Praising Teachers While Bashing Them

Joel Klein, ex-Chancellor of New York City Schools, wrote about teachers in a recent op-ed.

“Teaching is incredibly hard, especially when dealing with children in high-poverty communities who come to school with enormous challenges. Many teachers work long hours, staying at school past 6 p.m., and then working at home grading papers and preparing lessons. Some teachers get outstanding results, even with our most challenged students. These are America’s heroes, and they should be recognized as such. Sadly, they aren’t.

“On the other hand, there are also many teachers who work by the clock – they show up a minute before 8:30 and leave a minute after 3; when in school, they do the barest minimum. They get dreadful results with students and, if you spend time in their classrooms, as I have over the past eight years, it’s painfully obvious that they belong in another line of work.”

Praising and bashing in two paragraphs.

Stripping away collective bargaining from Wisconsin teachers and continued attacks in cities and states upon contractual provisions that protect due process come at a time when teachers are viewed as the single most important factor in student learning. For those who find irony delicious, this is the moment. For others like parents, veteran teachers, and wannabe teachers appalled at the venom poured out by legislators, media reports, and pundits on teachers and their unions, the barrage damages further the already weak position that teachers hold professionally in the U.S. compared to the respect their European and Asian counterparts receive.

Finland, for example, is often held up as the exemplar for the U.S. in achieving effective schools. Look at the respect for, and trust in, teachers that Finns have.

A rebuttal from critics: Hey, Larry, we respect teachers but their unions and contracts are strangling efforts to improve schools. We need to sort out effective from ineffective teachers. All teachers are not good. Also look at Last In, First Out (LIFO) rules in contracts or how few teachers are ever evaluated as poor and fired. Look at Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and others who wanted to pay stellar teachers top dollars. Nothing happened. So get rid of collectively bargained contracts and good teachers will get paid well. Poor teachers will exit.


I know from teaching for nearly 15 years and research that there is much variety among teachers in effectiveness as there is among lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants, and CEOs. I know that figuring out fair and equitable ways of determining success among these professionals goes far beyond looking at numbers.  I also know that the anti-union hostility is anchored in error and ideology.

One only has to contrast  right-to-work states with those allowing collective bargaining to determine whether the absence of contracts has improved schools and made them more solvent financially, or, better yet, raised teacher salaries and demonstrated more trust in teachers. They have not.

One only has to look at the dominant metrics that command attention from reform-minded policymakers and business-driven coalitions. Standardized test scores come into play constantly in plans to evaluate and pay teachers. No measures of the student-teacher relationship or what students learn exist beyond the narrow band of knowledge and skills captured by multiple-choice test items. Nothing else counts.

One only has to look at zero tolerance policies on discipline and drugs where automatic penalties strip away principal and teacher judgment when students break school rules.

Contrasting states where bargaining is legal and states where it is not and other evidence add up to a clear-cut case of dissing teachers at a time when teachers are viewed as the primary factor in children learning. Study after study, articles and books from respected commentators, and continuing support from parents on annual polls recognize the centrality of teachers to both student learning and molding character.

Can districts differentiate among teachers insofar as how well they teach and succeed with students? The answer is, of course, yes. Denver’s ProComp, Chattanooga (TN), and other districts have worked closely with their teacher unions to come up with fair ways of assessing classroom effectiveness that include test scores but go far beyond these limited numbers. Such sane efforts, however, get forgotten in the wake of wave after wave of anti-teacher union tirades.

Anti-union policies are hardly new in the history of schooling but they have been pumped up by both the Bush and Obama administrations and fellow traveling foundations and national business organizations as ways of improving schools through management controlling teaching. This naked bipartisan effort to exert power over teachers comes at a time when rhetoric praises teachers and recognizes their crucial role in the lives of children yet actual policies end up smearing all teachers with the tar-brush of selfishness and self-interest in this unrelenting attack upon teacher unions.


Filed under school reform policies

20 responses to “Praising Teachers While Bashing Them

  1. JB

    Larry, who has the ability to move the Denver and Chattanooga teacher evaluation paradigms into the mainstream? it looks to me as if it would have to be the teachers’ unions at the national level? if these new teacher evaluation techniques are good, there are plenty of constituencies that would jump on board — parents would be first in line. I totally agree that the teacher bashing is out of hand (and hypocritical). But I have also seen this issue from the point of view of what has happened to my children when they spend a year dreading that they’ll be assigned to a non-functioning teacher, then spending a year with her, then spending the next year trying to catch up.

