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Posted at 4:00 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

The "bad teacher" bogeyman and its consequences

By Valerie Strauss

This powerful post by educator Anthony Cody takes a deep look at what he calls a "systemic" attack on teachers and public schools. Cody taught science for 18 years in inner-city Oakland and now works with a team of science teacher-coaches that supports novice teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. This post appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue.

By Anthony Cody
In the narrative being driven by "education reformers," the "bad teacher" has emerged as the greatest threat to our future. This threat is being used to justify a wholesale attack on the teaching profession. With our rights and even the institution of public education in danger, why have teachers been so slow to respond?

Educators are unlikely warriors. In our classrooms we depend on the authority of the school as we exert our own authority to maintain order. Accustomed to our place in the hierarchy, we serve "under" the supervision of our principals, as our students work under our supervision. This deference to authority is perhaps one reason teachers have been so slow to understand the systematic attacks we face as a profession. But make no mistake, our profession, our retirement funds, our schools, even the classrooms in which we teach -- all are under a systemic and coordinated attack.

In the next 12 months we are likely to see:

* Class sizes increase dramatically

* More public dollars going to privately managed charter schools

* Teacher retirement funds attacked as being overly generous

* Due process for teachers done away with in order to get rid of "bad teachers."

* Seniority eliminated since expensive experienced teachers do not raise test scores any more than novices proficient at test preparation.

But our foes will never admit they are attacking us. They will smile in our faces, as Oprah did last fall, and sweetly reassure us that they LOVE good and great teachers. It is just the louses responsible for poor test scores that they despise.

One of the academic architects of many of these policies is the Hoover Institute's Eric Hanushek. Dr. Hanushek authored a rather discredited study in 1992 that purported to prove that class size was not a critical factor in student achievement. Recently Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill Gates have both given speeches suggesting that class sizes be increased to cut costs. More recently Dr. Hanushek has been focusing on teacher quality.

In his essay at Education Matters this month, Dr. Hanushek writes,

"This is not a war on teachers en masse. It is recognition of what every parent knows: Some teachers are exceptional, but a small number are dreadful. If that is the case, we should think of ways to change the balance."

Those of us who spent hundreds of hours documenting the effectiveness of our teaching to achieve National Board certification were apparently wasting our time. Hanushek does not need such overkill. Last February, he explained how we could tell good teachers from bad ones:

"Good teachers are ones who get large gains in student achievement for their classes; bad teachers are just the opposite," explained Hanushek, who said he uses a simple definition of teacher quality. Looking at data from a large, urban school district, he found that effective teachers at the top of the quality distribution got "an entire year's worth of additional learning out of their students, compared to those near the bottom."

Here are the problems I see with his approach.

Problem One: He assumes that test scores alone are an appropriate means of determining who the best teacher is. This ignores the fact that students are not randomly assigned to teachers, that some students are much more difficult to teach than others, that small changes in student composition can have a large effect on the average scores a teacher achieves, and that recent analyses of value-added models have shown that as many as 20% of the teachers in the top group one year are in the bottom group the next year. Furthermore, attaching these stakes to test scores will result in further intensifying the focus on test preparation that is responsible for the narrowing of our curriculum.

Problem Two: He assumes there is a ready supply of highly effective teachers to replace the bottom rung he suggests we cast aside each year. I have worked in an urban district for the last 24 years, and spent the last four years running a program to try to retain science teachers. Our problem is not how to get rid of people - it is how to retain them.

Most of our vacancies are now filled by interns who have received a crash course in the summer. They struggle to learn the ropes the first year, and by the end of their second year are becoming effective. The trouble is, 75% of them leave by the end of their third year. Our mentoring program has made a difference, but we still struggle to retain people, especially those recruited for a two-year commitment. Our pay is low, conditions are challenging, and the emphasis on test scores makes it even harder to keep our teachers.

Problem Three: He proposes that we improve by focusing on the negative. I really wonder what sort of environment Dr. Hanushek grew up in. In my classroom, I encouraged my students by focusing on the positive, by grouping students together so weaker students could learn from leaders. The teaching profession is no different. We can gain so much more by focusing on creating a collaborative culture where teachers are observing one another teach, sharing and reflecting together through processes such as Lesson Study and Collaborative Action Research.

