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Bad Teachers, Scapegoats, and Halting Education Transformation

I’m sick with the media, Oprah, L.A. Times, Education Nation, Michelle Rhee, and politicians who have found a scapegoat to blame problems on and do nothing about education in the US. Scapegoating is a political trick from history. You may remember when Hitler blamed the Jews for the woes of the economy. He convinced a whole country to commit atrocious acts and get rid of the scapegoats. What happened in the end? The country suffered from being war torn. Problems still existed and the country was left to pay the consequences of never dealing with the issues to begin with.

In the same way, our society is letting our politicians, celebrities, and media folk brainwash us into believing that the reason students are doing poorly in schools is because the system is plagued with bad teachers. We have voted for politicians whose Ivy League degrees have only helped them come up with “scapegoats” versus real solutions. When the politicians and media get rid of all these “supposed bad teachers” they will still be left with the students who can’t read at grade level, the wide achievement gap, the millions who continue to drop out of high schools, gang members, a high teen pregnancy rate, and more. These problems won’t go away because we blame some group. These problems haven’t gone away in decades of letting politicians be in charge of education policy.

Yet, we buy into these lies. I was sadly disappointed that when teachers received a nationwide audience with Education Nation, many yelled like zealots, “Fire the bad teachers.” And how do we decide what makes a bad teacher?

According to the LA Times they have a fail safe system that rates teachers based on test scores! If you don’t make the grade then the journalists who never worked with a room full of 8th graders who read at a 1st grade level will just out the “bad teacher” for not getting their students to pass the standardized tests! Obviously, drilling students till they hate the learning process is a value we want in teachers rather than the teacher who is the one fresh breath of positivity a child who has a drug addicted parent at home receives. The child didn’t learn to read because the child was too busy caring for their younger siblings and taking care of their strung out parent. Perhaps the child doesn’t have passing a standardized test as a high priority no matter how much a passionate teacher tries to reach out.

Why describe this extreme? This is the achievement gap! The majority of children who don’t pass the standardized tests are minorities, in low-income districts, high school drop-outs, illegal immigrants, in alternative schools, or in areas with high crime rates. These are the children we are trying to reach and their teachers must be the most passionate individuals to walk into schools that look like prisons, have no air condition, etc. in order to reach out to these children. Show me the politicians who do this daily or even send their children to these schools. Show me the journalist who does this daily for nearly no pay. These individuals don’t and they don’t have the burden of educating our future leaders. Instead, they support and force upon us education policy that chain us like elephants. They need someone to blame and we are the easiest target because the majority of us don’t speak up. When they say teach to the test, we teach to the test. When they say we have the blame, we begin to point fingers and agree on public television.

Our politicians and media have hung teachers out to dry. Instead of fixing the enormous problems with education policy that chains teachers to teaching to standardized tests, they rather persuade the public that bad teachers are the cause of our society’s woes.

Michelle Rhee rather fire all the teachers who deal with DC’s troubled youth. DC has one of the highest crime rates in the country and I’d be very surprised to see Michelle Rhee work with violent youth as much as the teachers she’s willing to fire. Wouldn’t it make sense for her to appeal to all stakeholders to work with troubled youth instead of firing the ones who have made a difference in their lives? Isn’t part of a politician’s job to promote and find money for programs that help our youth? Why not come out in the front of newspapers doing this instead of coming up with a scapegoat society can blame? Why do we hire idiot politicians like this to waste our time? Anyone can place blame, but don’t we want leaders in charge who implement real solutions.

I think that we shouldn’t spend our energy focusing on bad teachers or ways to rid the system of teachers. We aren’t a highly paid profession and really we don’t train teachers to be innovators or use 21st century tools. We can’t blame teachers when the majority of pre-service programs still teach them that they should lecture or teach their students to pass standardized tests. This won’t lead to transformation of the system just sidetrack people into placing blame and forgetting we need to focus on implementing solutions. Instead, I think policy needs to improve and move away from teaching to the test. Pre-service programs need to help teachers effectively implement technology based lessons. Colleges need to stray away from large lecture formats where professors talk for hours then test understanding by giving 4 tests throughout the year. The system has to change before we blame the teachers. Failing tests and having to take tests that last all day made me hate a subject not the teacher. Schools (not teachers because they don’t make up the rules, culture, etc of a school solely) teach children science and math by making them take pop quizzes, standardized tests, multiple choice tests, or answer questions from a textbook. Schools could instead have children investigate outside the science around them, experiment more, or work with scientists. They don’t because they are too busy preparing students to pass tests that determine their funding. That’s not a teacher’s fault, that is the systems fault, a system that doesn’t give a teacher much of a choice. It’s get your students to pass the test or else. How can we blame teachers for that?

