Friday, August 22, 2014

Defining "bad teachers"

One of the many bizarre elements of the wave of anti-tenure litigation is the apparent inability of the litigants to find teachers whom most of us would consider bad. That's not to say there aren't bad teachers out there -- we can all agree that there are -- but there is clearly something else going on here.

When you actually start digging into the details of these law suits, it soon becomes obvious that there is a serious disconnect between the way the people in these organizations think about teachers and the way most of us do. Not only do they hold up what most of us would consider reasonably good teachers as grossly ineffective; they do the same with teachers we would consider extraordinary.

[You'll notice I said 'organizations' and not parents. These initiatives start with well-funded organizations (usually affiliated with one or more billionaires) deciding on the lawsuit they want to file then seeking out parents to serve as litigants and, in some cases, spokespersons.]

We have already discussed Christine McLaughlin, “Rotary’s Pasadena 2013 Teacher of the Year,” Pasadena NAACP’s “2008 Star of Education.” McLaughlin is the kind of teacher that most peers respect and most kids and parents love. She is also, according to the Vergara suit, grossly ineffective.

And consider the standard being used in Wright vs. New York, as discussed here by Valerie Strauss.

Keoni Wright is the lead plaintiff  in a lawsuit organized by Campbell Brown’s education advocacy group that is seeking to overturn New York laws that provide tenure and other job  protections to K-12 teachers. Brown has appeared on a number of television shows explaining her new endeavor, which will involve filing lawsuits in other states, as well, in an attempt to have national impact on tenure laws...

Brown has said repeatedly that she is leading this effort because she  believes it is too hard for school systems to get rid of “bad” teachers and that it is union-negotiated teacher job protections that lead to poor quality education for many underprivileged students. Critics say this is nonsense and that giving teachers due process when they are accused of wrongdoing protects against patronage and other forms of administrative whim. They also note that many students get inadequate educations in non-union states where teachers have no job protections and that tenured teachers can be and are fired, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary.

Whatever you think of job protections for teachers, Wright inadvertently raised a separate issue during an interview he did with Campbell on NY1′s “Inside City Hall with Errol Louis”: What exactly is a “bad” teacher? Some answers are obvious, others less so.

During the interview with Louis, Wright discussed the education his young twin daughters are receiving at a New York public school, saying that one of them had a really good teacher and the other wasn’t so lucky. How did the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit explain this dichotomy? Well, it turns out, he said, that one daughter received homework packets from her teacher while the other daughter didn’t. Why? After talking to the offending teacher, he said he discovered the following:

... She didn’t have the supply, you know they were waiting for stuff to come. Meanwhile this other teacher was using her own money to buy these books to have supplies for her regular kids and an extra set for me.

Translation: The good teacher was spending her own money to buy supplies the school system should have provided to teachers in a timely fashion. The bad teacher didn’t.

Translation: The good teacher was giving homework to young kids. The bad teacher wasn’t.

Wright has said that he began to notice the homework discrepancy as soon as his daughters entered kindergarten a few years ago. One daughter had homework and the other didn’t. The one with homework was doing better academically than the one who wasn’t, he said, the suggestion being that a teacher who assigns kindergartners homework routinely is better than one who doesn’t.

It may well be that the teacher of one of his twins was superior to the teacher of his other twin. Yes, some teachers are better than others (as in any other profession), and, yes, some working teachers should be removed from the classroom because they are inadequate, and yes, teacher education should be continually improved to elevate the quality of America’s teaching force. I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t agree.

But in this interview Wright rested his claims about the value of his children’s teachers on the fact that one was spending personal money for supplies and that the same teacher assigned homework routinely. That’s hardly what you would call dispositive. It doesn’t even make sense.

Teachers shouldn’t have to spend their own money to buy supplies. Schools should have supplies ready for teachers at all times. Inadequate supplies is just one of the reasons that teachers in many schools have a hard time doing their jobs, which isn’t something that gets factored into many blame-the-teacher arguments. Teachers who care so much about their students that they buy student supplies with their own money are certainly dedicated, but no more so than those teachers who care greatly about their students but don’t spend their own money to buy what a school system should be providing.

As for homework in kindergarten, the research isn’t there to show that it helps academically. In fact, most of the research on homework in elementary school suggests that less is more and that reading is the best kind. Kids derive no real benefit from doing homework in kindergarten or, for that matter, up until fourth grade, some homework  researchers say, while others go further and say there is no benefit to homework in elementary school at all.
Strauss goes on to say that Wright sounds well-intentioned. I'm not so sure. He very much reminds me of a type of parent I ran into occasionally, first to complain, last to help.   For most parents, it's the other way around.

Back to the main question. One of the supposedly self-evident truths of education is that we all want better teachers in the classroom, but if we can't agree on what constitutes good and bad, the statement goes from self-evident to meaningless.

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