Teacher Quality: The New Magic Bullet

by Robert Pondiscio
March 8th, 2010

It’s official.  Forget accountability. Forget choice and charters.  Forget mayoral control, standards, class size and universal pre-K.  Teacher quality has now been annointed The Answer for what ails American education. 

Those who pay attention to the life cycles of ideas will note that the tipping point occurred on or about March 8, 2010 when the New York Times Magazine and Newsweek simultaneously devoted their covers to teacher quality–guaranteeing that the issue has achieved escape velocity, breaking out of the education bubble and into the mainstream.  Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” is a lengthy article about efforts to describe and quantify what makes good teachers effective, and it’s unfair to compare it to Newsweek’s cover story, which is classic example of the newsmagazine formula: take bits of data and pieces of string that have been rattling around — the bit about how “2, 3, or 4″ (which is it?) good teachers in a row close the achievement gap; the bit about how teachers come from the bottom third of students  – and combine them into a single piece of received wisdom. Newsweek’s cover  pronounces in stentorian tones: “We must fire bad teachers.”  Lest the point be lost, the magazine tells us in bright yellow letters that this is “The Key to Saving American Education.”  And that’s subtle compared to the article itself which declares: ”The problem with education is teachers.” 

Well, thanks for clearing that up. 

“Getting rid of bad teachers and hiring good ones is the solution to turning around failing urban schools,”  Newsweek tells us.  Note the definite article.  Not “a” solution, but “the” solution.  The Answer.  The Way. The True and Only Heaven.  Cue choirs of seraphim and cherubim.  No more calls, we have a winner.  If we want to fix schools we must fire bad teachers.  That’s it.  Period. Full stop.

Let me say this clearly:  teacher quality matters.  I’ll say it again.  Teacher quality matters.  Did I mention that teacher quality matters?  Because it’s really true.  Teacher. Quality. Matters.  Are we clear?

But let’s be clear on something else.  The very worst phenomenon in education is the True and Only anything.  Pondiscio’s First Law states there is no good idea in education that doesn’t become a bad idea the moment in hardens into orthodoxy.  And teacher quality now threatens to become the latest good idea that we will follow off a cliff. 

Curriculum?  Doesn’t mean a thing without a great teacher.  School leadership.  Sure.  That’s how we hire great teachers.  Testing?  That’s how we identify great teachers.  Merit pay?  We need to compensate great teachers for delivering results.  Class size?  A great teacher can handle 50 kids more effectively than a mediocre one can teach five.  Choice? Parental support?  What part of great teacher do you not understand?

But enough of all that.  We now know — we know — what it will take to fix education.  Great teachers. 

And only 3.2 million of them.


  1. More than a decade before I started teaching in the NYC public schools, I spent a summer teaching English in Kyrgyzstan (in addition to other teaching experiences before and afterward). In Kyrgyzstan, I was given a rather full schedule of three two-hour classes daily: two adult classes and one teenage class.

    The teenagers ranged from ages 12-16 and came from Kyrgyz, Russian, and Kazakh backgrounds. I came with very few materials, and it was hard to get access to a copy machine. So I taught with no books, very few copies of stories, the blackboard, and my wits.

    I was fairly informal, encouraging lots of class discussion, having them sing songs (“Yesterday” was their favorite) and perform skits. Not once was there a hint of a discipline problem. They were focused, respectful, eager to learn. There was another teacher down the hall, and she, too, had a delightful class. We all went on a picnic one day, and we worked together on a final performance.

    At the beginning, their language was quite limited. It reflected their grammar-heavy study of British English during the school year. They had some foundation but very little practice speaking. By the end, they were having lively class discussions about a range of topics, from computer viruses to college to peer pressure. A new teacher came on board toward the end of my session, and he visited my class. They spent the entire two hours grilling him on his views of life, in near-perfect English.

    Of course there were reasons for their rapt attention beyond cultureal differences. They saw in us a connection to the larger world. They wanted access. They wanted to study in the U.S. (a few later did); they wanted contact with Americans. They had paid tuition for the course. Even so, their attitude made it possible to do many things, even with few materials. The final performance was delightful.

