Monday, November 21, 2011

And another thing...

My fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo blogger, @BmoreSchools, posted the same video I'm showing below on  this post on her blog. I wrote one comment, and was about to fire off another, when I thought that maybe I could get a post out of the comment, and at day 21 of NaBloPoMo, I'm looking for post topics to keep me going.

This post is going to focus on a short part of this 8 minute video - from about the 7 minute mark to just shy of the 8 minute mark. John Stewart makes a joke about how it's wrong to pick on bad teachers when the working world is filled with crappy employees (he cites how incompetent fast food restaurant workers can be) and Diane Ravitch responds with an anecdote about how a principal stated that in her 15 years supervising 300 teachers, she only had one bad teacher, who she fired. Her point being that the number of bad teachers is so minuscule that it has nothing to do with education problems.

First, I understand that John Stewart was making a joke, and I do in fact have a sense of humor. I realize that a serious rebuttal to a joking statement can make you seem like an ass, but I'm going to try anyway. If I go to a fast food restaurant and have a totally incompetent server, I have lots of options, most of which I can do right away and have very little negative impact beyond the cost of the meal in question, and my blood pressure rise if I really get steamy about it. I can talk to the manager. I can avoid this specific server if I ever see them again. I can avoid a specific location of the chain. I can boycott the whole chain. I can write a letter to corporate management. Again, there are no big long-term problems with any of these approaches.

I'm going to say here in BIG LETTERS - this is a theoretical discussion based on years of different schools and talking to different parents. THIS IS NOT about a specific situation that I am going through in a school we are now attending.

Let's contrast the fast food problem with a horrible situation with one teacher. A parent probably won't figure this out for a while in the school year. At that point, there are most likely other teachers and classes that are going well. Pulling a kid out of a school for bullying might be able to be done quickly, but for a poor teacher? Not so much. You're lucky if it can happen in a year, and at that point the teacher is in your kid's past, so why bother? In a fast food restaurant, the management is often willing to come up with something to make the customer happy, not so much the administration in schools. If several parents come together and cite a problem, it seems to make administrators more defensive. I think the political ramifications of throwing a fit while leaving your kid in the same classroom is pretty obvious. These are worst case situations, but even  scaled down you can see why, for parents, a bad teacher has bigger ramifications then a bad fast food server.

The idea of 1 in 300 sounds nice. It's not my experience. I'm not saying that training and support couldn't bring the numbers down to that level, but as a customer, that's not my concern or business. In my job we have performance reviews, counseling, moving people to positions where they can do less harm, pushing people to quit, out and out firing as options, and I've seen all happen. It's scary and unpleasant, but some people need to go, or at least be isolated so they don't screw everything up.

I'm not saying that poor teachers are the biggest problem in education. Compared with collapsing buildings, kids living in poverty, and underfunded school systems, it's probably a distant fourth. On the other hand, it's the one direct interaction with the system that happens every school day. With a job as important as teaching, that impacts kids so directly, we need to acknowledge that bad teachers do exist and cause real problems.


  1. I am wondering how many "bad" teachers you have really encountered. I must be very blessed but all my kids did public school, college,and work. I now have some grandkids in school. All told,we had one"bad" teacher and even she taught my kids something about unpleasant people and we filled the gaps. We did require some special education services. I truly believe that teachers are working under so many amazingly difficult constraints that I think it is a wonder they get much of anything done and yet every year kids successfully graduate and move on. Families are the critical piece and should be. I am not a teacher and would never be able to do the job but I have family members and friends who are. The time, energy, money, and dedication they put forth for half my salary is remarkable. I just wonder what we really have the right to expect from teachers and if they really are the "bad" people they have been made out to be. Teachers will never be able to fix the ills of society and when we realize that and begin striving for total societal responsibility we may actually see school reform.

  2. I'm not sure numbers from one person are statistically significant, but it's an honest question and I'll try to answer honestly.

    I'm going to make a rough estimate of 100 teachers/therapists/aides between 3 kids and multiples schools.

    Count of "bad" where bad = I worry about my kids' ability to cope with how bad this classroom situation is. 1, so call it 1%.

    Count of "bad" where bad = not a whole lot of learning going on in this situation, but tough it out - next year will be better and you're smart enough to learn most of this stuff on your own. Maybe 4, I’m not sure.

    Another factor that I think is probably statistically significant - within schools with excellent leadership the number is 0, in my experience.

    So, again in my experience, ~5% across the board, but significantly less in some schools than others.

    Perhaps a better question would be why are there so many good teachers in schools where they have so little support? I’m continually amazed at the number of extraordinary teachers that we’ve had in very difficult situations. I should probably post on that, but for this comment I’d guess that those mind-blowingly good teachers are probably in the range of 25%. It’s amazing. The passion of the profession is very high, with a very high level of commitment.


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