Don't Blame the Teachers

Years of misguided curricular theories are at the core of America’s educational shortcomings.

A teacher faces a chalkboard with numbers and shapes on it.
Daniel Leclair / Reuters

Why has the topic of teacher quality suddenly reached such a crescendo? Education reform has been on the national agenda since 1983, the year of A Nation at Risk, but only in the last few years has the teacher-quality issue risen to the top. I think it may be reform fatigue, possibly desperation. The teacher is becoming a convenient scapegoat for America’s education reformers, who, after decades of ideas that have not panned out, cling to the belief that the flaw is not in the reform ideas themselves but in their implementation.

Teachers are being blamed for failures not their own. The “back-to-basics” and “whole-school reform” strategies disappointed. Similarly, as the National Assessment of Educational Progress has consistently shown, the state-standards movement and the No Child Left Behind law have left high-school students just about as far behind as they were before the reforms were instituted. Charter schools, despite their laudable triumphs, are highly uneven in quality, and their overall results are not much better than those of regular schools.

Teachers have understandably become demoralized by being constantly blamed for failures not of their own making. Here is the new conventional wisdom about teachers taken from a 2013 article in the nonpartisan policy magazine Governing of June 13, 2013:

The research is clear: Teacher quality affects student learning more than any other school-based variable (issues such as income and parental education levels are external). And the impact of student achievement on economic competitiveness is equally clear. That’s why it’s so disturbing that in 2010, the SAT scores of students intending to pursue undergraduate education degrees ranked 25th out of 29 majors generally associated with four-year degree programs. The test scores of students seeking to enter graduate education programs are similarly low, and, on average, undergraduate education majors score even lower than the graduate education applicant pool as a whole. Education schools long have accepted under-qualified students, then offered them programs heavy on pedagogy and child development and light on subject-matter content.

This scientific-sounding comment is incorrect from the start. The assertion that “Teacher quality affects student learning more than any other school-based variable” isn’t corroborated. According to research summaries by Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a better curriculum can range from being slightly to dramatically more effective than a better teacher. That’s not surprising when you consider that the curriculum is what teachers teach and what students are supposed to learn.

Evaluating teachers based on how much they contribute to student progress in reading, for example, doesn’t make sense under current conditions in American schools. The curriculum-blind standardized tests focus on the measurement of nonexistent general skills like the ability to find the main idea, making it impossible to accurately determine a teacher’s impact on student achievement. As I show in detail in Why Knowledge Matters, current modes of testing cannot identify which student achievements and progress are the result of school instruction. The attempt to statistically calculate the “value added” by the teacher is inherently invalid.

The most likely cause of disappointing results from the various reforms is not poor teaching but poorly conceived reforms. They have been primarily structural in character. They have not systematically grappled with the grade-by-grade specifics and coherence of the elementary-school curriculum. Educational success is ultimately defined by what students learn. If the grade-by-grade content of schooling remains undefined, schooling will remain unproductive over the long run, no matter who is teaching.

It’s true that the United States has struggled with a deep teacher-preparation problem for more than half a century. Moreover, my defense of teachers here is not a defense of irresponsible, lazy, or non-performing teachers. I am opposed to any policy that would impede the dismissal of demonstrably non-performing teachers. Children and the community come first. Teachers tend to agree. But according to teachers themselves, these teacher-training programs do not prepare them adequately for classroom management or for the substance of what they must teach. Yet, even with staffs of well-trained, highly qualified, and well-educated teachers, schools can suddenly fall behind when a substantive curriculum is abandoned and fallacious ideas about skills begin to dominate. Rather than blame the teachers, I propose blaming the ideas—and improving them.

The “quality” of a teacher doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Within the average American primary school, it is all but impossible for a superb teacher to be as effective as a merely average teacher is in the content-cumulative Japanese elementary school. For one thing, the American teacher has to deal with big discrepancies in student academic preparation while the Japanese teacher does not. In a system with a specific and coherent curriculum, the work of each teacher builds on the work of teachers who came before. The three Cs—cooperation, coherence, and cumulativeness—yield a bigger boost than the most brilliant efforts of teachers working individually against the odds within a system that lacks those qualities. A more coherent system makes teachers better individually and hugely better collectively.