    So when I read about the special techniques teachers should employ to keep students engaged–questions of posture, tone, eye contact, etc.–I wish the authors would qualify this. I wish they would point out that when children enter the room with a basic attitude of respect, the picture changes. The challenges change. It is not “easier” to teach under those circumstances, but the work is very different. It takes for granted the peace and quiet that teachers in difficult classrooms must struggle to achieve.

    Why do we not address some of the causes of the restlessness and distraction? Why do we treat it as normal? It is not normal, and if our schools cater to it, they will confuse “teaching” with “teaching under very trying circumstances.” Some techniques come in handy anywhere, but others are unneeded–and perhaps unhelpful–when students are reasonably collected and attentive to begin with. Kids will always get silly, and once in a while there will be problems. But the “classroom on the verge of danger” speaks to larger problems. Of course teachers should do what they can to address such situations, but they should not be treated as typical, nor should teaching in those conditions be confused with the whole of teaching.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 8, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

  2. I have made this point over and over again about firing bad teachers. This is only an improvement IF you have a better teacher to replace them with. (Unless you think NO teacher is better than a mediocre teacher, which you might be able to argue.) Where is this limitless pool of talented teachers waiting to bash down the doors and take the jobs from the current hacks populating our schools?

    Additionally, many principals and committees hiring teachers are forced into a devil of a choice: Given a list of applicants for the job, select one of many poor choices or hire nobody. What would you do?

    Comment by Matt — March 8, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  3. Wow. You have your own laws? How can I get me some of those?

    Brilliant analysis. I love the smell of sarcasm in the morning.

    Dan Lortie, in what remains possibly the best analysis ever of the occupation of teaching, “Schoolteacher,” makes that last point over and over again: this is a huge occupational cluster. Most of the “solutions” to acquiring a workforce of 3 million highest-quality employees are unpalatable in the U.S.–investment over time, adequate training, competitive wages, pleasant working conditions, serious recruitment and induction programs.

    The depressing thing? Lortie wrote the book in the 70s, using data gathered in the 60s. A new edition came out about 5 years ago—and almost nothing had changed.

    The ugly reverse side of the “teachers matter most” is that when things go wrong, you know who the scapegoats will be, too:


    Thanks for a good read, Robert.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 8, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

  4. Robert:

    There is a great lesson in your synopsis! Wasn’t it Emerson who wrote that ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds?’ When education policy boils down to a race to the top because the policy community want to ignore the importance of well-set starting blocks, then teacher quality (or a similar throw-away concept) will naturally emerge as a cultural lifeline. It a comfortable, ‘evidence-based’ fit for politicians and policy makers seeking a ‘sounds good, easy to understand, must just be right’ kind of solution. Or, as the new Department of Education report, “Transforming American Education, Learning Powered by Technology,” summarizes: “The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students’ daily lives and the reality of their futures.” As students are to take control of their schooling aided by advanced technology, the future role of a ‘great teacher’ boils down to little more than someone able to facilitate the on-line, 24/7 learning experiences of their students. What the future holds for our teachers! On the upside, the policy community will be able to maintain its foolish consistency about how to fix the nation’s education problems… Just as they have for the past 20 years.

    Comment by Steve Kussmann — March 8, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

  5. This is a sad state of affairs. This looks like the latest round in blaming teachers for failing to magically make all our students learn better.

    “Teacher quality matters.” is much less compelling/helpful than “Classroom instruction matters.” Teachers can change their teaching practice. Curriclum matters. Assesments matter.

    Even if we changed the requirements to only allow top performing students become teachers, it does not make it obvious that they would do anything different in the classroom. The TFA experiment demonstrated quite clearly that just being “smarter” does not necessarily make a difference in student learning, as not all TFA teachers were effective.