This is not to say that teacher evaluation is perfect, and cannot be improved. Many of us have worked to offer constructive ideas to do just that. But recognizing this willingness to embrace change would clash with the narrative -- unions exist to protect the bad teacher, simple as that. And the reason ineffective teachers persist is because unions are protecting them.

Of course, Dr. Hanushek does not see this as a "war on teachers." He is one of the architects of this campaign, and he sees it as a sort of purification process. He is not against ALL teachers, only the "bad" ones with low test scores.

I was on a panel at a forum last fall focused on "grading teachers," and Dr. Hanushek was on the panels before and after mine. I directly confronted his line of reasoning, and accused The Los Angeles Times of being part of a war on teachers. I believe this encounter is one reason he wrote this defensive piece.

You can watch Hanushek on the panel that followed mine here:

At about minute 27, he says: "As a nation, if we could be Finland, which is at the top of these scores, there's pretty strong evidence that the present value of future gains to the U.S. economy is $100 trillion."

At this point I interrupted him from the audience to point out that Finland has a child poverty rate of about 2%.

Hanushek responded by saying:

"There is no doubt, no researcher that I know that has ever said, that family background [note that he refuses to use the term "poverty."] is not extremely important. It's not an issue. We understand that. We don't have the means to change families. Or we're not willing to use that as a nation. We DO have the means to adjust what our schools do. That's our public policy instrument. That's why some of us spend all of our time not looking at how to change families, but how to change the schools. There's absolutely NO evidence that if we gave $10,000 a year more income to poor families that the achievement of those kids would increase. There's absolutely none. That's not to say we might not, for societal purposes, and I believe it, that we should worry about the income levels of the poor people. But not because that's the way to solve our school problems, or that we have to wait until we equalize incomes to address some of these achievement problems that are extraordinarily real."

Richard Rothstein was also on this panel, and offered this rebuttal:

"I'd like to take up Rick's comment, that the choice is between equalizing income or improving educational achievement. That's not the choice. The choice is between doing SOMEthing about the family circumstances of children who come to school not ready to learn, and not doing anything about it. We'd get a lot more purchase out of doing something about it then we would out of many of the school reforms that are being advocated. If I had the money to reduce the principal/teacher ratio to a reasonable level where you could evaluate teachers, you'd get much more bang for the buck from taking that money and building a health clinic in those schools than you would by putting more principals in the schools."

This is precisely the issue. Leaders like Hanushek systematically lead us away from real solutions that they have decided society is unwilling to contemplate. His views are guiding the education "reformers" - you will hear him cited by Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan. Reducing class size is too expensive. Likewise quality preschool, libraries, dental care, health care, nutrition, etc. They actively ignore the many things along these lines that their chosen role model, Finland, has done. Simply offer a bonus for higher test scores, fire the bottom five percent, and you have the perfect combination of carrot and stick. And vilify anyone, especially our teachers' unions, that say this is not the best way to improve our schools, by accusing them of protecting bad teachers.

A year from now, if we do not confront these attacks, our classes will overflow, our retirement funds will be decimated, and our due process rights removed. Our public schools will be de-funded, even as the billionaires funding "school reform" insist they are acting in the interests of the poor.

This is a fight for the future of education in America, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 3, 2011; 4:00 AM ET
Categories:  Anthony Cody, Guest Bloggers, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  anthony cody, assessing teachers, bad teachers, effective teachers, eric hanushek, school reform, standardized tests  
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Next: America’s disdain for its children


Rhee et. al will tell us the teacher is the one. IF kids don't score well on tests, it is the teacher's fault.
A logical corollary would be if the school system isn't getting better results, it must be the fault of the leader/superintendent/chancellor. Yet Ms. Rhee did not take that responsibility, nor was she held to it by her praisers like Mark Fisher/Jo-Ann Armao/Mark Plotkin/Jay MAthews etc.

Posted by: edlharris | January 3, 2011 6:32 AM | Report abuse

Fault is not the issue. The issue is realizing differences and how to provide for those differences. They have been around since man. Differences are what makes man interesting, just as much as puppies, kittens, tigers, etc.

