July 13, 2020

The paradox of us facing America’s public school teachers

Americans love their teachers. But, do we have the ones we need?

Old School

There was a way in which our country loved John Wayne and Elvis that allowed many to overlook the crass racism of the former, and the high-risk lifestyle of the latter.

Icons too often disable our ability to think rationally about the culture we share, the people we want to be, or the country we want to have.

Likewise, we hold dear a portfolio of enduring archetypes that are nearly unimpeachable.

The heroic soldier. The pious priest. The dutiful police officer. The courageous fireman.

But, none of those archetypes live above the precious, long-suffering, endlessly maternal public school teacher. Her virtuous purity and womanly honor is protected by the same social mechanisms intended to create invisible fencing between white women at-large and the hostile dangers of a largely dark world.

It’s a struggle when we need to speak critically, or honestly, about America’s teachers. The mere suggestion that she could do better evokes a fragile, childlike fortification where teacher egos are made of glass, and rational arguments are summarily dismissed as paternalistic “attacks” or teacher “bashing.”

The fear of being a “basher” puts a chill on the debate. Even so, some of us see our children at the top of our hierarchy of empathy. Teacher egos are secondary and the life-saving truth must be told.

That truth begins by saying we may not have the teaching force we need. No academically high performing nation selects, trains, deploys, or evaluates its educators in the disjointed way we do in the U.S.

We can continuously blame poverty, parenting, and paternalism, as if that is the end of all progressive virtuousness, but those valid areas of inquiry can’t exclude a science-driven focus on how we select educators, train them, and hold them accountable for the enormously important role they play in society.

Our current teacher pipeline draws candidates from the bottom of the collegiate cognitive pool. The teacher preparation programs the enter are University cash cows that help low performing college students gain the benefit of a college degree without the annoying rigors of college.

While top performing countries are celebrated for high admission standards for teacher candidates, American teacher preparation programs have a low-bar for entrance and they suffer from widespread grade inflation.

On the first point, low admission standards, Arthur Levine assessed the issue in his report “Educating School Teachers.” (embedded below)

He said….

So it would seem that, at least as measured by standardized test scores, the future elementary education teachers whom education schools are admitting are less academically qualified than our children need or deserve. Some teacher educators argue that it is wrong to make assertions about the quality of graduates based solely on standardized test scores. There is some truth to that objection. But if there are other qualities that are needed to promote learning among elementary school children, education schools have not accounted for them in their admission requirements, nor have they published research on which such criteria might be based.

On the second point, grade inflation in teacher preparation programs, economist Cory Koedel says “[u]ltimately, a sizable fraction of the workforce in the education sector is trained in education departments where evaluation standards are astonishingly low.”

But things get worse.

Research says the smartest teachers are the first to leave teaching in their early years. Conversely, the weakest teachers persist and congregate in the neediest schools. By neediest, I mean the schools with high concentrations of black and brown students.

To compound the problem a reverse Darwinist tenure system grants “uber due process” rights that make it ridiculously difficult to pursue consequences for a job poorly done. Through their unions, the weakest teachers enjoy a powerful political apparatus to defeat policies that increase expectations or standards.

They also have a buffer against rising concerns in communities of color that our exclusion from many of the best things in life begins in poorly performing schools.

Put it all together: teachers come from the bottom of students, enter training programs that aren’t rigorous, lose the smartests of the them in the first wave of attrition, and then union job protections basically secure them a long term quality-blind position in the poorest, neediest schools.

It would take an implausible string of words to make that sequence of inequity consistent with putting children first.

What do we think happens to school quality when this is the cockeyed wellspring that produces our teachers?

While we struggle for the delicate language to talk about the inadequacy of instruction for our children, we watch mountains of research pile up pointing toward the potential for student success through effective teaching.

Thus, the troubling paradox.

We love teachers and don’t want to “bash” anyone, yet, we love our children more and research tells us it’s time to remove the bubble wrap.

This fall students of color will outnumber white students in public schools for the first time. Our schools are browning and we need more educators capable of identifying with the students they teach. But trends in teacher demographics are not keeping pace.

In 1987 88% of teachers were white. Today, 81% still are.

Meanwhile, the miniscule number of black teachers declined from 8.2% of teachers to 6.8%.

White teachers are the majority of the workforce and will likely continue to be for some time. For that reason we can’t ignore how they are prepared, what they believe, and how they move from school to school. Many of them spend their early ineffective years in schools seen as undesirable because the children are less white, less affluent, and have fewer parents for which white teachers feel an affinity.

By the artful and systemic use of seniority systems they move to more desirable schools over time, creating a teacher economy predicated on constant churn in the lower performing schools and stability in the advantaged schools.

It’s superbly ironic that teacher unionists from the Chicago Teachers Union deride Teach For America as “Teach For A While,” because traditionally trained white teachers have used black and brown schools as starter assignments for decades. Indeed, much of teacher unionism began in defense of white teachers’ right to avoid “minority” schools. By contrast, TFA teachers are more diverse and their white teachers are clear that their assignments are purposefully made to the neediest schools, not as a stepping stone to a cushy career teaching affluent white kids in tony turn-key schools, but as a mission of service.

In studying “white teacher flight” in Atlanta public schools, researchers from Georgia State University found, “[t]he race of the student body is the driving factor behind teacher turnover.”

According to a Cincinnati Post article about the research other studies found the same phenomenon on the rise California, New York, Texas and North Carolina.

Further, a study on teacher sorting puts a fine point on the problem:

When given the opportunity, more qualified and experienced teachers tend to choose schools with higher achieving students, fewer minority students, higher income students, and schools that are safer and experience fewer disciplinary problems.

A study by the American Sociological Association asserts “[t]eachers with more power, due to experience or other factors, may be able to choose their preferred classes. Parents, particularly those with more resources, also may try to intervene in the process to ensure that certain teachers teach their children.”

With the traditional teacher preparation system ignoring how race has always driven the teacher economy, why do we hear so much about the supposed lack of commitment to communities of color by TFA teachers, and so little about the historic, systemic, and widespread avoidance of “minority” schools by traditionally trained white teachers?

As we fight for our right to a quality education, a longstanding battle we’ve had with a country not trying to hear our grievances, my hope is that we grow up a bit. I pray we dispense with the youngish notion that our archetypes are above reproach. John Wayne was a racist. Elvis was a philandering drug addict. Sometimes our soldiers do bad things, as do our priest and police officers.

And, if we google (or bing) “teacher arrested” we find a considerable database of examples that teachers are human too. Further, some teachers are more willing to stand with police officers that abuse us, than with us.

That should tell us plenty.

Of course we must nurture the possibility that white teachers trained through traditional college systems and protected by strong unions can theoretically teach black and brown students.

We just don’t have the evidence yet.

Until we get it we must demand a pipeline that delivers diverse teacher candidates drawn from the smartest possible pools; one based on the science of teaching and learning, and one that evaluates teachers based upon results, not time on the job.

It is possible to love teachers and exact high standards for their abilities. It is not possible to love children and ignore research that demystifies the shortcomings in their classrooms. The stakes are too high and only children bear them.

How willing are we to live in the discomfort of paradox?


Educating Teachers Report


Systemic Sorting of Teachers


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