    • larrycuban

      Given the current political and economic climate, the instances of union-school board cooperation are usually ignored by media and political leaders. When the loud rhetoric is dialed back and the economy improves, these examples will move stage center because the issue of sorting out effective from ineffective teachers (what happened in your family) will have to be addressed publicly by unions–as the AFT has recently proposed. My hunch is that most district and state policymakers understand very well that teachers do the work daily and that reasonable compromises around due process in evaluation can be worked out that protects competent teachers while insures that incompetent ones exit. Whether those compromises can be worked out in right-to-work states where collective bargaining is banned, I do not know.

    • Sara

      JB: I have lived the same thing as a parent — but this also goes on in states where teachers aren’t unionized. The fact is that dismantling the unions would not improve teaching; we have evidence to show it.

      I personally don’t think teachers should have tenure and that Last In, First Out makes no sense. But getting rid of unions altogether is a ridiculous extreme that will only serve to erode the middle class in the U.S.

      • JB

        Sara, I’m a union supporter. I referenced the unions mainly because I don’t see any other organization with national reach that is invested in this issue. So, AFT and NEA would have to be behind improved evaluation practices in order for them to be implemented (and, terrible as it is, the current level of teacher-bashing may be the necessary push to get the unions even more invested) . As Larry pointed out, it would actually be the right to work states that would lack that impetus.

  2. I became a teacher 10 years ago at the age of 50. I’ve been blessed with wonderful, hard-working colleagues who care deeply and are willing to put in extra effort. Nine years ago we got a dynamic principal determined to improve the school. Part of that involved tracking complaints and pushing 3 or 4 teachers toward “early retirement” (good riddance to them). But the rest of us always felt supported and trusted by our administration.

    Just how many bad teachers do you think there are in a staff of 100? And just how difficult do you think it is to document complaints and get rid of a bad teacher? It’s been blown way out of proportion by people who seem intent on destroying public education.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Lucky Teacher,
      You are, indeed, fortunate to be in the school that you described. I wish you well.

      You asked: How many “bad” teachers are there in a staff of 100? If by “bad” you mean incompetent to teach a subject in secondary school (doesn’t know subject matter sufficiently well, has a hard time communicating with students, cannot manage class, etc. etc.), then the percentage would be around 3-5 in such a school–in my opinion. But in my judgment, mediocre does not mean “bad.” Mediocre means borderline competent–can manage a class, gets students to do minimum work, can communicate subject matter but in an uninspiring, plodding way, etc. etc. Add another–this is an estimate–5-10 percent. In other words, in my judgment,80-90 percent of most faculties are competent and get the work done, etc. Among that same 100, there are at least 5-10 percent of the teachers who are stars, who inspire students to learn, develop abiding relationships with students long after they graduate, and are models for their colleagues. These numbers vary by schools within the district, of course, particularly those schools enrolling largely poor and minority students. In those schools, often there is great turnover and instability among both teachers and principals which makes it very hard to retain top-flight teachers for more than a year or two. Moreover, such schools sometimes become catchment basins for mediocre and incompetent teachers in the district.

      Is it difficult to document complaints? Not if students and parents are willing to do so. Most, however, are not. Your principal’s efforts to nudge low-performing teachers out is often done by smart leaders. For those teachers who should leave but don’t budge, then making a paper trail, good-faith efforts to help the teacher, and, then, if that fails, eventual firing. All needs to be pursued diligently. It is a lot of work but then again, a principal 0nly has to do it once in a school. To do so makes it a teachable moment for everyone on the staff. I learned that as a superintendent,

  3. Paul Muench

    Has the quality of teaching changed much throughout history? Do you have an opinion on why we haven’t reached some reasonable solution already?

