bad teachers

last week’s newsweek has been festering in the back of my mind. in case you missed it, here’s the basic recap: there are too many bad teachers in america, and the unions are making it impossible to let these teachers go. these teachers lack the “innate” ability to be great, and even worse, they work in high poverty areas where great teachers are needed most. charter school programs and tfa represent a way out of the mess.

first off, there’s plenty that i liked about the article, and i would be remiss if i didn’t acknowledge the role that tfa played in inspiring me to teach in a high-poverty area. i probably would’ve applied to join the corps if not for some various life circumstances. though tfa is often highly criticized in the education circles i run in, i secretly admire them and their work, and i’m confident that america’s education system is improved by their efforts. there’s no doubt that they’ve made teaching in high-poverty areas a bit more sexy, and i agree with the writers when they say that any boost in prestige for the profession will attract better teacher candidates and improve the overall quality of education in america.

but what frustrates me about the article (and other right-winged education reformers) is the way they villify teachers and unions. among my many rants about the article:

1) i call bs on anyone who cites phantom studies from hack researchers working for unabashedly biased think tanks.  the most comprehensive study of charter schools (stanford’s credo report) found that 17% of charter schools exceeded the performance of their public school peers. however, the remaining 83% were found to perform no better than public schools (37% were actually worse). the non-unionized charter school isn’t exactly the panacea it’s often made out to be.

2) the article talks often about good teachers and bad teachers, but fails to define what that means. presumably, they’re judging good and bad based off of test scores. the problem? students in high income areas, with middle-class or wealthy parents, surrounded by books their whole lives, bolstered by excellent early childhood education, and flanked by all the monetary resources they need will usually outperform their peers out in the hood. it’s not a level playing field. when you call a teacher “good” or “bad” based off of test scores, is it any wonder that all the supposedly “bad” teachers would be working in the toughest schools?

3) there are crap teachers everywhere you go (just like there are horrendous professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, dentists, architects, pastors, and business executives). but i think there is a huge myth that public schools are overrun with apatheic, terrible people. they’re not.  in my admittedly limited experience, the teachers i’ve worked with are extremely hard working and passionate, sometimes logging in as many as 14 hours in a day. they love their students and work relentlessly to get them into college. they use innovative teaching methods and are open to new ideas (because yes, great teaching isn’t just something you’re born with, it’s something you learn — another point of contention i have with the article). moreover, they’re intelligent, and were not picked off the bottom-3rd of their graduating class scrap heap. 

4) the supposed counter-arguments presented in the article are so asinine, i don’t even want to dignify them with a response. to read some actual counter-arguments, check out diane ravitch’s response to newsweek instead. and then check out her book afterward.


3 thoughts on “bad teachers

  1. jeff lam, you’re my hero. i am about to join TFA but with no rose-colored glasses at all. i’ve heard the criticisms and i totally get them. i’ve also heard a lot of the “rah-rah-TFA booooo-other-teachers” nonsense and i don’t buy that either. thank you for not simply falling on one side of the fence or the other — thank you for highlighting the fallacy of the fence and the damage it does. at the end of the day, we’re all on the side of the kids.

  2. btw — once you get started, share about some of the tfa practices/methods so i can steal em. i bought the teaching as leadership tfa book, but i want the insiders secrets =).

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