Not long ago I spoke at an “open house” for high school students who wanted to meet college professors and learn more about different career opportunities.
When relatively few students or their parents showed interest in elementary education, a father remarked that he understood the rejection of teaching as a profession and that he, too, was trying to convince his exceptionally bright daughter to think instead of a business career.
“Who in the world would want to be a teacher these days?” he asked. “All they get is poor treatment and constant blame when they can’t do magic and instantly bring kids up to grade level.”
He might be onto something, and I worry that if we continue placing so much blame on teachers for what is often beyond their control, we run the risk of turning off many of our best young people from careers in education.
And this we simply cannot afford to do.
It seems many lawmakers with no classroom experience, in state after state, are ratcheting up the rhetoric against teachers. There are calls by some to cut teaching positions, freeze or slash teacher salaries and eliminate tenure. But is it just to place the bulk of responsibility for student performance squarely on teachers’ shoulders when policy makers, politicians, teacher educators, parents, administrators, the public and students themselves all play a role?
The fact is, children’s academic failures are complicated, tangled and grounded in factors as deep as history and societal structures. These failures can also be due to factors tied to cognitive abilities and behaviors and, yes, at the same time be linked to an absence of good instruction.
We know that for decades our students with the highest academic needs have been overwhelmingly congregated in low-performing schools, yet there seems to be no end in sight to this practice.
Among other behavioral issues, there are factors related to such things as “stereotype threat,” in which students from disadvantaged backgrounds often perform below their normal ability when having to deal with negative stereotypes about their group.
Students who live in wealthy areas have the nation’s best schools, and this is not just because of beautiful architecture or gorgeous landscapes. “Best schools” hire great teachers, no doubt, but they also have students who don’t think poorly of themselves because of how they’re portrayed in the media. Success begets success, after all.
Not long ago, an article in Education Week noted that the United States ranked No. 42 out of 46 industrialized countries in equitably assigning teachers to diverse student populations. While 68 percent of upper-income eighth graders in the sample had highly qualified math teachers, only 53 percent of low-income students did.
Do we need to get rid of poor teachers? Absolutely. But we continue to witness this type of unequal distribution of classroom educators. As I think of that father’s infuriated tone, I don’t ask why anyone would want to become a teacher, but rather, how is it that no other constituency is willing to share the blame for the state of education in America?