Even if we take a business attitude, any successful business owner would know that if the majority of its workers failed to successfully do their job then obviously that is a training problem at the top and firing most of the employees and labeling them as bad won’t fix the outcome.

Let’s jump off the bandwagon, stop blaming teachers, and begin to collaborate together, collect our voices, and change the policies in our schools that make passionate teachers burn out.

About Shelly Sanchez Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell (@ShellTerrell) is an award winning digital innovator, international speaker, and the author of Hacking Digital Learning: Ways to Launch EdTech Missions, The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers, Learning to Go, and Teacher Reboot Camp. She has trained teachers and taught learners in over 20 countries as an invited guest expert and ambassador for the U.S. Embassy. She was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women and received a Bammy Award as the founder of #Edchat. Her greatest joy is being the mother of Savannah. She currently enjoys being a PBL elementary teacher and curriculum writer in Houston, Texas.


17 thoughts on “Bad Teachers, Scapegoats, and Halting Education Transformation

  1. Shelly, I recognize a lot of my frustrations in your post. It’s difficult to escape debates about the tests. I frequently and willingly dive into their gravity wells. My teaching keeps pulling away, and I can see the event horizon of a galaxy free of testing over yonder, but I haven’t found a complete out yet apart from becoming Hawking radiation and risking destruction by an equal and opposite packet of energy.

    All that being said, your post has contributed to some thinking I’m doing about the future. I’m not sure yet how far out we can think of school without becoming irrelevant. I’m not sure there’s a way for schools to stay relevant without us thinking pretty far out (whoa).

    So, thanks again, Shelly. I’m also remembering admonitions, like Kirsten’s, to look at what we need to do differently as individuals and professionals participating in a broken system.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 5, 2010, 7:58 pm
  2. I would have found it much easier to read what you had to say had you not compared your opponents to Hitler in your third sentence. I cannot tell you how sick I am of seeing people use that comparison. I didn’t even read the rest of the article.

    How about we all grow up and form an argument without comparing people to a genocidal maniac? Is that too much to ask? Bush is Hitler, Obama is Hitler, the guy at Subway who messed up my order is Hitler. It’s an extreme comparison that has no place in any rational discourse.

    And to top it all off, you used it in an attempt to scapegoat the people you claim are scapegoating you.

    This conversation won’t move forward if people can’t be civil. Let’s all try to remember that. In the meantime I won’t be reading anything that compares anyone to Hitler.

    Posted by Michael Vaughn | October 5, 2010, 9:24 pm
    • It is sad that Michael seems to have been unable to engage with the whole of Shelly’s post. Using a mathematical analogy, while the length of the vector towards Hitler is not the same (and Shelly makes that blindingly obvious in my opinion), the direction of that vector is perfectly aimed.

      In terms of civil discussion and rational discourse, I can cite a number of people with whom I have raging academic arguments in public underpinned by an unbreakable mutual respect. It is perhaps a mistake to conflate an attack on a policy with a personal attack.

      It seems to me that Michael’s response may be characteristic of exactly those politicians whom Shelly describes.

      Posted by Phil Hart | October 6, 2010, 7:24 am
  3. Shelly, Michael, and Phil: I offer up a few questions acknowledging that I may, in fact, be a dirty ed reformer.

    – Are there more apt scapegoating examples? I imagine American politics is full of them.

    – Would it have been any more apt or fair to say politicians blame teachers like teachers blame kids, parents, and/or society?

    – How do we distinguish between atrocious acts and atrocities, which, I think, for the purposes of this post have to be two different things? Another way to frame the question: which parts of current pop #edrform calls for accountability are scapegoating and which parts are reasonable? Yet another way to frame the questions: Michael, are teachers being scapegoated?

    – Shameless promotion: Would we be better off (I struggle with this all the time and have my own blog for it, so feel free to tell me to shove off) attacking the issues in Kirsten’s Wounded By School than defending against #edreform (#nonrhetorical)? Which is the most effective way to gain popular (student and parent) support? How do the professional ethics of public educators interact with our personal convictions in encouraging or discouraging public, political argument? We’ve been asked to be stoic for generations; no wonder we sometimes sound shrill to others as our profession finds its voices.

    – If we look at the social norms of academic and political discussions, are they the same? Do the social norms of political conversations allow for more length in analogies? Is the Coöp engaged in academic conversations or political ones? I don’t hear anyone complaining that Waiting for Superman is too nuanced for general audiences.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 6, 2010, 8:35 am
    • Chad (and Shelly and Michael): I am not immersed enough in the USA system of thought to offer any detailed answers to the questions that you pose, but what I can offer is an “outsider’s view”, drawing parallels between what I see happening in the USA and here.