American teachers (along with their students) are, in short, the tragic victims of inadequate theories. They are being blamed for the intellectual inadequacies behind the system in which they find themselves. The real problem is not teacher quality but idea quality. The difficulty lies not with the inherent abilities of teachers but with the theories that have watered down their training and created an intellectually chaotic school environment. The complaint that teachers do not know their subject matter would change almost overnight with a more specific curriculum with less evasion about what the subject matter of that curriculum ought to be. Then teachers could prepare themselves more effectively, and teacher training could ensure that teacher candidates have mastered the content they will be responsible for teaching.

Those who hope to find amelioration of the “teacher-quality problem” through the use of computers and “blended learning,” in which children learn in part via digital and online means, may be fostering yet another delusion about teachers’ and students’ skills. Computers seem to work best in helping older students learn specific routines. No doubt well-thought-out computer programs can help teachers do their work, especially for teachers in their first years. But there are inherent limitations to computer-assisted teaching.

Given these limitations, it’s unlikely that technology can transform primary education. Young students rely on an empathetic personal connection that not even the most advanced computer-adaptive programs can deliver. This is not to say that computers have no important place; it is to say that their place is supplemental, not transformative. They can support teachers under a coherent, cumulative curriculum. Computers cannot magically replace the hard thinking and political courage needed to create one.

That teachers cannot be replaced by computers doesn’t mean that individual teachers should not be replaced. The problems with teacher evaluations concern the unreliability of the value-added measures of teacher performance in language arts, but do not apply to estimates of poor teaching based on clear evidence. There is no reason that teachers should enjoy special job protections at the expense of children. Tenure protections at universities were instituted to avoid censorship of opinion. But even in universities there is no tenure protection for “failure to meet a specified norm of performance or productivity,” nor should there be for schoolteachers.

Harvard Education Press

Elementary-school teachers are people who—for the most part—love children, who want to devote their lives to children’s education, but often find themselves stymied and frustrated in the classroom. They apply the notions received in their training and do what they are told to do by their administrators under the ever-present threat of reading tests that do not actually test the content that is being taught. Under these extremely unfavorable conditions of work, it’s no wonder that teachers unions have focused on bread-and-butter concessions—and have pushed back against punitive but unproductive reforms. When the classroom, which should be a daily reward, becomes a purgatory, one turns to contract stipulations.

If I were a principal in a primary school, I’d spend my money on teachers’ ongoing development, on creating conditions in which the work of teachers in one grade supports the work of teachers in the next, and on environments in which teachers would have time to consult and collaboratively plan. The late Professor Harold Stevenson, who studied Asian schools, told me one especially vivid story about collaboration in a Japanese elementary school. In a fourth-grade math class, he observed a student who was having grave difficulty with a problem and its concepts. After allowing the student to work on it for a short time, the teacher quietly made a surprising analogy with the student’s daily experience as a way of dealing with the problem. The student’s face brightened, and he instantly began to solve the problem.

After the class, Stevenson went to the teacher to congratulate her (in perfect Japanese) on the most remarkable bit of teaching he’d ever witnessed. The teacher shook her head: No, it wasn’t her brilliance that produced the result. And from her desk drawer she took out a handbook that teachers had cooperatively compiled. “Here it is,” she said. “It’s suggested as a good tack to try when you run into that situation.” The incident illustrated how good teaching can often depend more reliably on the coherence of the wider system, and on the cooperation it brings, than on virtuoso performances. Schooling takes 12 years. Its success depends on slow but sure progress, not on bursts of brilliance—welcome as those are when talented teachers inspire a whole class.

This article has been adapted from E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s new book, Why Knowledge Matters.