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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Who Are "Bad" Teachers?

The Myth of the “Crappy Teacher”

By: Crystal Sylvia
Date Published: March 11, 2011

On February 2, I attended a forum at the Fordham Institute titled “Are Bad Schools Immortal?” One of the speakers was Jeanne Allen, founder and president of the Center for Education Reform, which promotes “school choice,” a.k.a. charter schools and vouchers.

In her talk (at 56:27), Allen stated that she had recently visited an underperforming public high school in Philadelphia. To make the point about how awful this school was, she claimed that it had been open for 35 years yet “has never graduated one child who has actually gone to college.” When I challenged Allen on this outrageous claim she then said that “no child has graduated from college in 35 years.”

The purpose of both statements was to show how rotten and entrenched some public schools are. Allen’s story sounded made up to me; it would have been a monumental feat for a high school to track all of its students’ post high school lives for thirty-five years. I asked Allen for the name of the school and, not surprisingly, she said she didn’t remember.

This is not an isolated incident, as vilifying unions and teachers has become the focal point of corporate education reform. Michelle Rhee spent much of her time ”transforming” DC Public Schools (DCPS) by creating stereotypes that they were filled with incompetent teachers who were failing children. The claim was that these teachers had jobs for life, no matter how badly they performed, because the adult-serving, anti-child teachers’ union protected them.

In interviews and at countless speaking engagements, Rhee shared anecdotal stories about her experience walking into different DCPS classrooms and seeing “crappy teachers.” She recounted numerous stories of parents and students begging her to get ”good teachers” into the classrooms. The public was appalled by these stories, and this gave Rhee the upper hand in union contract negotiations, which she was using to try and secure a first-of-its-kind contract that gutted tenure and tied pay to performance. This, after all, was a public relations battle.

Attacks on welfare

Rhee and Allen’s attacks on teachers and unions are reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s attacks on welfare, in which he promoted a stereotype of welfare recipients who were cheating the system, living high off the hog, and popping out babies just to collect more money. During Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign he talked about a woman from Chicago who received welfare benefits:

“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”

Even though this story was never corroborated, its repetition and others like it left an indelible image in the minds of people in the US and helped to shape the punitive welfare reform laws that were passed years later.

Susan Douglas, Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, offered an excellent analysis of Reagan’s strategy:

“He specialized in the exaggerated, outrageous tale that was almost always unsubstantiated, usually false, yet so sensational that it merited repeated recounting… and because his ‘examples’ of welfare queens drew on existing stereotypes of welfare cheats and resonated with news stories about welfare fraud, they did indeed gain real traction.”

This strategy of manufacturing facts or finding a think tank to support an agenda is also employed by many proponents of the corporate education model. It is used as a way to not only attack teachers’ unions, but to go after public schools in general, and push through privatization measures such as charter schools and vouchers.

Rhee has repeated outrageous anecdotes about abysmal teachers, and has also made statements that are not supported by statistics or studies in order to further her goals. In “How to Fix Our Schools: A Manifesto,” which was signed by sixteen school district chiefs, including Rhee, and was published in the Washington Post on October 10, 2010, it stated: “As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income—it is the quality of their teacher.”

In this case, not only had the original statement been distorted—President Obama had said that teachers were the most important factor inside the school—the claim was not supported by any studies or data. As Diane Ravitch writes, “The single biggest correlate with low academic achievement—contrary to the film Waiting for Superman—is poverty.”

Yet because it has been reiterated over and over again, the myth of the “crappy teacher,” like the myth of the “welfare queen,” is now a common misconception.

For more on this issue, see "The 'Bad' Teacher"

The "Bad" Teacher

Teachers & Parents for Real Education Reform"
An initiative of teachers and parents in the DC Public Schools aimed at improving the quality of teaching and learning. We aim to get the administration and the union focused on what matters -- support for high quality teaching.
They are infamous. Countless newspaper stories have been written about them. DC school leaders and politicians include classroom horror stories about them in their speeches. Parents lament about them. They are assailed in e-mail posts and comment sections of articles and blog postings. They’ve even gotten attention nationwide with the recent spotlight on DCPS’ chancellor in the national media.

