or, Why Teachers Should Not Be Praised Because They Chose Teaching
The problems facing public schools today are vast and myriad, but one thing is for certain: public schools are failing to deliver on their promise of a free quality education for all. Once upon a time we didn’t have a way to know this without speculating based on our own beliefs and assumptions, as well as what we personally witnessed either as students, parents of students, or adults interested in the well-being of children. Now we do. We have at least two tools at our disposal that can offer us insight into what, exactly, is the matter with public education: student test scores and teacher’s ratings.
It is an oft-repeated belief that teachers suffer from aspects of life that make their jobs improbably difficult, if not downright impossible, and that we poorly compensate them, so we should forgive them whatever failings they may have. If you don’t want to teach, so they say, you’ve no right to complain, in what is an adaptation of the old political phrase if you don’t vote, don’t gripe. Teachers as saints is the prevailing conventional wisdom. But what if it’s not true? What if teaching is not that hard, and what if teachers are not poorly compensated? Can we look at this from a different point of view in order to see a larger picture subject to more rhetorical clarity?
At the end of the day, teachers are people. Because of their chosen profession, we can tell a lot about them based on the demographic profile. Teachers are overwhelmingly female, white, and middle class. Those descriptors tell us something about them as a group. For example, are you dissatisfied with the quality of math teaching in this country? Then why in the world would you think it’s a good idea to leave the instruction of such in the hands of the one group of people who have demonstrably less knowledge in the subject matter?
That women in general struggle with math is no secret in our culture. Volumes of data have been recorded, and theories have been developed to explain the phenomenon. Surely it’s a result of the inherent sexism of our culture, beliefs that are still neatly espoused by the likes of Larry Summers, former President of Harvard and the economic weapon of choice for the last two Democratic presidents. And while that’s not fair, it’s also not fair to promulgate that ignorance down the supply chain of knowledge to innocent children of both genders, thus complicating matters. We must either bring females up to speed on math, or we must forcibly open the field of teaching to more men. Preferably a mixture of the two is ideal.
If we can accept that teachers are people and not saints, then we can begin to come to some areas where solutions become readily apparent. Let’s take a look at teacher’s ratings, which we get our first exposure to as New York City became the first school district to release these data points publicly on their math and English teachers in the fourth through eighth grades (NYC students take standardized tests in grades 4 & 8, for the record). This release has been fought vociferously by teachers who, few can really deny, have a vested interest in promoting the teachers as saints model. This model keeps teachers protected from judgment about their work, and keeps the public believing that teaching is a very hard job that is not properly compensated, and thus some level of failure is to be expected.
Except it’s not. It can be tedious at times, and frustrating, too, but so can other jobs. I’d like to see a teacher entertain the idea of taking over the school janitor’s job some time. It just wouldn’t happen, because whatever barriers there are to success, success is not impossible or even improbable, and the poor compensation is still lots more than cleaning up after people. The teacher’s ratings prove this out. The top 5% and the bottom 5% generally consist of the same names with similar numbers year after year. This suggests some people aren’t cut out for teaching, and should thus be cut out of teaching. And cutting is what is required with a strong protectionist union that has resisted just about every proposed change–with the exception of pay increases and pension benefits–since Ronald Reagan created the Department of Education. Continue reading