Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Blaming Teachers" vs. being "Anti-Teacher"

Tim Daly confuses two different things in his post from three weeks ago (that I just found).  He lists a number of people in power and says that they can't possibly be blaming teachers b/c they repeatedly say in public appearances that they support teachers.

But placing the blame on teachers and being "anti-teacher" are two different things.  The whole "blame the teacher" movement really arises from the type of language that Daly's organization, The New Teacher Project (TNTP)*, uses on its website.  If you click on their hiring page, the first thing you'll read is "In recognition of the growing body of research showing that teachers matter most when it comes to raising student achievement, everything we do is oriented toward ensuring that all public schools—no matter where they are or who they enroll—are staffed with high-quality teachers."

It's hard to imagine anybody construing that as being anti-teacher.   TNTP strives to recruit and train the best teachers in some of the nation's worst schools -- in many ways, they do more to help teachers than almost any other organzation out there.

And yet, it's easy to read what they write and conclude that teachers are primarily responsible for the failures of so many of our schools.  TNTP's about us page says that "Effective teachers can close or eliminate the achievement gap."  It's easy to decide, after reading that, that any schools not narrowing or eliminating the achievement gap must be staffed by sub-par teachers.  And from there it's an easy leap to conclude that bad teachers are the main cause of underperfoming schools.

TNTP gets props for carefully wording the next sentence: "Research has shown that teacher quality is the single most important variable that schools control in their efforts to provide students with an excellent education." . . . too many people fail to understand the true meaning of this and simply say something to the effect of "teacher quality is the most important factor."  (Though, to be fair, they should also be ashamed for repeating a false statement in the following sentence).  But the emphasis of their information is clearly that teachers are really, really important.

Nobody's saying that teachers aren't important -- I have yet to meet anybody who doesn't acknowledge that teachers are the most important people in our educational system.  But it's easy to overstate the influence that teachers have and falsely assume that all teachers that don't work miracles are lazy and/or stupid.  And part of the reason that so many people have been doing this lately is because recruitment efforts run by TNTP and other groups essentially tell people that if they're smart and willing to work hard that they have what it takes to be a great teacher and make a difference in the world.

But the line he draws between those who support teachers and those who blame teachers is a faulty one.  There's no iron law of the universe that bars somebody from doing both.  You can be the most supportive parent in the world, but eventually you're going to fault your child for something they do wrong.  The two simply aren't mutually exclusive.

In fact, the two might go hand-in-hand.  The more important one thinks teachers are, the more incentive they have to help said teachers -- and the more reason they have to blame those teachers when something goes wrong.  If teachers weren't important, there would be no reason for us to focus such scrutiny on them.

The problem really comes when he conflates the "blame-the-teacher crowd" with the "anti-teacher" crowd.  These simply are not one and the same.  I'd expect a member of the latter to say something like "teachers are stupid, useless, and overpaid," while I'd expect a member of the former to say something like "teachers are super important and need to accept more responsibility for the failures of our schools."  To blame teachers for the downfall of our educational system, they must first believe that teachers have an important role to play in our educational system.  On the other hand, one can certainly begrudge teachers without acknowledging this.

Lastly, Mr. Daly probably oversells the importance of teachers.  Sure they're important, and his organization is probably better off focusing on one issue (teacher quality) than trying to tackle all of the zillions of issues facing students and schools.  But in their quest to raise more money and recruit more clients, they probably oversell the importance of teachers relative to these other factors.  As I pointed out last week, the analysis of value-added scores in LA found that good teachers were distributed across schools only slightly unevenly.  Since achievement is notdistributed relatively evently, it's pretty clear -- at least according to the latest value-added models -- that teachers are not the only thing that matter.  As such, we should be careful where we point our fingers

*disclaimer: I've both been trained by, and helped train teachers through, a TNTP program

update: Gideon makes a reasonable point in the comments that teachers have to accept more responsibility if they want more pay and more say.  Fair enough.  That issue is only tangentially related to this blog post, but it's also worth discussing.  For now I'd just add that there are different gradations of how much responsibility teachers have for student learning.  Research indicates that teachers are the most important (but not only) factor within schools, but that non-schools factors (including parents, health, neighborhood, and a zillion others) are, collectively, more important.  So it really becomes a discussion of how many other factors teachers should be expected to overcome (see here, for example).


Gideon said...

It's hard to make the argument that teachers are only somewhat important to a student's achievement, and then argue they deserve more pay, better working conditions and increased role in decision making. You can't demand the respect and benefits of a profession and then turn around and limit your responsibility. No one thinks doctors are gods who can heal anyone regardless of their life style or history, but we still hold them accountable for an extremely high standard of care when we go to the hospital. Teachers can't have it both ways, asking for more and more without taking responsibility for a mediocre education system.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Gideon, I think that's a reasonable point to make -- see my addendum to the original post.

Anonymous said...

Why cant we expect salaries and working conditions on par with Yonkers/Mount Vernon, etc? Please explain why NYC teachers should make 20-25% less than teaches in those districts...

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I'm not sure who said they shouldn't. Obviously NYC teachers aren't paid as much b/c NYC doesn't have as much money as the suburban districts you mention. Meanwhile, teaching in NYC is quite a bit harder . . . which is why turnover is so much higher there (and one of the many reasons that the schools are worse).