Lazy, incompetent, irresponsible and selfish are some words used to describe them. They are touted right now as being the primary obstacle to DCPS reform efforts. Who are they? The “bad” DCPS teachers, of course.

Anyone who has worked in DCPS or has had their children enrolled in the public schools has encountered teachers who should be removed from the classroom ASAP.

But how many “bad” teachers are there? The hype created by our school leaders, politicians and reporters would lead one to believe that most DCPS teachers are abject failures while only a small minority are really good. The few great teachers are described as mostly young and are talked about in saint-like terms. Anecdotal stories are told about how these extraordinary teachers struggle with the burdens of working in schools with a bunch of professional rejects.

However, the reality is quite different. While bad DCPS teachers exist, they are not the majority. Teachers have become an easy scapegoat for a reform effort that doesn’t understand the complexities of the problems facing DCPS. If we look closer, we see a failed system that has left the majority of teachers overwhelmed without the proper supports or the necessary training to overcome the tremendous obstacles that the children present.

Complicating matters, the Washington Teachers Union appears to rigidly defend all teachers, including the “bad” ones. This feeds into the stereotype that the Union doesn’t care about children, but is only concerned with protecting jobs. Our school leaders take advantage of this, framing the reform debate in these terms: eroding or even eliminating tenure is the only way to rid the system of the incompetents. Can’t we get rid of bad teachers without depriving all teachers of their due process rights?

Along with this massive firing campaign, huge salary increases are being proposed as the primary way to improve academic instruction. If you oppose this you are labeled an obstructionist who is interested in only preserving the status quo.

It is not that simple. Almost doubling teachers’ salaries will not magically make them better able to teach students who are disruptive nor will it make it easier to teach students who are several grade levels behind. These are the tougher issues that need to be addressed before any reform can be successful.

Posted by Crystal Sylvia at 8:46 PM

Anonymous said...
Great question--how many bad teachers are there?
Rhee's constant finger pointing to the bad DCPS teachers is like a broken record.
I guess she learned from George Bush. Just keep repeating it, no matter how untrue, and people will believe it.
How many American's still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda after 9/11?
Unfortunately, it seems to be working.
November 16, 2008 4:41 PM

Anonymous said...
Yes- How many? I have taught in DCPS for 15 years and have had three children go through the system. I have encountered some "bad" teachers, but I have met many more great ones. This is all part of the negative propaganda that is everywhere- today's Parade Magazine, The News Hour and just about every issue of the Washington post. The idea that getting rid of bad teachers will fix the system sounds good to some- it is a quick fix. Unfortunately, it is not the solution. Supporting teachers in becoming great teachers, and implementing a fair evaluation process is one part of what is necessary to improve education for the District's children.
November 16, 2008 8:28 PM

The Washington Teacher said...
The tactics that Rhee and company are using are called union busting 101. One of the main tactics used to break unions is the divide and conquer tactic. Typically employers who engage in these tactics pit a group of employees against one another such as old versus young, men vs. women, etc. They get a group of employees to turn against their own union in support of the organization they work for . They even use unethical and illegal methods such as paying union members to advocate their cause. Sound familiar? They use other psychological tactics like I am your friend, don't let your union get in the way of our great relationship as I really care about your welfare.
These tactics have nothing to do with student achievment or bad or good teachers. The goal is to outsource and privatize as many jobs as they can. Unions are an impediment to their ultimate goal of privatization. Ask the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York about Joel Klein and company. It is all about capitalism. If they can privatize and get more contracts - union busters can make lots more money with plenty of million dollar contracts going to their already wealthy friends and associates.
Contrary to what many in this city think, teachers unions work for not only workers but they also support what is in the educational best interests of our students such as limits on class size ratios which Rhee has failed to adhere to with class sizes of 40 and up. They also support improved working conditions which helps facilitate student learning in the classroom. Unions also provide professional development and teacher centers which help to support teachers in the classroom. The reform model (peer assistance and review) on this blog which is implemented in counties such as P.G. and Mongomery has been spearheaded by teacher unions.
Please check out my blog on union busting 101 and other educational issues @
November 16, 2008 10:36 PM

