Can Superstar Teachers Save Failing Schools?
By Matthew Lynch
An interesting phenomenon in many public, private and charter schools is the adoption of accountability standards that read more like a white paper on business efficiency than suggestions for actually teaching human beings. The problem with these standards, of course, is that with stringent, subjective targets for learning, schools are able to “game” the system to make it work in their favor. In other words, these schools are looking for ways to meet a specific, narrow goal – think of it like a salesperson closing a deal – and then they are rewarded for that piece of shallow success.
The flip side of this is that the schools that do not manage to meet these standards are then punished, in true NCLB style, even if the details of their teaching methods actually have some merit. Teachers and administrators at schools that are deemed “failures” or even just mediocre by the established system then must bow to the pressure in order to stay relevant and away from the target range when it comes to adding “competitive” school choices. This is the most unattractive face of school reform.
Whose fault is it?
So, are the teachers to blame? I think it is unfair to count on, or to blame, teachers solely for the performance of their students. Yes, they play a role in shaping the young minds in their classrooms and yes, they should be held accountable for that. It seems to me that the root of issues in classrooms that tend to cause the most problems for students (like poverty and ill-equipped or uninvolved parents) should be the target of any true reform. Teachers come and go, moving from school to school or on to different careers. Strong programs that address equality in education and focus on social issues at the root of learning challenges are what will truly make an impact on what students learn and retain, and whether those students succeed.
But what about the “superstar teachers”? You are probably familiar with the concept, particularly since it is perpetuated in popular culture through movies like the classic Edward James Olmos film “Stand and Deliver” and 2012’s “Won’t Back Down.” The idea is that with the right teacher – a committed, bright, in-tune, talented teacher – P-12 problems like the achievement gap and high dropout rates will cease to exist. If only every student had a standout teacher like the ones portrayed in these shows, the very P-12 system as we know it would be transformed for the better.
I do believe in the power of teachers, both positive and negative, on their students. I train educators for a living and have written books about following “the calling” to become a teacher. I do think that teachers make a difference – but I cannot put all of my faith in these “superstar teachers” to reform the education system the way that is truly needed.
For one thing, the schools that desperately need some sort of superstar saviors are often unable to attract them. In a study on urban schools and poverty released by the National Center for Education Statistics, urban administrators said that they had difficulty attracting and retaining high-quality teachers. This observation, coupled with the fact that schools with higher percentages of students living in poverty had less resources available for teaching, is a recipe for disaster when it comes to counting on these “superstars” to close the achievement gap, lift standardized test scores and increase graduation rates. These urban schools are the very places that need all of those factors to happen to improve student achievement and the long-term overall quality of life in those communities. So if the answer falls solely on strong teachers, these places are in a lot of trouble.
What do you think? Are teachers the answer to fixing the problem with many of the attempts at school reform, or does the problem run much deeper?