I could of discussions have got me thinking about teachers. Conservatives have been making the case that one of the main problems with our education system is that we can’t fire bad teachers. Almost no matter how bad. Liberals argue that it’s not true that we can’t fire bad teachers or that bad teachers may be expensive but they get taken out of the classroom in any event or that job security is one of the ways that we convince good teachers to teach and that outweighs what bad teachers do. Liberals generally argue that we should pay teachers more. Or we should bribe them into teaching with job security. The idea between both of these arguments, being able to fire bad teachers or tempting better teachers with more money or job security, is that it’s important that our teachers are really good at their jobs.

When I was a junior in high school, I had a chemistry teacher that was absolutely great. I don’t like science, but he made science… tolerable. That’s about the highest comment that I can pay to a science teacher. I learned what I needed to learn to make a good grade, scored in the 80-something percentile on the standardized test, and forgot it all by the time I got into college. The following year I had a physics teacher that I absolutely loathed. She was condescending and dull. I learned what I needed to learn to make a good grade, scored in the 80-something percentile on the standardized test, and forgot it all by the time I got into college. In the seventh grade I had a terrible reading teacher that I hated and not because she challenged me. I failed the standardized test that year for reading and had to take remedial reading in the 8th grade. That year I had a teacher that was great. My parents met her and had very much the same impression. I failed the standardized test again.

Looking back, there are precisely two teachers that I can point to as having had a seriously positive or negative influence on my life. Neither case is really conclusive and one of the two had nothing to do with his lesson plan and the other may have been an outlier that I will get to in a minute. I mean, I think periodically about what teachers I had and whether I consider them good teachers or bad teachers, but I can’t look back at any but those two and say that they had any long-term effect on my education. It’s possible that Mrs. Nelson had that effect on others, but I think the good behavior was more-or-less limited to her class.

Of course, you have the Jaime Escalantes of the world that prove that good teaching can make quite the difference if only to allow smart kids in bad situations to realize that they’re actually smart. But they’re outliers. They’re unusual. A system that counts on them for success is doomed to failure. Likewise, I think that really bad teachers – the kind where kids get out learning far less than they ever would have otherwise – are also pretty rare. Maybe the teacher themselves matters far less in the aggregate than does the curriculum they teach. If a good teacher and a bad teacher are teaching the same material from the same book… does it matter?

Here’s why this might be wrong. I could really be the outlier. I am also smarter than average. Maybe it’s the middling kids that it makes a bigger difference with. I also had/have attention difficulties that made it difficult to follow the teacher in any event. Because of these things, I don’t know how much I depended on the teachers to begin with. If I was learning mostly from the book, it wouldn’t matter so much what the teacher was saying or doing. So maybe it makes a difference on the middling kids. Maybe for some kids the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is the difference between learning or not.

But seriously, looking back at my classmates, the largest variable was not teacher quality or teacher motivation (for those that want to encourage teachers to teach better through merit pay) but student motivation. And I don’t remember student motivation as being particularly variable within an education environment. Kids who didn’t care in one class were pretty unlikely to care in any of the others.

So if I’m right, why is there such a consensus on this issue? People who agree on nothing else seem to agree that teachers are important and that teacher quality matters. They go different ways when it comes to the implications of this belief, but it’s nigh-universally held. I think that for some ideologues right and left like it because it validates their views (whatever they are). As for everybody else? I think that we need to believe in the people we leave our kids with. We know that education is important, so the people that carry it out must therefore also be important. And if they’re important, it is important that they are good.


Category: School

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10 Responses to What If Quality Teachers Don’t Matter?

  1. rob says:

    Trumwill, how on earth did you fail reading tests? Were you a late bloomer, over-thinking, reading for the wrong things, hella bored, vision problems? Most people who aren’t good readers don’t like to read. They don’t have good blogs. They certainly don’t write multiple novels.

    So if I’m right, why is there such a consensus on this issue? People who agree on nothing else seem to agree that teachers are important and that teacher quality matters.

    In general, people are leery of suggestions that important things can’t be changed. The converse is that people will deny that something can be changed by methods they don’t like.

    The combination of two leads to American educational politics. No one will ever get elected saying “I don’t have any super powers, so I can’t improve education. My opponent, he won’t tell you, but he can’t improve it either.” Some problems don’t have acceptable solutions.

  2. Kirk says:

    Interesting post. I clearly remember the moment I mentally “dropped out” of high school. I was in chemistry, and there was something I didn’t quite get.
    From that point on I believed there was no point in studying anything, or even listening in class. Even the best of teachers couldn’t have aroused my interest, and even the worst couldn’t have squelched it any further than it already had been.

    At one point I had three study-halls, every day. I managed to graduate, but only with something like a 2.5 gpa. It wouldn’t be until seven years later, when I went to community college, that I discovered I could learn stuff.

  3. Peter says:

    Acknowledging that teacher/school quality doesn’t matter so much also means acknowledging that some children just aren’t capable of learning, as their lack of progress can’t be blamed on the teachers or schools. And no one is willing to say that some kids can’t learn.

