…but I don’t think it’s too strong to describe the situation of students in a classroom with an ineffective teacher.

Waiting for Superman has, as many suspected and hoped it would, generated a surge of discussion on education and ed reform.  “Don’t wait for Superman – focus on teachers”, an article in the Boston Globe, takes up one of the common themes in the responses.  The key idea in the article:

Much of the film involves interviews with policymakers who make a compelling case for firing chronically ineffective teachers. Removing the worst teachers is imperative, but it does not solve our most urgent need: making good teachers great.

I still have not been able to see the movie – somehow, South Bend, Indiana, is not one of the metropolitan hot spots included in the film’s limited release – so my commentary is independent of anything that is actually said or not said in WFS. Much of the reaction I’ve read, at least of the type that falls somewhere between mild-skepticism and rabid disapproval, tends to express some variation of this thought: It’s not all the teachers’ fault, and those who hope to bring lasting, far-reaching change in the American education system ought to start throwing their efforts in with the people in the classrooms rather than criticizing them.

I come from a family of teachers, I am a teacher, and I was in fact taught by teachers my entire life.  I love teachers.  Data shows that teacher-effectiveness has a greater impact on student achievement than over-all school performance, class size, or home environment.  The article says, “the policy solutions implied in the film — getting rid of bad teachers and expanding charter schools — will not go far enough to counter educational inequity.”  The authors of the Globe article make a critical and often-overlooked point when they say what our children ultimately need is brigades of great teachers.  They go on to describe some specific measures that could go a long way to helping teachers go from good to great.

I like 90% of what’s being said here.  I’m not quite comfortable, however, with the notion that the single most urgent need is more great teachers.  For one, it is dangerously myopic to suggest there is one thing everyone needs to focus on entirely.  The issues in education are more complicated than that.  There’s no magic bullet.

Secondly, ineffective teachers are an issue that needs to be dealt with immediately, even though they’re not the only issue.  Indulge me in an analogy: a kid falls in a pit of quicksand.  If the adults present stood around and said, “Well, what we need to do is take all this ground around here and make it firmer and more reliable!  Then we won’t have any kids falling into quicksand pits,” they would be correct.

Meanwhile, the kid would be up to his ears, saying, “Um, excuse me.  Hi, yeah, I’m still here getting sucked into this particular pit.”  Some might also wonder why the kid was allowed to fall in the pit in the first place, but that’s not only taking the analogy too far, it’s a separate discussion.

We need great teachers, and we need to find ways to increase teacher quality through whatever effective means are available to us so good teachers can become great teachers.  We’re also obligated to get our kids out of dangerous situations as quickly as possible.  Superman always plucks the hapless victim out of harm’s way before he pummels the villain, right?

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