gt said...
Excellent points made. No matter how good or saint-like you are, the current status of our challenge chews up and spits out many quality individuals who cannot deal with the variety of obstacles we face. Bring in all the new folks you want. Unless we also focus on problems such as school discipline and rampant absenteeism (to name just a few), our district will continue to tread water.
November 16, 2008 11:11 PM

The Educator said...
I absolutely love your post! You should share with the WashPo. I am in a school with a mix of veteran and (mostly)new teachers. We have exactly 2 "bad" teachers. Everyone knows it but only the administration (principal) can do anything about and he has chosen not to do ANYTHING! So whose fault is it that the "bad" teachers are still teaching our children... surely not the teachers (good or bad). Our principals have to do their jobs with a take no prisoners attitude because our children are at stake!
November 17, 2008 8:17 AM

Ame in DC said...
We have one in my building -- out of about 30.
November 17, 2008 6:37 PM

Anonymous said...
I think there are also reasons that schools keep under-performing teachers that are unfortunately necessary. Huge teacher shortages force principals to hire who they can find, not necessarily who they want, and the angry anti-teacher rhetoric of late has only mad this worse. Many schools are currently so desperate to fill vacancies they'll take what they can get.
November 17, 2008 6:59 PM

Anonymous said...
I am concerned about the effect of the constant teacher bashing on the morale of teachers and the overall school climate. Add to this the constant drumbeat of directives from on high to teach to the test. And finally overstretched principals having to look over their shoulders for fear of a Friday afternoon meeting with the chancellor that could mean getting the boot.
November 17, 2008 10:01 PM

Anonymous said...
At one school the PTA I was a board member of documented 14 teachers who we requested the principal fire.
I believe that about 60% of DCPS teachers are Bad teachers. Certainly the majority of DCPS teachers must be fired, that is inarguable, but I don't think it's more than 60%.
In some schools I know they fired almost all the teachers, and that's fine for Wards 7 and 8 where the teachers stopped caring, but over all, in the entire DCPS, I don't think more than 60% should lose their jobs.
December 7, 2008 11:42 PM

meaningful change said...
Previous poster- you should not throw around statistics that are not evidence based. Where did you get 60% from?
There are incompetent teachers in DCPS for sure but no way near 60%. I think some people just repeat the same lines over and over again until people start believing and repeating.
December 9, 2008 10:24 AM

Anonymous said...
If you're all such great teachers, then what are you afraid of? If the union were gone and you were allowed major pay raises for strong performance (not necessarily entirely through standardized testing, although other countries use it and it delivers results juuuust fine), wouldn't you want that? I know I would. That's why I quit being a teacher. No incentives. If you're dissing on Rhee, why don't you look at the turnaround she's brought about.
Here are some more stats for you:
"In 1989 U.S. dollars, only Switzerland, with $4,845 per pupil, spent more. Spain spent only $938 per student, compared to our $4,083. France spent $2,483. Japan and Germany--major economic competitors known for their excellent education--spent only $2,243 and $2,487 per pupil, respectively."
"In math, the only nation America outscored was Jordan, and in science only Jordan and Ireland. We were outscored by two countries full of poverty--including one with a large number of Palestinian refugees! In the math test, Americans averaged 55 percent correct, as opposed to 73 percent for Koreans and Taiwanese, 71 percent for Swiss and 70 percent for students of the former Soviet Union. Our scores were 2 points below Slovenia's and equal to Spain's."

Trends in Academic Progress: The Nation's Report Card
Digest of Education Statistics 1992.
February 28, 2009 11:44 PM