We continue to discuss unison instead of investing in groupings. Explain why it is so earthly important to have every child complete school together. If life has taught us one thing, the one thing we can count on is differences.

Stop the madness. Where are we? Where do we want to be? Let's plan to get there, but NOT necessarily at the same time. The real issue is "when we get there we can perform," instead of "everyone get there and we'll determine fault when it's over."

Posted by: jbeeler | January 3, 2011 7:12 AM | Report abuse

"Those of us who spent hundreds of hours documenting the effectiveness of our teaching to achieve National Board certification..."

I fail to comprehend the rationale for this statement being included here, other than the author's insecurity.

For me, it was such a turn off, it flushed his entire argument down the drain.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 3, 2011 8:01 AM | Report abuse

The reason I referred to National Board certification is that it represents a solid and well-thought out means of determining a teacher's effectiveness. The hours that are spent are devoted to documenting and analyzing how one has taught, and how one's students have moved forward as a result. This stands in sharp contrast to the sloppy snapshot we get from multiple choice test data.

Posted by: anthony_cody | January 3, 2011 8:07 AM | Report abuse

We must also keep in mind that Hanushek is an economist, I believe. Look around, many of the experts today in educational reform are economists. They have never taught, except at Stanford where only top motivated students are accepted.

Economists apply the same theories to education that corporate America is using today. The worker is paid as little as possible, given as much work as possible and as many jobs as possible are shifted to sectors where people will work for less (off shoring jobs, or closing plants in CA and moving them to Alabama, or someplace where living costs are lower).

Look at Kerchner's research on teacher-led schools for examples that show teachers who are empowered do care and are willing to implement genuine reforms. We are just not eager to adopt reforms we know are disastrous and are ultimately motivated by greed, while being sold to the American people as progress.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence in the social sciences that poverty is devastating to learning and schooling. And, standardized test scores may only tap a small % of real learning.

Posted by: silverstarent2003 | January 3, 2011 8:50 AM | Report abuse

One spends more time earning NB certification then is spent in Teach For Awhile training.

Ie, Anthony is not a slacker and sees teaching as a profession.

Posted by: edlharris | January 3, 2011 10:56 AM | Report abuse

I'm always a little more than frustrated for folks comparing us to Finland. Just how much innovation comes from Finland? If they are like Norway and other European schools, they teach kids only 9 years. At the end of that time their kids either go to college prep or vocation. Yet, American children are compared on graduation levels, which is not what they term at the end of 9 years. Their grads are at the end of college prep.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 3, 2011 11:39 AM | Report abuse

He's correct that there are relatively few really bad teachers. I had one, a math teacher who was so sarcastic if we asked for a further explanation that most of us quit asking questions and I, at least, assumed I was too dumb to understand higher math and deliberately choose a college in part because I could get the degree I wanted without taking math. When I found out I would need statistics for an advanced degree in the subjec, I changed my career plans. Not for many years did I learn the reason he was discouraged questions was because he didn't understand the subject very well himself. (To be fair, these were the early days of the "new math" and NO ONE understood the subject!) He taught approximately 150 students a year for five or six years.

The school was very proud of the number of students who got into their first choice of colleges and received scholarships. There was less emphasis on test scores than, but he evidently qualified as a good teacher--he taught for 5 or 6 years before he got "kicked upstairs" to an administrative position. This means approximelty 750 students sat in his class trying to be invisible, pretending we understood the problem, dreading exams, and basing our careers and college choices on the amount of math we would have to take. Twenty years after graduating, when I would have that familiar dream where you are taking a test you never studied for, it always featured his class.

There are very few bad teachers, but their influence is much greater than the influence of the outstanding teachers.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 3, 2011 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Hanushek: "...We don't have the means to change families. Or we're not willing to use that as a nation...."

The second half of this segment is probably the most true. There are a lot of things that could be done to change families, although I think the better word is support - i.e.:

- Stop the overt advertising of alcohol
and media ways of over-sexualizing young
people. The social pressure on our young
distracts from meaningful study, work,
and developing worthwhile relationships.

