t want to see anyone punished because they worked their heart out but their classes still self-destructed; which, I hope everyone knows, happens all the time.

    One last thing: thanks for including me among the “good teachers” in your comment, but, in the interest of fairness, I have to point out that you personally have no way of knowing whether or not that’s true. I hope I am, though, and thanks for giving a guy the benefit of the doubt!

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