This is a question we hear being asked with greater frequency. The structure of the question is telling about the climate of teacher bashing in which we currently live. It assumes that there is some sort of numerical answer, either in a percentage or an absolute value. It assumes that we can reliably arrive at this answer. Most importantly, the existence of the question itself assumes that the “ineffective teacher” is a problem, one that presumably has a solution.

Let us say that we can arrive at a numerical answer. What do you do with that information? Do you identify the “ineffective” ones so they can be better trained? Do you merely fire them? A bit of both perhaps?

Assuming there is a core of intractably awful teachers who should be fired, what do you do next? From whence is the next generation of superstar teachers coming? This is the problem. The question of how many ineffective teachers exist is part of a wider discourse that has been inhospitable to teachers. Teacher unions are breaking, if not totally broken. We have a proliferation of new standards, uniform exams and other measures designed to hold teachers “accountable”. And make no mistake about that word “accountable”. It is not being used as a promise to better inform our practice or the quality of service we deliver to our communities. Instead, it is being brandished like a noose by a lynch mob, a mob that has been stirred into an anti-teacher frenzy by a well-funded media campaign orchestrated by so-called “reformers”. We will be held “accountable” right up until the moment our necks snap.

In an environment like this, who in their right mind would want to be a teacher? What kind of person with a 4.0 GPA would want to dedicate their life to a profession accorded so little respect? Where are these great teachers for whom the way will be cleared once we fire all the ineffective ones?

Those today who ask the question “how many ineffective teachers are there” automatically disqualify any plausible solution. It is born out of a teacher-hating environment  that discourages the potentially “effective” teachers of tomorrow from entering the profession. Add to this the rising cost of college and the raising of the bar of entry into the teaching profession (including a teacher “bar exam” here in New York State, an idea that has been supported by Randi Weingarten) and you have an environment perfectly suited towards driving anyone in their right minds away from the profession.

The foregoing assumes that there is a way to identify ineffective teachers to begin with. Reformers like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan assume they have found a way: teacher evaluation schemes that rely on student growth on test scores. Despite the fact that this has been tried in major cities like Washington, D.C. with disastrous consequences, Duncan has been scaling up the standardized testing regime with his Race to the Top program. States like New York will now judge their teachers’ effectiveness with “value added” data that have such wide margins of error as to make them useless.

The consequences of this are predictable. Teachers will merely “teach to the test”. Those who dare teach students with learning disabilities will be at greater risk of being rated “ineffective”. Teachers in Long Island will be held to the same standard as teachers in the South Bronx, despite the fact that they receive generally less funding and have more “externalities” to overcome. There will be an exodus of teachers to school districts with lower rates of poverty, crime and learning disabilities.

So why the narrative of the ineffective teacher? If we don’t even have reliable ways of identifying ineffective teachers, how do we know there are any in the system, let alone an amount that warrants wholesale reform of teacher evaluations?

It has currency with the general public because most people have been to school at some point. This fact alone seems to cause people to believe that they are some sort of authority on matters of education. Moreover, everybody is a taxpayer and, therefore, the boss of every public school teacher out there, or at least the teachers in their district.

Sadly, most of these people in the general public seem not to remember their teachers with fondness. They probably did not learn a whole heck of a lot in school, or only did so despite their teachers. I can say that, throughout my public school career, I did not learn much myself. In these instances it is easy to blame the teachers. People brandish the accountability noose in revenge for all of the crappy teachers they had when they were in school.

However, just because we did not learn much in school does not mean our teachers were ineffective. First off, I have been a student in many schools and I do not really recall any teachers who did not try to teach. There are people who seem to think that teachers drink coffee and sleep at their desks all day, even though this clearly runs counter to even their own experiences. Therefore, our not learning anything certainly was not due to our teachers not trying. So if they tried to teach us, why did we not learn? Sure, it is easy to say that they were boring. Their methods did not capture our attentions. They did not seem to care about us as people. Maybe this is true to an extent but it leaves out one thing: our own complicity in not learning.

I did not learn in school because I did not pay attention most of the time. I did not pay attention most of the time because there were other, more exciting things in the world to think about other than grammar and algebra. My mind was swirling with so many disorganized thoughts and so many fleeting desires. After all, I was a kid. Furthermore, I was a kid growing up at the end of the 20th century. There were all types of toys, commercials, television shows, popular music songs and technology out there geared specifically towards me. These were usually the images and the sounds that were dancing in my head while the teacher was talking about stuff like the Declaration of Independence. It is no wonder I did not learn anything.

