by Bruce Dunlavy              (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

There are good doctors and bad doctors, good lawyers and bad lawyers, good plumbers and bad plumbers. In most cases, it’s not very difficult to determine which practitioners fall into which category. One might judge surgeons on the recovery time and presence or absence of complications found in their patients. Lawyers might be judged by how well the work they do stands up to judicial scrutiny. The work of plumbers can be evaluated by how quickly and effectively they resolve a problem or install a new construction, whether they must be recalled to correct unsatisfactory results, and how well their work stands up over the years.

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For teachers, however, the judgment seems to be made on the performance of their students on standardized tests.

Teaching is like any other profession. There are good teachers, bad teachers, and average teachers. Everyone knows that. What nobody knows, however, is how to tell one from the other. There are numerous reasons why this is.

The effectiveness of a teacher cannot be quantified. Teachers deal with too many students to reliably track individual or collective student achievement or improvement. The circumstantial variations from school to school make comparisons unreliable. Each district and school has its own expectations for teacher performance and its own criteria for evaluating it. In too many school districts and individual schools, a “good” teacher is one who maintains an orderly and quiet classroom, who doesn’t do anything innovative or controversial that might get parents upset, and – most importantly – who always follows the processes and procedures set forth by administrators.

The process of teacher preparation is not geared toward creating good teachers.
Overall, the colleges of education do a poor job of preparing their students for teaching careers. In almost all instances, the focus is on the delivery system of ideas rather than on ideas themselves. In virtually every class prospective teachers take in a college of education, they are required to prepare numerous “lesson plans.” The lesson plan is the foundation and the cornerstone of teacher training. There is constant attention paid to the form of lesson plans, and the Holy Grail of the colleges of education is the perfect lesson plan. The Platonic Form of the lesson plan is debated, revised, and re-issued on a continuing basis.

What is missing, however, is the information contained in the lesson plan. The actual ideas to be conveyed in a lesson plan are known in the colleges of education as “content.” Content is strictly subordinate to format. If a prospective teacher’s lesson plan follows the Platonic Form of the lesson plan, it will receive a top grade, irrespective of whether it teaches students anything of value. A lesson plan describing how to raise the Titanic using a barometer and a piece of string will receive an “A” as long as it follows the currently-approved format. I know, because I submitted exactly that plan in an education class and received exactly that grade.

Indeed, grading in the colleges of education has nothing to do with scholarship. It is almost entirely a check-off system: Did you attend a local Board of Education meeting? If so, full credit. Did you read three articles about constructing tests? If so, full credit. No one asks what you learned at the board meeting or in the articles. It’s all just whether you did it or not. I took one course (I promise you I am not making this up) in graduate-level physics-for-teachers in which full credit was awarded for any answer given. If you answered the question – right or wrong, sensible or ridiculous – you got full credit. That’s how I got a license that allows me to teach Advanced Placement, calculus-based physics at the high school level. I would not want to have me as a teacher for that; I don’t know enough about it.

Anyone preparing for teacher licensure (a process controlled by the colleges of education) who considers knowing one’s subject to be as important as knowing the pedagogical techniques is ridiculed. “You’re all wrapped up in content,” the professors of education sneer, as if knowing your subject has nothing to do with being a teacher.

Advanced degrees in Education are even more farcical. When compared to other, more legitimate, fields of study, it would be charitable to describe a mastership or doctorate, especially in Educational Administration, as a joke. Consider what may be required for a Ph.D. in molecular biology, mathematics, or history, and then reflect that a dissertation for the same degree in Education is usually achieved by making an unelucidated chart of the answers to a standardized questionnaire. The task of acquiring, distributing, collecting, and tabulating this “dissertation” could be easily performed in six weeks by a reasonably energetic tenth-grader.

The processes of hiring and retention do not bend toward acquiring and advancing good teachers.
Except in special circumstances requiring a procedure none of them want to deal with, public schools cannot hire as a teacher someone who merely knows his/her subject. Even a Ph.D. in one’s field is not enough, but a bachelor’s degree in Education (as described above) is sufficient. As long as you can write a lesson plan according to form, you may be largely ignorant of the subject you are teaching. Teachers are often hired on the basis of abilities unrelated to the classroom. How often do we hear a school district representative say, “We just hired the best football coach in the area, and the clincher was that we had a teaching vacancy for him”? Some time I would like to hear an administrator say, “We just hired the best English teacher in the area, and the clincher was that we had a coaching vacancy for her.”

Teacher pay has long been a matter of contentious dispute, and the issue of “merit pay” causes more fights than just about anything else in the business. The old litany goes that teachers are underpaid and they probably should be, because that will make sure that they are “dedicated.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I would not wish to be taught by dedicated incompetents.

I think that teacher pay is not so bad as it is often made out to be, but I do suspect the following to be generally true:

1.  Nobody goes into teaching for the money, but nobody would do it for free.
2.  If you pay gym teachers the same as chemistry teachers, you’re going to have more gym teachers.
3.  Because the only way teachers can make more money is not by being better teachers but by acquiring more advanced degrees, the furnishing of these degrees has become a cash cow for the colleges of education, who have become engaged in a race to the bottom to see who can have the easiest graduate programs.

So how do we recognize and reward those who are good teachers? That is a subject for another post. What we can safely say is that the way we do it now does not accomplish that.  I invite your input on correcting the problem.