    Teachers are our greatest asset. It would be wonderful if ed reformers could see that and find ways of supporting them in their endeavors instead of blaming them for all our ills.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 8, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

  6. Policymakers need to stop looking for the “big fix”. There is no one single thing that will repair our schools in this country. Any sufficiently complex problem carries with it the property that a true fix can only be attained by a sort of balancing act, a gradual infusion of new ideas based on pedagogical research and up-to-date monitoring strategies. Its a very “American” attitude to expect that just because a “big fix” would be great if it existed that it therefore must exist.

    Comment by Glenn H — March 8, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  7. The countries that have the highest student achievement *DO* recruit their teachers from among the top college graduates. I think that does, in fact, make an impact on school performance. HOWEVER, the ability to attract smart teachers is a reflection of the culture valuing education highly in a way that the U.S. doesn’t. If I could wave a wand and magically switch the average teacher coming from the bottom third of college graduates to the top third, we still wouldn’t get to where countries like Singapore, Korea, and Finland are.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 8, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

  8. I’ve often wondered what the results would be if you swapped the teachers from a well to do suburban high school with the teachers at an under performing inner-city high school. Would the teachers from the city now look like all-stars because of their stellar student population, supportive parents, untold resources, etc.? And would the once top-notch teachers from the burbs now have difficulty coping with the many at risk students, with little or no parental support, and very limited resources?

    So would Pondiscio’s First Law past muster under such a test? It could be a very interesting experiment.

    Erin is right. Teachers are our greatest asset…BUT…does it help if the students in front of these teachers are also at or near grade level? Cooperative? Willing to learn?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 8, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

  9. Great article.

    It explains that uneasy feeling in my stomach every time I hear the words “great teachers,” or “teacher quality.” Both of these phrases seem pretty warm and fuzzy on the surface – and hard to dispute. Of course teacher quality matters. Of course students are better off in a great teacher’s classroom.

    The problem is these catch phrases have turned into warm-n-fuzzy sounding code words for “Great teachers – on paper – lead to student achievement – on paper.” This new philosophy takes for granted that the teachers whose students have the best test scores are in fact the best teachers. In the process, it punishes those willing to take on teaching assignments with built-in challenges that affect test scores. It also allows us to ignore all other issues that affect the quality of life for both teachers and students.

    Roxanna Elden
    Author of “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers”

    Comment by Roxanna Elden — March 8, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

  10. Great post.

    The terms “great teachers” and “teacher quality” seem warm and fuzzy enough, and hard to dispute. Of course students are better off with a great teacher. Of course teacher quality matters.

    The problem is these terms are becoming warm-n-fuzzy sounding code words for putting 100% of responsibility on teachers while ignoring the school-wide factors that enable people to teach to the best of their abilities.

    The “good teaching as magic bullet” theory also justifies the rush to turn the performance of both teachers and students into numbers that can be easily compared, even though we don’t yet have a reliable way of doing so. One result will be a system that scares educators away from the most challenging jobs by turning difficult teaching assignments into a game of “You bet your career.”

    Roxanna Elden
    Author of “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers.”

    Comment by Roxanna Elden — March 8, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

  11. Paul,

    The business management guys who are so keen to improve schools should look at their own literature: There is no way to motivate people, there are only ways to tap into an individual’s personal motivation. If students are not motivated in anyway-shape-or-form to learn, there is no possible way that a teacher can change that. Expecting teachers to change that calculus is absurd.

    Pursuing this no-win policy of punishing teachers for not getting results is going to result in no-student-improvements-in-learning and burn out the public on the idea that schools can be improved. (I consider Diane Ravitch the first burn-out victim to the idea that schools can be reformed. Rightly so, as the current crop of ed reforms are counter-productive to quality student learning.) How many more reasonable people are going to go the way of Diane?: seeing the ill effect that these teacher-blaming ed reforms have on the schools and decide that ed reform as a concept is unobtainable?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 9, 2010 @ 2:43 am

  12. The idea of good and bad teachers deserves some attention, too. If we rely on test scores to establish that effectiveness, we’re into some murky waters. Reliability, stability, etc., etc. If we avoid the standardized test scores trap, then we might ask where the good ones come from and where the bad ones come from. And if we could tell, then we wouldn’t be hiring, or tenuring the bad teachers. Hmmmm, how do they get through? Is it possible that they weren’t that much different from the good teachers at one point in time, and that the inadequacies of support, professional development, quality working conditions and suitable evaluation programs actually help ensure that we create “the bad teacher”? If so, “fire them all” is just a bunch of nonesense. The replacements are headed down the same road. And if they’re not – if someone is going to improve the conditions for the new teachers, after firing the former teachers who didn’t receive that support – then aren’t we looking at a total mockery of an enlightened system?