      It may be down to an increasingly litigious society: if something isn’t to my liking, who can I blame and/or sue so that I can feel better? I see this plainly in Corporate America, and my guess is that it may also be happening in parts of the populace.

      It is my experience that politicians rarely have any real experience of the classroom, and they imagine (quite erroneously) that some of the techniques that work with manufacturing industry (for example) will also work with education: they have a hopelessly simplicist view of the situation. Complex questions, such as engaging the emotionally repelled learner, are simply not addressable by such means as merit pay: it is a question of social attitude, not financial gain, that has impact in this example.

      The task then (if the foregoing is accepted) is to start convincing the general public that the politicians who are peddling their useless policies are wrong, and we need people like Shelly to help to “get the message out there”, and I think her post here is a good start.

      It saddens me to see the same sorts of responses beginning to creep into Australian education.

      Posted by Phil Hart | October 6, 2010, 5:48 pm
    • Chad,

      Some more great questions. I’m not sure how to gain popular support with all stakeholders (parents and students included) and in the past I tried to walk on glass with some issues because I do feel getting this support is important. The problem is that many teachers are taking up the education reform stance flag and they have a voice. They blog, they join online discussions, they tweet, and so forth. What they preach is to fire bad teachers.

      How do we get our voices for positive education transformation heard over a massive yell that “education reform= firing bad teachers” from politicians, the media, celebrities, and now some teachers?

      I’m frustrated on so many levels by this. I used to think that a majority in my profession were professional and supported each other. Even if they didn’t support the use of technology I knew that was due to time constraints. However, I didn’t think a strong amount of teachers were for ridding the system of their own. For teachers to go on the record as agreeing with this stance only adds more fuel to the witch hunt. Those few on TV, newspapers, and the movies are heard a lot louder than our outlines or academic discussions for education transformation. I believe it has come to a point where we have to figure out how to counteract these voices and find ways to use the same channels to get our message across. We need a scapegoat as well, though, because I believe this is the language of society. I rather put standardized tests on that chopping block. I know there are so many other things wrong with the system but right now this is the worst part of the education systems worldwide.

      Posted by Shelly | October 7, 2010, 3:52 am
      • What further complicates the issue for me is how I envision our profession and schools changing in the coming decades. I worry that at some point teachers are going to have to pay the piper in terms of concessions and a radical realignment of evaluation bands and pay scales as blended instruction, decentralized teaching and learning, and continued economic hardship create a perfect storm of reduced instructional duty, increased proctor-to-student ratios, and subsequently and consequently reduced salaries and staffing.

        Evaluation and expectation of continued employment are certainly concerns in the near-term. However, are we teachers, as a profession, doing enough reflection and planning on what students and parents want (including how they’d like to be treated) so that public schools and their teachers offer things that online teachers, blended learning programs, and families’ personal learning networks cannot? I suspect that we need to make our teaching public and qualifiable, if we resist making it more quantifiable. That is where I’d like to see our leadership take us. I want student work to be evidence of its own excellence and lasting value. I want our work to be its own evidence of excellence and of lasting value. I think we need to beat pop #edreform to an account of our work that compels the public to say that, obviously, we are needed in such a form that befits the future of teaching learning.

        There is a lot of visioning work to be done in future accountability and it needs to compete with both our notions of what we should be doing now and pop #edreform’s idea of what we should be doing now.

        It’s 2048. How should I expect to be evaluated in my last year of teaching before retirement? This is the discussion I want us in now. We kind of get at that with every post we contribute, but perhaps not in a way that’s useful to public school educators looking to draft alternative evaluation documents. And that might not be our job, but it might be something we aspire to inspire.

        What do we think?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | October 7, 2010, 3:51 pm
  4. Shelly I so much know where you are coming from, and think that your analogy is excellent. It is often the way of tyrants to pick on perceived “privelige” and/or “difference” and raise this to the level of a witch hunt. I think you would have been criticised whatever analogy you had used. I must admit my thought would have been the Salem witch trials, but as a European I find the Hitler reference to be very appropriate.

    I know that the focus of this post is on the current issues in the USA with respect to standardised testing and percieved teacher responsibility. However I would suggest that this is not only a local issue for the USA but is actually a global problem. As a child in the UK I remember much more respect for the role of teacher. If I was in trouble at school I was also in trouble at home because my parents (neither of them highly educated) believed that my teachers were entitled to be treated with respect. This seems to be no longer the case, not just in the UK but also here in Australia and as I am very well aware through my PLN in the USA as well.

    there is so much I want to say in response to your post that you have inspired me to write a post myself (later today) rather than write an extensive comment.


