To: Nancy Gibbs, Time Editor
From: Thomas L. Good,
College of Education
University of Arizona
1936 E Fifth Street
Tucson, AZ 85719
The November 3 issue of Time magazine includes a sensational cover, an editorial statement and a feature story that systematically question the value of American teachers who often work in less favorable conditions than their international peers. The fifty million readers/viewers of Time will see the cover and millions of others will also view it at various airport newsstands. However, considerably fewer will read the editor’s comments and yet substantially fewer will read the article. So the take- away message for the vast majority of citizens from this issue of Time magazine is that poor teachers are rampant in America and that they are harmful to our children, economy, and future.
Consider the front page cover that brazenly and in bold print decries (and implies that our teachers are) Rotten Apples and graphically displays a gavel that is about to smash an apple that looks healthy. Why? Is this depiction chosen to magnify the number of teachers who are ineffective? Internally the cover story leads with the caption, “It’s really difficult to fire a BAD TEACHER” and a picture of four apples, one of which is clearly rotten. Is this picture to suggest that 25% of our teachers are harming students? Might they spoil their still-healthy colleagues? If a picture is worth a thousand words, Time appears to be stacking the deck against teachers. Is the intent to shame teachers from voting or to discourage citizens from voting for educational issues? Whatever the motivation, the picture of the “hammer of justice” smashing our teachers, is in exceedingly poor taste.
Clearly I do not know the motives behind Time’s depiction of the issue nor will I pretend to know them. Yet, I find it hard to believe that the pictorial display is designed to encourage careful consideration of a complex issue that merits frank discussion of the problems associated with tenure. Most educators would agree that demonstrably bad teaching calls for improvement plans and ultimately termination if poor performance continues. Unfortunately the editorial, and cover story, do not discuss the issue of tenure in detail and, indeed the issue of firing bad teachers, appears to be merely background for making broader pejorative claims about American education. Those who actually read the article will find that the authors only consider a very low percent of teachers to be “bad”. Thus, what motivates the misleading cover?
In this brief essay I cannot address all issues that merit attention but I do focus on a few factual mistakes and unfair comparisons. For example, Nancy Gibbs, the editor of Time, points out that in high performing countries like Finland and Singapore 100% of their teachers come from the top third of their college graduates; whereas, in the US roughly one half come from the bottom third. The real question is why talented students in Finland and elsewhere want to be teachers. Is it possibly because compared to our teachers, they have better working conditions and are respected by the citizens they serve? Our college students have been raised in a culture where teachers have systemically been described as less than, and our schools and students are frequently lampooned by media as underperforming, unmotivated, and incompetent. The current issue of Time is but one instance of the relentless media depiction of our teachers as less talented and less capable of stimulating student achievement than teachers elsewhere. Perhaps Time might want to pursue more fully why “higher achieving students” do not want to teach; and be more thankful for our teachers who are willing to take on teaching careers successfully even though they face difficult teaching conditions, little respect, frequent public scorn, and increasingly, threats to safety.
Readers are “informed” by Gibbs that the lack of academically talented US students entering teaching may explain why our students perform more poorly than those in Estonia. The assumption here is that good teaching is equivalent to smart and knowledgeable college students. This conception flies in the face of compelling data showing that teacher knowledge is but one factor involved in successful teaching because good teaching also involves knowledge of students both as social beings and as learners and the ability to motivate and inspire students. Indeed research shows that teachers’ verbal ability, which is correlated with their own success in college, is weakly correlated with their students’ achievement. Thus, despite the Time’s implicit suggestion, poor student achievement cannot be blamed on “dumb” teachers.
Furthermore there are far better explanations for the relative success of Estonia students than the one suggested by Gibbs. Both child deprivation and child poverty rates in Estonia are considerably lower than in the US. Perhaps teaching students who are fed, rested, and prepared for school is easier than teaching hungry and tired students. In Estonia and most other developed countries, access to preschool and day care facilities are more prevalent than here. The US enrolls fewer students in preschools than do most industrialized countries. Perhaps starting school earlier affords Estonia and other countries’ students to outperform our students because these early educational investments payoff by preventing the large gaps in reading, language, and math skills that many of our students face when they enter school (especially for our children who are raised in poverty).
Unfortunately the problem with youth poverty continues to increase in the U.S. The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality (a bipartisan research center funded by various sources including the U.S. Department of Education) State of the Union Report (2014) provides a detailed summary of the degree and harmful effects of poverty in the US. The report comprehensively analyzes poverty data from various viewpoints including labor markets, education, poverty, income, and health inequality. Their consideration of educational issues shows some long term reduction in the ethnic racial achievement gap (40% over the last 40 years) but notes various problems are still substantial. The report documents serious problems 0f poverty and inequality including:
- Income inequality shows a relentless growth over 30 years.
- Economic, racial disparities in health outcomes are substantial and in some areas are increasing.
- The consequences of these inequalities include, “produces too many children poorly prepared for school.”
- Why these disparities? The benefits of economic growth are no longer shared by most workers as they once were.