  4. web says:

    Of course, you have the Jaime Escalantes of the world that prove that good teaching can make quite the difference…

    and you’ve already fallen for lie #1. Jaime Escalante didn’t get the results he got by making “smart kids realize they were already smart.” His method was stratify, stratify, stratify. He took years setting up a feeder system (called “The Pipeline”) of students leading into the AP classes that he himself taught, and he ONLY took the kids who he already figured would pass based on their doing best in the feeder classes.

    As far as teachers versus material, I’m also reminded of the fact that I got mostly C’s on “English” and “Writing” courses until my junior year in high school. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t ace the tests, and write very good essays. The problem was that by the time of the second week of the class, I’d already read through the entire damn book. In fourth grade they were still throwing “read this two page short story and identify who was holding the big red ball” reading comprehension crap at the students, and holding sessions where kids were trying to read stories aloud to the class one paragraph at a time while still trying to sound out words like “true.” When “class participation” was 20% of the grade, the fact that I couldn’t slow down to the pace at which the retards were reading aloud (approximately 4 seconds per phoneme) was… well… yeah.

    Also far as school, the day I got screwed out of getting in to advanced science in junior high (the day a teacher I actually thought was pretty good turned out to be a worthless asshole, actually) put a real damper on me for a while. When my 8th grade science teacher saw me running rings around the public school retard-fest and asked me why I wasn’t in the advanced class (who actually got to do FUN things), the explanation was so embarassing; I’d missed the grade cutoff by 0.01%, thanks to being stuck into inschool suspension and given a zero on ONE test thanks to the retarded vice principal and his “there’s no such thing as a bully so if a 6-foot-4 held-back-twice retard beats up a kid who only weighs 75 pounds I’ll give them both detention” policy.

  5. trumwill says:

    and you’ve already fallen for lie #1. Jaime Escalante didn’t get the results he got by making “smart kids realize they were already smart.” His method was stratify, stratify, stratify. He took years setting up a feeder system (called “The Pipeline”) of students leading into the AP classes that he himself taught, and he ONLY took the kids who he already figured would pass based on their doing best in the feeder classes.

    In other words, he identified smart kids and helped them succeed. And he did so in a way that his predecessors had not and his successors did not. I didn’t fall for lie #1. That’s what I meant by what I said and why I didn’t say he proved anybody could do calculus.

    Regarding the rest of your comment… that has much more to do with curriculum and less to do with teacher quality one way or the other. I am still not sure the extent to which teacher quality matters, I am leaning pretty heavily in favor of the notion that curriculum matters more than teaching.

  6. web says:

    Kirk,

    Ironically, the “Valedictorian” and “Salutatorian” of my high school (where AP/Honors courses were graded on a 5.0 scale rather than the 4.0 scale all normal courses were graded on) graduated with over a 4.10 average by taking a study hall for 7 of 8 semesters, the maximum allowed, and padding the rest of their schedule with as many AP/Honors courses as they could take.

    I, meanwhile, gave up my lunch periods, took no study halls at all, and graduated at 9th place in my class for GPA (still well above a 4.0 average) by the basis that my score literally could go no higher. It was actually dragged down slightly by having 4.0 scores in non-Honors courses rather than taking study halls.

    The notion of school being more a game than something substantial? Somewhat proven by the fact that making “Valedictorian” and “Salutatorian” required one to have gamed the system in that fashion.

  7. trumwill says:

    At my high school, everyone with above a certain GPA (4.5, I think) got the moniker “valedictorian” for precisely the reasons that Web describes.

  8. trumwill says:

    Rob, I had a lot of difficulty reading when I was younger. I talked more about it earlier in Hit Coffee’s creation, but the source of the difficulty was and is unknown. It was one of the main reasons that my elementary school thought I was “slow” and wanted to exempt me from standardized tests. Nobody really knows the source of the difficulty, though I am still not a very good reader.

    As an aside, my remedial reading teacher was dumbfounded that I was in that class. That was why my parents met her (and how I know they agreed with my assessment of her). The teacher wanted to get me out of that class because she perceived it to be a waste of my time. Ultimately, though, policy prevailed and so I was stuck in there. Then I took the damn test again and failed it again. I was making straight A’s at the time.

    In the 11th or 12th grade, you have to pass the standardized tests in order to graduate high school. We were scared that I would have a 3.7 GPA and still not have a high school diploma. I passed without incident, though.

  9. web says:

    Will,

    The joke of the matter for me was the fact that it was mathematically impossible for myself and a number of students to match the GPA of the studyhall-abusing “Valedictorian” and “Salutatorian.” Assuming one was running a “4.0” average and adding in the +1.0 boost for AP/Honors courses, the study hall was actually (mathematically speaking, anyways) adding in approximately a .07 boost to their GPA by increasing the weight of the AP/Honors boost to the average.

    Myself, with extra credit hours? I actually took an 0.11 disadvantage. It didn’t help matters that one of the teachers actually ran the numbers and informed me that, absent the AP/Honors game, I would (or perhaps should?) have been valedictorian.

  10. trumwill says:

    We didn’t even have a study hall option like what you’re talking about. There was an option to leave school an hour early, but there was tons of paperwork involved including a job that you had to get to that provided a “learning experience.” I don’t know anyone that actually did it.

    I would have killed for a Study Hall option. I would have taken that over my Positive Mental Attitude class even though PMA gave me an A.

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