Yet, here I am typing away using vocabulary, sentence structure and organized paragraphs. If I did not learn anything, how did I learn how to communicate in the English language at all? I know that it was at some point in kindergarten that I was introduced to the alphabet and how to use it. I will be damned if I remember how it was taught to me. But something stuck. Many things apparently stuck because I somehow ended up knowing stuff by the time I graduated high school. Sure, maybe I did not learn the type of detail that some of the gifted students learned but there was and still is stuff in my head. I learned and I did so despite myself.

It would be easy to chalk up my ignorance to my teachers. They did not “get” me. They were “lame”. Maybe there is some truth to that. Maybe there is also truth in the idea that I was a spoiled brat who took for granted an education that children in other nations would die to have. Alas, it is uncomfortable for people to actually believe that they once were, or still are, a bunch of brats. Politicians and education reformers certainly are not going to tell them that. So blaming teachers is easier. It lets us off the hook for our own shortcomings.

The other part to the teacher -bashing has to do with unions. Apparently, most Americans are miserable at their jobs and have the fear of being fired dangling precariously over their heads. They believe that teachers, these lazy and ineffective bums that did not “get” them when they were in school, are not miserable or insecure enough. Coming from a school of thought that holds the specter of poverty and homelessness makes workers better, people have had an obsession with eliminating “tenure” under the false impression that it means a job for life. Somehow, if teachers do not have the protections that allow them to advocate for their children and are held to accountability standards that measure how many bubbles their students fill in “correctly” over the course of 3 hours, schools will “improve”.

It is a sign of a selfish, petty and downright fearful society when one group of workers does not feel that another group of workers is suffering sufficiently. Apparently, they see no connection between stripping one group of workers of its due process rights and the deterioration of their own working conditions. It used to be that teachers were pitied because they pulled in long hours without making much money. Now they are envied because they make too much money and have some tepid job protections. Rather than attempting to get “tenure” for their own lines of work, they would rather engage in a race to the bottom where nobody has any job protections anywhere.

And this is supposed to keep the “effective” teachers while attracting more “effective” teachers in the future? I hope that people eventually think about the implications of what they are saying and realize the reformers are prescribing educational poison. You think schools sucked when you were a kid? Just wait until every teacher in America has to turn their classroom into a 180-day test-prep session.

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  1. Teacher unions are one of the last vestiges of the labor movement. The private sector continues to harbor such resentment toward public sector unions. This resentment is so misplaced. The media has done a brilliant job demonizing unions that people believe unions are evil. What the private sector doesn’t realize is that conditions within that environment could change through unionism, but the fight toward unionism will not be easy. Look at the Walmart workers. Instead of fighting against the teachers unions, work with the teacher unions to unionize all workers. Solidarity!

  2. What we will discover when the dust settles will be a world full of “Charter schools” run by wealthy investors where the best teachers will be those teachers who work most cheaply…and that is what this whole “reform” movement is about.

  3. Your question…about where are these effective teachers coming from…is brilliant. I bet if one, digs deep enough, one will find, that the number of students enrolled in college level-Education courses (in and around NYC), has been on a steady decline for years. Also, I have not come across a single college kid, that has told me about majoring in Education….in…..I can’t even remember how long!

    • I certainly see the same things. It seems that many of the new teachers I see are coming through TFA and the Fellows program rather than the old fashioned route of education programs.

      It’s like the people who want to so desperately fire “ineffective” teachers really think that a slew of truly qualified people will be beating down the door to get into the classroom. Who in the world is going to want to be a teacher after these people get through ravaging the teaching profession, nooses in hand, on a witch hunt for “ineffective” teachers.

      Gimme a Break! Like Nell Carter used to say.

  4. “Staff” will only be as good as it’s leadership…an effective leader creates more leaders NOT more followers…Teachers may have to grow enough courage to take a stand…I look back and can only describe the ones who follow as ‘trauma bonded’…we know what happens to those who speak up…I suppose the silence could be considered a form of abuse by proxy…examining pathology I see many parallels…

    • That’s one thing that gets overlooked in this debate. Administrators are totally exonerated for supposedly “incompetent” teachers.

      There are many harassed teachers I know very well who demonstrate symptoms of PTSD.

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