- Children living in extreme poverty continue to increase.
- The relative wealth of those under 35 (those with more school children) has declined relative to older Americans.
The report’s author (Haley Sweetland Edwards) notes that the court ruled in the Vergara trial that students had a constitutional right to a good teacher and that bad teachers are harmful to students. But if students have a constitutional right to a good teacher do they not also have a right to good nutrition, health care, and equal resources in their schools? And unfortunately, we know that in the U.S. there are great disparities in educational spending such that some students attend schools with considerably more resources than students are afforded in other schools. Differences in resource allocations have real effects. Data collected in the PISA international testing program make it clear that high performing countries allocate resources more equitably among income advantaged schools and disadvantaged schools. Estonia and most other industrialized counties distribute money more equally to schools than in the U.S. Here schools serving students from higher socio-economic homes have more funds to use than do schools serving lower socio-economic homes. Are teachers expected to make up for the effects of limited preschool experiences and with fewer resources?
The author has an exaggerated opinion of what good teachers can and cannot accomplish. Income inequalities are rampant in the United States and the large income gap between rich and poor families continues to widen. It is not surprising that in the United States there is a high correlation between income and student achievement. While it is true that teachers are the single most important educational variable that can be directly influenced by policy action, teachers, in the best of circumstances, account for roughly 10-15% of the variation in student achievement. Thus, when other influential factors (e.g., preschools, supportive homes, and basic educational resources) are below par teachers cannot make up all the difference.
Ironically, before 1970, few policymakers or social scientists believed that teachers made a difference. Indeed, most believed that students’ achievement was largely predicted by home and heredity. In 1975 I wrote a book entitled Teachers Make a Difference with Bruce Biddle and Jere Brophy in which we logically (and with some correlational data) made the case that some teachers were able to influence student achievement more than were others. Since then the correlational data have been substantiated in experimental studies of cause-effects relationships between teacher actions and student achievement. The relationships between teacher actions and student achievement have recently been rediscovered by policymakers and educators. However, despite the enthusiasm that some researchers and many policymakers have for using these data for high stakes teacher evaluation, what my colleagues and I wrote in 1975 is still true today. “Just as data suggesting that teachers do not make a difference frequently have been over generalized and accepted uncritically, there is a danger that the same mistake can be made with the kinds of data cited in this chapter. While these data do establish that certain teachers consistently outperform others and that particular kinds of teaching behavior are almost always preferable to contrasting kinds, the present state of research in the area does not allow for the use of process product findings to be used for accountability purposes.” (Good, Biddle, & Brophy, 1975, p. 85).
There are many reasons as to why data linking teacher actions and student achievement levels do not translate into accountability actions in any simple form. One key reason is that teacher ability as measured by achievement tests fluctuate widely from year to year. Although there are some teachers who are effective year in and year out, most teachers show wide fluctuation from year to year for many reasons including factors that they have little control over (sharply changing student populations, teachers in preceding grades, fired or transferred to other schools, cohort effects of students that are difficult to measure but often have profound effects upon classroom management and the “teachability” of the class. The fundamental flaw in the Times cover story is that teachers who are low in value-added effects one year may be moderately effective the next year, and teachers who are highly effective may perform less well in subsequent years for reasons that typically are beyond their motivation and competence. The tests that are available in 2014 suffer from the same problems that were true in 1975 and the stability of teacher performance and effectiveness is not higher than it was decades earlier. Using value-added scores, especially based upon one or two years of performance, without other information, has no predictable basis for rating a teacher as effective or ineffective or for firing teachers.
To her credit Haley Sweetland Edwards does acknowledge the fact that the validity of value added assessments have come under intense attack. But to my dismay she does not explain how they can continue to be used given that teachers’ effectiveness is often over or under represented. With more knowledge about validity and fairness, will future court decisions continue to support the verdict that teachers’ low value added scores in a given year is prima facie evidence of being a bad/harmful teacher? After (a) providing a foundation for using valued added scores to fire teachers, and then (b) reporting new evidence about the questionable validity of their use, and then (c) not integrating the new evidence into the broader argument there seem to be solid grounds for declaring a mistrial and rejecting the core claim of the author that bad teachers can easily be identified and fired.
As is true for any profession in our society, American teachers undoubtedly include a few bad apples. A systematic effort to identify weak teachers and to improve their skills is certainly a reasonable position for Time to pursue. But to suggest that American teachers as a group are less effective than their international peers when they teach under more difficult circumstances than their international peers, is irresponsible. This negative depiction is especially unfortunate given that the vast majority of teachers work hard to help students develop academic skills, problem solving ability, appropriate civil dispositions, and the character needed for successful lives. And we know that on occasions when teachers are asked to defend children during school violence, teachers are willing to do so to the point of sacrificing their own lives. Teachers deserve better treatment. The pejorative image of teachers presented by Time has done damage to our collective goal of encouraging talented youth to become teachers and supporting the talented teachers in our schools. I hope you will publish these comments to provide a more balanced base for your readers.
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