    • larrycuban

      Dear Paul,

      Not sure how you define quality but at the minimum, once graduates of grammar school–today’s 8th grade–could get a teaching certificate. Today, in many states, a bachelor’s or master’s degree is required along with a license to teach. If that definition of quality is too credential-focused, you will need to elaborate what you mean by “quality.”
      As for an opinion on the high-pitched conflict and bashing-teacher rhetoric marking these past few years, I see it as a conflict over control of teachers and teaching triggered by the past decade’s agenda of school reform that places testing and the teacher as central to student improvement rather than a measured consideration of other factors.

      Can a reasonable solution be found? Yes, compromises between policymakers and teacher unions will occur, I believe, along the lines where jointly-negotiated contracts that allow for broader and diverse ways of evaluating teachers from many angles will occur similar to existing contracts in some urban districts. Do keep in mind, Paul, that much of the overkill rhetoric is about urban districts and teachers. Few middle-class and upper middle class suburbs or rural districts–and certainly none in right-to-work states–have reached the intense conflicts that the media love and amplify.

      • Paul Muench

        I was relying on your reply to Lucky Teacher that says 80-90 teachers out of 100 “get the work done”. Just curious if, how and how far you might project that statement back in time. I’m also assuming that not being able to “get the work done” can have some significantly bad impacts on students. At least significant enough that we should work to prevent those bad outcomes.

        The answer to my second question depends on how you answer the first question. In person I would have waited for the first answer, but this is a blog so I took the liberty of not waiting. But the second questions does assume that the reply to the first question is that the current state of affairs has lasted for some time. At least long enough that we have had time to make blunders. Perhaps a way to rephrase the second question in light of what I’ve just written is: what are those blunders?

      • Paul Muench

        The Ed100 blog is suggesting that one of the historical blunders we’ve made is not adjusting to the transition in women’s career choices that started happening perhaps as early as the 1960’s. We should have recognized this change and started paying teachers more to continue to attract talent to the teaching profession. Although this might be a predictable blunder as doing so would have been an admission that the public had been getting a free ride. And making such admissions are never easy. Opinions?

  4. Cal

    “Do you have an opinion on why we haven’t reached some reasonable solution already?”

    Solution to what? This wasn’t considered a national problem for most of public school history. Certainly, school districts have been pushing to fire incompetent teachers (drunks, sexual offenders, sleepers) and unqualified teachers (don’t know the subject matter) more easily for decades, but the national obsession with defining teachers who “don’t get results” is quite new–say 30 years old or so.

    I keep on going back to the national obsession with the achievement gap as the issue. First it was access. Then it was method of teaching. This was the big deal for 20 years or so. When the achievement gap didn’t budge, it became time to blame the teachers.

    If we stopped obsessing about the achievement gap and rolled back some of the idiotic solutions to address it (e.g., constrained academic curriculum, heterogeneous classrooms) and took incentives and cognitive ability into account, I think we’d find we’re actually doing a good job of educating everyone.

  5. In wondering whether today’s teachers are any worse than teachers in the past some thoughts come to mind:

    • When my mother left school after 8th grade (in the 1930s) to go to work, did anyone use the words “drop out”? Did teachers consider themselves failures because so many of their students didn’t proceed to high school?

    • When did we begin to believe that it was public education’s responsibility to have EVERY student prepped for college success? (Yes, I know the awful history of vocational ed, tracking etc. But my district has mandated that every course must align with University of California’s A-G list.)

    • Why is nobody addressing the simple fact that there are very few decent-paying jobs available for hard-working high school graduates (who don’t go on to college)?

    The expectations for public high schools have changed drastically in the last 20 years. In our current economy EVERY STUDENT MUST GO TO COLLEGE and high schools are supposed to make that happen… Whew!

  6. Lucky Teacher’s reply really hits me. My grandparents never attended college, and two of them never graduated high school…yet all found good-paying work and lived nice lives. None of them thought to blame under-performing teachers for failing to equip them for college. If they ever looked back on their academic lives to describe a teacher, it was simply as “nice” or “mean.”

    Today’s students have two choices: either do well in school and go to college, or face a 90% chance of living life at or below the poverty level. Unfortunately, not all of these students’ parents realize this reality. Even when parents care about their children’s futures, there is the burden of overcoming what American society values.