    Posted by Jo Hart | October 6, 2010, 7:00 pm
  5. Phil and Jo,

    Thanks for the support and in hindsight I think the Salem witch trials is a better analogy. I wrote this post because as an educator who has worked with troubled youth (I know you both work with youth who start off very apathetic and sometimes become violent as well) I feel persecuted by the media and politicians. Right now I’m not part of this system since I’m living in Germany and I feel blessed in a way. I frustrated that phenomenal teachers like my sister get burnt out because instead of being supported they get to deal with more crap by the system. For anyone to call her bad because she has to figure out how to get her entire class of 30 5th graders that read and write at a 1st grade level to pass a standardized test under a pass/fail system is ridiculous. She began with 5 to 10 students who were challenging in a different system and this was difficult for most teachers but she managed to get them to pass the tests and read/write in a year at grade level. How was she rewarded? They gave her an entire class of these students because none of the other teachers wanted to teach them. I have a heart for troubled kids myself. However, if I had to get each one of them to pass the test at grade level or even show vasts improvements within a small amount of time I think I would be absolutely burnt out as well. I never had these pressures while teaching my creative programs. My program was there to help the youth and in hindsight they gave their teachers a small break within the day. Since it was a program we didn’t have to worry about the students passing a test. We were there to help them let out some of their steam and let them know society didn’t forget about them and cares for them. These students need programs like this, yet many are being cut. I just think for politicians and the media, teachers are the easiest people to pick on. It’s getting too much to bear and I don’t watch television. However, just being on the Internet it is thrown in my face daily. What upsets me the most, though, is that teachers are jumping on this bandwagon as well and saying fire bad teachers. How can we transform the system when we even attack ourselves? This saddens me the most because I have even read blog posts about this. Firing a massive amount of teachers makes no sense on any level, especially when these decisions are made by people who aren’t educators themselves and have never worked with the students they expect us to have miracles with.

    Posted by Shelly | October 7, 2010, 3:37 am
  6. Hi Chad,

    Although, I think reflection is very important to our jobs and continuous learning I think that the majority of teachers will not begin to change their teaching practice as long as they continue to be evaluated by standardized test scores. Teachers are afraid of losing their jobs or meeting with disapproval. Sadly, the teacher who committed suicide did not find that he was a great teacher by what students, parents, and even his own administrators felt was a great performance by him. In the end, the evaluation based on the test scores of his students is what impacted him the most. Therefore, I think we have to try and change education policy as well as our performance. I think many members who are involved in online professional development through Twitter, Facebook, Nings, wikis, webinars, blogging, and so forth do improve their instruction and are beginning to blog about it and showcase it. They are beginning to display their work more and show others best practices and what their students are doing. We are gaining higher numbers of other teachers who are entering our Personal Learning Networks. I think we are having this conversation and the numbers modeling and sharing best practices is occurring. However, at the other end we are not influencing education policy as much as I think we should. In some countries, the teachers have gathered and had an impact in getting their government to look at the impact of standardized tests. I believe the most recent was in the UK. This is possible but I think not enough of us are having the conversation on how to really get our governments to pay attention and change the policy. In Canada, I know that many school systems have gotten rid of the reliance on grades and even giving students awards. There is change to the policy that chains teachers. If teachers not evaluated on standardized tests then I believe they would be more willing to try student centered learning. Daily, I talk with educators worldwide and they express the same fears. They tell me what prevents them from implementing what we share is the structure and policies of their education systems. They simply say they can’t do what they see although they are encouraged by the great learning taking place. I think we need to have the conversation on how to influence education policy because without the freedom to try to implement best practices they have witness or to model these practices, many teachers may be too afraid that their students won’t pass the standardized tests.

    Posted by Shelly | October 7, 2010, 4:56 pm
  7. How long have we been hearing the drumbeat of “begin to collaborate together, collect our voices, ” etc.?! Wasn’t Hillary Clinton mocked mercilessly for her “it takes a village” notion? This post didn’t offer a single solution. I was a teacher of kids with behavior problems. I would have NO problem being evaluated based on my students’ academic progress. But, for the life of me, I can’t understand why the opposing sides of this argument have an all or none take on this? Certainly, if I have a sixth grader who reads on a third grade level they won’t pass a grade-level test. But there’s no reason why that student shouldn’t do well on a third or fourth grad-level exam and that I should be held responsible if they don’t. There isn’t another industry in the world who would not assess employees based on outcomes.