- Provide jobs and adequate health care
for the adults trying to raise children;
raising children to be good adults is an
exhausting job by itself, and if the
adults lack the means to take care of
themselves, they can't do a good job of
raising their children.

- Support communities: decent, safe parks,
playgrounds, places where parents can go
for group support, parenting classes,
counseling, job help, etc.

- STOP BASHING TEACHERS; they are the ones
raising the students in lieu of absent

Gates, Rhee, Oprah, Arnie, and a number of these other so-called reformers have not even raised a child to adulthood, and they have staff to do all the gruntwork for them in their chosen work. I wonder how long any of them would last as an unknown teacher juggling lesson plans, testing, teaching, doing lunch & bus duty, taking classes at night and during the summer to keep up, using new computer programs, planning field trips, attending endless meetings, writing reports, LISTENING to students, responding to parents..........oh yeah, and be warriors too.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 3, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Sorry; forgot that Rhee lasted a grand total of 3 years as a teacher.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 3, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I wonder how many cell phones Finland teachers pick up each day?

Posted by: bakerw1 | January 3, 2011 11:51 AM | Report abuse

I wonder how many of these 'experts' could walk into a classroom and recognize an 'effective' or 'ineffective' teacher? Does it matter what they think, or what the parents of the students think is an 'effective' teacher?
Ralph Friedgen was fired as Maryland's football coach partly because 'ticket sales have declined' over the past 5 years? Do his players or competing coaches think he's an 'ineffective' coach who's gone 5-2 in Bowl games the past 7 years. Rich Rodriguez's won-loss record has gotten better every year at Michigan; is he an 'effective' coach because his 'test scores' have gone up?
If I had a child in public school my first priority is getting to know all my child's teachers and determine who's 'effective' or not. As this 'debate' about effective teaching is turning slowly into a war, public school teachers must enlist the support of our 'customers' to win this battle, and our customers are parents/communities we serve well.

Posted by: pdexiii | January 3, 2011 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Anthony Cody is probably correct: In the next year we'll probably see larger class sizes and the loss of many due process rights for teachers. This will continue as long as we remain in the throes of this recession.

But while all this is happening, there is another development that is not yet felt or written about, but will have a huge effect on education and on the profession of teaching. It is this, as reported by California Watch on Dec.14:

"The number of Californians seeking to become teachers has plummeted by 45% over a seven-year period, even as student enrollments are projected to rise by 230,000 over the next decade and as many as 100,000 teachers are expected to retire."

"As California goes, so goes the nation."

Hang on, Teachers, there are better days ahead. In the meantime, make certain you educate your sons, daughters and students about the wisdom of entering the teaching profession at this time. Nothing will improve teaching more than a severe teacher shortage coupled with the appropriate amount of gratitude, compensation and due process for those who agree to teach seventh grade in the "inner-city."

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 3, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I posted this on Facebook in response to Anthony's column and the discussion taking place there. It's somewhat relevant here, I think -- especially in anticipation of some of the regular posters here who insist that some teachers fear "accountability" because we object to the bastardization of the term as used by deformers. Way back when NCLB first reared its ugly head, there was a piece circulating that addressed the folly of holding teachers responsible for the educational outcomes of their students. It was called "No Dentist Left Behind" and the analogy made between medical professionals and teachers was entirely correct. Unfortunately, it was ignored.

WRT getting rid of ineffective teachers, the problem as I see it is that every evaluation method seems to include student test scores as one of (if not the only) criteria for ...judging efficacy. There are far too many factors that go into a student's score on one particular test on one particular day for this to be in any way a valid indication of the teacher's skill. I teach CAHSEE English and if the passing rates for the seniors who took the test in October were used as a basis for judgment, I was the least effective at my school. There is simply no way to quantify an individual teacher's contribution to fluctuations in test scores, given all the variables involved. I am constantly thinking about what goes on in my classroom and in my students' lives. I was initially very discouraged when the October results came in and I realized that a smaller percentage of my seniors had passed, compared to the teacher across the hall who until this year had never taught the class. But then I realized that many of the kids who passed had been mine last year -- maybe it was the 9 months they spent in my class rather than the 10 weeks they were in someone else's? I *know* there are "bad" teachers out there, but I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of attempting to identify them based on data and/or the observations of ONE person (regardless of how much time doing so). I also think it's ridiculous that student input is missing in every evaluation system I've experienced or heard proposed. The kids know who the good teachers are, but nobody seems to be asking them what they think. Alas, that's typical in our education system.