    We as a society (parents included) are obsessed with reality television, celebrities, and get-rich-quick schemes. We do not value intellectualism or factual knowledge. Is it any wonder that kids have little or no interest in learning economics and history? Interest in “real stuff” starts in the home. It is somewhat ridiculous for society to expect a teacher to, with every single student, overcome the handicaps of basic ignorance (not stupidity, because no child is “stupid,” but general ignorance of the world, politics, geography, literature, etc.) and popular culture’s ingrained disinterest in learning.

    I’ve seen parents watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” in the living room while shouting to kids in the next room to finish their homework, and that once they’re finished, they’ll be able to watch TV. I’m not bashing crap TV…I watch it, too. But clearly these kids are being sent the message that homework is work, and TV is the fun reward. Who could expect these kids to develop an interest in learning? Then these parents tell the kids to go to college so that the kids will be financially successful, while the non-college-educated parents create the illusion of financial success through credit card spending. How are these well-dressed kids watching premium cable supposed to know that these comforts require the income that a college education brings?

  7. MEC

    I acknowledge the limitations of my insight because the following information is gathered from a small rural town in a state where teachers do not have collective bargaining rights. And, it seems, from a personal note, the respect for teachers as experts or efficiency for displacing ineffective teachers does not increase with the absence of a Union or collective bargaining rights.

    As a technical college writing instructor, I encounter the high school dropout of the ’80s, 90’s, and 2000’s. Also, I encounter the high school graduate, and college graduate. My students are diverse in their academic backgrounds; however, each seeks self-improvement, learning opportunities, and better employment options. The college graduates, suffering from a weak local employment market, are coming to the technical school to major in technical computer skills, such as networking, hardware, and software certificates. The high school dropout is coming for similar reasons–waiting out the job market low and acquiring new and relevant skills. However, I do not see dire differences in lifestyles between the graduates and the “dropouts.” Each student seems to be suffering from the lack of employment options in our rural area. Eeach student is a human being trying to play the educational game. What I have learned from my diverse academic population of students is something media and education talk may sometimes forget–high school dropouts are people, Americans with real lives, real ambitions, and real families. I do not advocate for the insignificance of high school drop effects; however, it is not a terminal disease.

    Why is this significant? I think the currently identified education crisis and teaching bashing is a reactionary movement against globalization and economic downturns. In our American past, often the rhetoric of college for all, calculus for all, basic skills achievement, etc. are all linguistic signals that the country is experiencing an economic crisis, which is less likely to do with teachers and education and more likely to do with the power and influence of economics.

    Unfortunately, the current intense conflict focusing on teachers, education reform woes, and unions distracts from the real conflict: the democratic ideals vs. free market ideals. I do not suggest that the two form inharmonious and dichotomous relationships because I tend to see conflict as a means of self-improvement. However, I do wish the conversation would reveal a bigger truth hidden behind the ideologies, rhetoric, and stagnated conflict.

    How can we transcend union and teaching bashing to ask relevant, meaningful, and useful questions concerning the purpose of education in the United States of America? What is the purpose of education in America? Do we need to remind ourselves of this purpose, has the purpose changed? Whose voices are being ignored and silenced? Whose voices are dominating? Why?

  8. MEC

    Please excuse the typo; the sentence should read: I encounter the high school drop out of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Blogging, like the writing process, takes time. It never ceases to amaze me at the amount of flaws I and others produce as we pontificate in our Web 2.0 world. Even the most well written, well spoken, and well educated blunder in the instant publishing of Web 2.0. Please forgive the oversight.

    For the realities of the aforementioned reasons, I seldom blog–too painful:).

  9. Stu

    I retired last June after 35 years of teaching in public elementary schools.

    There are several elements which need to be identified in the discussion of the quality of teachers.

    The evaluation of teachers is difficult. As we all seem to agree, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Teachers have to be counselors, nurses, and parents during their work day. Reaching students takes more than just “telling students” what they need to learn. The process of evaluation is dependent on more than just what happens in the classroom. A competent evaluator is a necessity. Principals have to be trained to give helpful feedback. A poor teacher is often ignored by an equally poor administrator.