    And education is the only industry I can think of that has not fundamentally changed in a century. We still operate on an agrarian calendar and have one person standing in front of a room of children. Certainly there are some wonderful, innovative, and creative teachers out there. But pre-service educator programs can’t keep pulling from the bottom of the barrel and expect the cream to rise to the top – teachers or students.

    Posted by Paula | October 7, 2010, 6:34 pm
  8. OK sorry for thdelay as I said this would be yesterday. However 1500 words later – it took me a little longer than just yesterday to write the post.

    My post inspired by you Shelly is at:

    Posted by Jo Hart | October 8, 2010, 7:28 am
  9. I have been reading the Catalyst avidly for several months, since I first discovered it. It is so heartening to read the thoughts of so many of you who are thinking the same things I have thought, as well as those of you who are challenging some of the things I have thought. Teaching, as it is often practiced, can be such an isolating profession that it can be an immense relief to connect with other adult professionals. I have only posted a few comments early on because I have so much I want to respond to, I haven’t known where to begin.

    Maybe here is a good place to begin.

    Johntspencer posted elsewhere that “We need better stories.” That statement really resonated with me. I find myself repeating it to myself and others frequently. We (teachers and other education professionals in the classroom) need better stories. Stories are the way we, as human beings, make sense of our world, connect with each other, and define ourselves. If we want to make better sense of our education world, make better connections with those outside it, and create better definitions of who we are – we have to start with better stories. We must get away from the Superteacher myth, AND the “bad teacher” narratives, AND the persecuted profession tales and start telling real stories. Humble stories. Honest stories.

    I think we must begin by dropping the knee-jerk defense of our profession and acknowledging that there ARE bad teachers. I have worked in a moderately-affluent, large suburban high school for the past 25 years. In that time, I have encountered a number of bad teachers – teachers who are unmotivated, unethical, incompetent, or (inexplicably, considering their choice of profession) unengaged with kids. Some of them eventually get weeded out, although the process moves at a glacial pace. Some of them are still here, 25 years later. Fortunately, in my school, those teachers are a small minority. A much larger group are apathetic and defeated. Exhausted by futile attempts to fight “the system”, they have given up, become disillusioned and cynical, and largely abdicated their responsibility to advocate for the students in their care. Another group is crippled in their potential by being ill-prepared, unwilling, or unable to adapt their conventional preconceptions to the realities of the teaching life and the students’ needs. The indifferent and inflexible ones are not “bad” teachers, exactly, but they aren’t very good ones, either. Further, I will acknowledge that some years, for some students, I have been one of the bad teachers or one of the indifferent or inflexible ones. Hard as it is to admit, it happens sometimes, for all kinds of reasons, some within my control and some not.

    I am not, however, willing to jump on the “First, fire all the bad teachers!” bandwagon. Nor am I willing to simply shift the assignment of blame or identification of scapegoat status elsewhere – to “the system”, or the politicians, or society, or the tests, or whatever else. That is no more productive. Affixing blame anywhere does nothing to solve the problem. Firing all the bad teachers might be cathartic for some, but it alone would not contribute anything to true education reform. Bad teachers exist, but they are not the problem – only one of many symptoms. If by some miracle all the truly bad teachers were gone from the classroom tomorrow, all that would happen is that more bad teachers would be hired to replace them. The complex, interrelated forces that produced and selected the bad teachers in the first place wouldn’t have changed. To turn the more familiar aphorism on its head: As long as we focus on the solution, we’ll never fix the problem.

    Our educational system reflects the society of which it is a part. They are inseparable. To change the outcomes of the educational system in meaningful ways, we must be willing to change our society in meaningful ways. But how? What an overwhelmingly complex, seemingly impossible task. I would suggest that one way to do it is by telling better stories. Let’s stop telling the stories of blame and failure and disaster and victimization. They will never lead to change because all they do is reinforce what we collectively believe already exists. Instead, let’s tell stories that define us, as individuals and as a society, as people who truly place education – in and out of school, for ourselves and our children, in the broadest sense of that word – as a high priority. Stories that make better sense out of all our experiences with and perspectives on teaching and learning. Stories that build more positive connections among all of us as partners in fostering the open inquiry that is the basis of all true education. When we start telling those stories, then we will start becoming the society that makes those stories true.

    Who better to begin those stories than us, the teachers?

    Yes, John. We need better stories.

    Posted by Anne Kemp | October 13, 2010, 11:21 am
  10. Hi Shelly, great to see you here as well and debating so lucidly. I empathise with your sister.

    Posted by David Warr | December 13, 2010, 8:27 am


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