    Comment by David B. Cohen — March 9, 2010 @ 4:46 am

  13. Paul,

    I think if you swapped urban and suburban teachers (with comparable levels of preparation), both would have a hard time at first.

    Imagine an urban teacher who has been armed with “motivational” activities, techniques for keeping things rolling, ways of keeping students busy at every moment, and pedagogical models that (for damage control, I think) keep the instruction to a minimum. She’s used to giving that minilesson, getting the kids into their groups, and spending the rest of the time managing those groups. She has a hell of a lot of work, but much of that is “management.”

    Now all of a sudden she’s walking into a classroom where disruption is highly unlikely. The kids have done their reading and are eager to discuss Faulkner. They’re looking to her for some insights into Faulkner, something that will bring them deeper into the book. Oh boy. She had better be up on her Faulkner.

    And it is a shame to treat the former situation as “teaching” and the latter as something extraneous and irrelevant (who cares about the kids who are already doing well–that’s the attitude I sense). All these studies of “teaching” are really about high-stress urban teaching, which is not the whole of teaching and should not define the whole. We should consider why the stress is so high and address those problems so that teachers can go deeper into the subjects.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 9, 2010 @ 7:28 am

  14. That’s a really interesting point, Diana. Much of ed policy in general reflects an urban schools crisis mentality. This is one of the underdiscussed aspects of the accountability movement in general: it was designed to make bad schools look like good ones. I fear it has had precisely the opposite effect.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 9, 2010 @ 7:34 am

  15. I wrote my thoughts on this in my blog once – I think curriculum is essential. I know several inner city teachers who would be so much more engaging if they were able to teach what the kids found relevant, as opposed to thing that the students don’t see as ever being part of their lives.

    Just in Case vs Just in Time learning attempts to address this issue – most high school ed is JiC learning – in case you become an engineer, you need to know this, learn it now, it has no outside world relevance now but learn it any case. There are studies that prove learning information that has no extraneous use is harder to both learn and recall, than learning information that you need to know now (JIT knowledge.) One eg given was – if you buy a new phone and read the instructions, and put them into effect, you are far more like to remember them, than if you read instructions for a phone you don’t own and may never want.

    Well, if you put it like that, obviously you aren’t going to recall the technical specs for phones you don’t own or want. But that is how we approach a lot of our teaching of high school kids. And the second I read that I knew it to be true. I know it to be true from my own life experience (how much of what we sweated to learn have we ever referred to in later years?) and from what I see of students learning today.

    I do believe there is knowledge that people should have just to be citizens of the world – but it has to be information that grounds them in this world and makes them feel part of that history.

    Ditto with science and math. If I give you math problems which are totally abstract (my personal bete noir – if two trains from different stations leave at different times and lots of other details, when will they meet?) solving them is complex and formulaic. But if I tell you, you have $117.37 to buy your favorite songs, but, and add in complications/give you 12% extra or something else, now tell me how much music you can buy.. (or, if you want an adult eg – you bought your house for X amount/square foot, now, it’s selling for Y amount/sqf, what’s the new total – I’ve seen people do that in their head after a bottle of wine!) Embedding the knowledge in personally relevant information moves the learning from JIC to JIT, and makes everything easier…

    Comment by Liat — March 9, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

  16. Great post!

    Comment by john thompson — March 9, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  17. [...] Teacher Quality: The New Magic Bullet [...]

    Pingback by Ed Reform’s Redheaded Stepchild « The Core Knowledge Blog — March 16, 2010 @ 8:09 am

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