Posted by: Coachmere | January 3, 2011 2:29 PM | Report abuse

When one puts together the pronouncements of Duncan, Gates, Rhee, Hanushek and gang we derive a truly wonderful world. This is a world where experience and advanced degrees have little correlation with teacher effectiveness and class size is not very important. More than one expert has also informed us that much of our effort in K-12 to prepare students for college may be in vain if the cost of college continues to climb beyond the present $10K to $50K per year. So in our new wonderful world we can eliminate all requirements for teacher advanced degrees and experience for all college and high school classroom teachers! Coupling this with increasing class sizes to, say 50 or so, in all K-12 and some college classes provides the opportunities for huge savings---happy days are here again!

Posted by: bpeterson1931 | January 3, 2011 3:02 PM | Report abuse

"Twenty years after graduating, when I would have that familiar dream where you are taking a test you never studied for, it always featured his class."

This bad teacher could have easily been gotten rid of based on student/parent complaints alone - if anyone ever took them seriously. He also could have sailed through current methods of teacher evaluation if his "value added" score was OK.

What about all the other kids he taught? Did they all avoid math the way you did? doubtful. I'm not absolving him, just pointing out that even a bad teacher doesn't have the same negative effect on all students.

I never had a bad math teacher, and I did fairly well in it, as long as I studied a lot. Still, I avoided it as soon as I could and found graduate level statistics quite a challenge.

PS - I have the same dream - it's about college algebra, but it does not feature the teacher at all - I don't even remember if it was a male or female. I'm just walking across campus when I remember I have a test next period that I haven't studied for.

Posted by: efavorite | January 3, 2011 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Mr. Cody!

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 3, 2011 8:24 PM | Report abuse

I did complain to my parents; my father suggested getting rid of the TV so I would study more (his answer to everything), and my mother said I should try doing all my homework twice as she did in high school. The school principal was a "former" Marine who made it clear students were to sit in class and do as the teacher said, and the teachers were only to teach the assigned subject. He wouldn't even allow teachers to complain about the temperature in the room; all thermostats were set at the same temperature and locked, so the rooms on the north side of the building, facing a large field, were much significantly colder than the ones on the south side, overlooking a paved, heat-reflecting parking lot. A classmate, visiting me several years after graduation, stated angrily, "[That teacher] shouldn't have been allowed near a classroom. He didnt' even know the subject he was teaching." As we continued to exchange complaints, my mother, who by this time was a teacher and had learned just how unqualified a teacher can be, asked, "Why didn't you tell us he was so bad?" This after I had spent two years crying when I did my homework, having an upset stomach during exams, and asking her for help with my math! I also complained that I had to leave my flute in my locker one night when that teacher made all the study hall stay after the last bell because of a few kids talking, and there was no time to get to my locker and then to the bus. My parents told me, "No teacher could do that. You need to quit forgetting things." Kids can't complain--no one listens to them.

Your nightmare is my point exactly--we all vague dreams about being unprepared; I had nightmares of one specific teacher tormenting me with questions about one specific subject.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 4, 2011 9:44 AM | Report abuse

I think Cody hit the nail on the head when he said that teachers' deference to authority could be a reason that they have been so slow to react to the attacks to our profession. Teachers play by the rules and respect authority, just as they teach their students to do. Unfortunately, the world isn't has civilized.

Posted by: prlowe | January 4, 2011 9:50 AM | Report abuse

sideswiththe kids - You had a very bad teacher. No question that there should be rules in place that prevent this kind of ongoing egregious behavior. It seems to me that the principal bore primary responsibility for this.

This is an exceptional case that should have been handled in an exceptional manner - just as when, for instance, a teacher (or any employee) is charged with a criminal offense.

Posted by: efavorite | January 4, 2011 10:35 AM | Report abuse

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