News: Charlotte Exclusives

Teach Them Well

It is a mistake to assume teachers can do it alone

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg and in public school districts across North Carolina, the search continues for ways to improve the performance of the weakest students. It is a difficult problem without easy answers. Too bad one current popular line of thinking on education solutions is no more insightful than a one-liner from an old football coach.

Former Houston Oiler head coach Bum Phillips had a ready measure of coaching greatness, one which he applied to Hall of Famers like Bear Bryant and Don Shula.

“He can take his’n and beat your’n, then take your’n and beat his’n,” Phillips would say. Coaches, in other words, are the key to success on the football field.

The “good teachers” solution to education woes equates teachers with coaches, but otherwise does not move the public education debate much beyond Phillips’ folksy aphorism.

The good teacher analysis unfolds as follows. As poor performing schools often have the least experienced teachers and high performing schools have the most experienced teachers, there must be a causal relationship at work. Experienced teaches must cause the high performance. If so, getting the most experienced teachers into the low performing schools, either by bonus enticements or brute school board decree, would improve education at the low performing schools. In effect, great teachers would “coach up” poor students. Your’n, his’n — it does not matter. Problem solved.

However, there are several hidden assumptions in this analysis which must be unpacked to see if they square with reality. The first assumption is that while students and parents are very much attuned to the quality of the teaching staff, teachers are largely indifferent to the quality of the student body and the degree of parental involvement in a school. The best most, experienced teachers just happen to wind up teaching the best students.

But that is not reality, of course. In fact, there is intense competition among teachers to work with the best students, administrators, and schools. Why? It must be that some schools and student populations are more poised for success than others. In other words, teachers believe there is a limit to how much they can “coach up” students. Teachers, then, must not be the determining factor in educational outcomes. This is contrary to what the good teacher analysis strongly suggests.

Let’s be clear, quality teaching does matter. Everyone recalls a particularly strong and mesmerizing teacher from their youth, someone who stood out from their peers and made lasting impressions on young minds. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has such teachers, no doubt about it, and needs more of them.

The good teacher solution does not address that need, however. It would simply take existing experienced, quality teachers and deploy them differently. In that regard the good teacher approach reveals another questionable assumption, that a single, easy change to the educational status quo will solve hard problems. In fact, the good teacher solution looks depressingly familiar as yet another top-down, silver-bullet theory from the education establishment.

Like countless other initiatives in the past, from whole language, to computers in the classroom, high-speed Internet in the classroom, you name it, shifting good teachers to bad schools is supposed to magically and drastically improve student performance.

Would such a shift help actually improve low performing schools? Probably some at the margins, but at a great cost. Were officials like Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board member Vilma Leake get their way and experienced teachers were simply reassigned to low performing schools, some teachers would undoubtedly quit. Thus CMS would both lose some of its best teachers and reverse its long-standing drive to up teacher retention. Hard to see how that outcome is much of an improvement on the current situation.

No, much more than the tempting quick fix of ordering good teachers into low performing schools is needed. Actual curriculum reform aimed at adopting proven approaches to reaching at-risk kids is needed. And giving kids and parents seemingly trapped in chronically low performing school the option of attending a charter school might do wonders to prod low performing schools to actually change.

Recognizing the limits of what teachers can do is first step to appreciating all that they accomplish. The good teacher solution, which simply commands teachers to do more, does not do that.