    Teachers have an incredible work load. Most teachers don’t have the luxury of telling their secretary, “Please hold all calls and don’t let anyone bother me. I have to get this paperwork done.” The paperwork is usually done during short “preparation periods” (guaranteed by union contracts) or at home. It’s not just a question of looking at student work and grading it either…it has to be analyzed and the analysis needs to be incorporated into the next day’s lesson plans.

    Students and their parents also need to be accountable. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” is a truism when it comes to trying to educate our children. Sometimes the parents and students have no choice or options…children who come to school hungry or traumatized will not think about subject matter so much as survival.

    One important aspect of teaching that I find missing in most discussions, however, is the human factor. Teachers are human…and have different styles of teaching and different ways of relating to students. A teacher who is a life-saver for one child, may not be able to reach another. My children had good and bad teachers, too, but some of those teachers were the same. Even a SUPER teacher might be mediocre for some students. To think otherwise is to deny the reality of the classroom. I have watched a lot of teachers teach…the last 15 years of my career was as a pull out teacher for students who were having difficulty in the classroom. I’ve seen excellent teachers, yet even the best teachers failed with some students. It’s a teacher’s responsibility to do everything they can to help a child succeed, but it’s impossible to do that 100% of the time. The greatest teacher in the world may not be able to overcome the challenges of poverty, parental indifference or antagonism, ADHD, childhood depression and a host of other things which prevent a child from learning.

    It’s not possible everywhere, but to the extent it is, parents should have a hand in choosing their child’s teacher. Current year’s teachers should also have input into whose class a child will be in the following year.

    Finally, over the course of my career I have worked in four schools with probably 150 different teachers. I would agree that about 10% are either bad or mediocre. I can count the bad ones (at least in my opinion) on one hand…and even the mediocre ones often had students who soared under their care. On the other hand, one thing I am unable to do is name a teacher or principal I worked with who didn’t care about his or her students.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Stu,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment on this post. Academics like to make a distinction between “practical wisdom” and “empirically-based research.” Some of my academic colleagues might respond to your comments about teaching, evaluation, and principals as interesting but not worth much because it comes from one teacher’s experience or, in their words, it is biased and possibly unrepresentative of all elementary teachers–thus, the phrase “an N=1.” Because I have been blessed with two careers, one as a teacher and administrator in public schools for 25 years and then a professor for 20, I count Ns of One as very valuable instances of “practical wisdom” and worthwhile to all of us.

  10. MEC

    Yes, Stu. We would all do well to remember the humanity–the faces–of all educational stakeholders. Thank you for this beautiful and sound reminder.

  11. Adams

    While many good points are made in the original post (and many fine contributions appear in the comments here), I have to say that this has done nothing to adjust my opinion of the role of teacher’s unions in shielding underperforming educators. I’m a college professor, and I see a very clear distinction between my peers in the quality of educational product they provide to their students and the interest they have in their students’ educational outcomes. In my observation, roughly 80% of my peers care deeply about student outcomes and work hard to deliver a good educational product, and 20% are just punching the clock in class and focusing on their contract consulting or research labs. Just as at earlier states in the school system, there is little accountability from administrators, in large part because actually doing anything about underperforming educators is way too much of a hassle due to university union regulations (and the tenure system, which is a terrible, terrible idea in general). The only thing that I’ve found works to correct lousy educators is peer pressure. When your colleagues tell you that they think you’re doing a poor job (even when the rebuke is delivered in a polite and mild form), it makes a huge difference in the effort level you deliver. In my experience, unions and administrators are equally culpable in shielding the incompetent from scrutiny, leaving colleagues to carry the burden of trying to enforce standards in their department. I’m not sure how to resolve this problem, but I’d like to see unions concern themselves with the quality of the product they’re producing. Maybe unions would be more useful if they provided a forum for teachers to help police their peers? It might be useful to have the *union* encourage peer assessments and recommend additional training or provide feedback based on that, as opposed to leaving it up to administrators to try to enforce quality standards and then work to oppose them. To be honest, I love it when I get to sit in on another professor’s class, or visa versa – I almost always learn something new about teaching, and it’s great to get the opinion of somebody qualified on what I’m doing (student reviews are very useful, but highly confounded with a student’s expected grade).

  12. Pingback: Praising Teachers While Bashing Them -Larry Cuban | For Parents: About Teacher Effectiveness Policy |

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