Once again, the spotlight is on teachers to fix what’s wrong with education. TIME Magazine’s inflammatory cover story, “Rotten Apples” (Nov. 3, 2014) blames bad schools on teacher tenure. Then last week the Obama administration called for states to send its best teachers to its worst schools. If we just fix this bad teacher trouble, the achievement gap will disappear. Seriously?
First, no one is suggesting bad teachers should stay in classrooms, least of all teachers themselves. Critics estimate between one and three percent of teachers are ineffective and should be replaced. Fine, but if all the unproductive teachers were fired tomorrow, who would take their places? Is there a secret pool of highly qualified applicants eager to take on challenging jobs that promise neither security nor respect?
Furthermore, there’s no evidence linking teacher tenure to poor student achievement. None. In fact, a study in the Harvard Education Review finds states with the highest student achievement (Maryland and Massachusetts) have strong teacher protections. When teachers are free to advocate for their students and innovate without fear of losing their jobs, students win.
It’s an open secret the neediest students are often taught by the least qualified educators. To address that, the President ordered states to comply with a little enforced part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind legislation. States must now move to place stronger teachers in high-poverty classrooms. This presents yet another challenge. Highly qualified teachers are naturally attracted to schools with higher pay and better working conditions. How do we compel — and then compensate — the best teachers for taking the toughest assignments and yes, risking failure?
By focusing only on teachers, we ignore the root cause of the achievement gap. The real problem is poverty itself. Child poverty is the highest it’s been in 20 years. Roughly one in four American children is poor.
Education author Diane Ravitch believes we should recognize “that teachers are not solely responsible for student test scores … Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children’s ability to learn.”
Yes, it’s difficult and expensive to close the gap for America’s underprivileged children, but poverty isn’t cheap either. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on social programs and safety nets every year. Wouldn’t it be wiser to focus on reducing poverty instead?
Short of that, it seems the least we can do is ensure all schools — rich, poor and in-between — have all the resources they need to help every child succeed. Enough good teachers, counselors, nurses and specialists. Libraries, physical education, music and art. Ongoing professional development. Clean and well-maintained facilities. And maybe just a little respect.
Lorie Schaefer is retired, mostly.