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.