“Teaching Quality” and “Teacher Quality” Aren’t Synonyms

When I became an English teacher nearly 14 years ago, I expected a cut in pay. I expected students who would not turn in their homework and piles of papers to grade every weekend. Those were the challenges I was prepared for.

What I didn’t expect was to be vilified as the reason American schools are “failing.” Somehow it has come to this — teachers are the reason students are “failing,” meaning they cannot pass standardized tests. If we could get rid of all the bad teachers, we would have great schools.

Faulty logic?

There is a certain logic that could lead a person to this conclusion. After all, if a teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s education (which is widely believed and credited), then a failure of a child’s education must be the result of that teacher, right? We identify it, put a face on it (that bad teacher we had in sixth grade) and — voila — the problem is labeled. Good.

Or is it? If our schools are really that bad across the country, there must be a lot of bad teachers. And that is where we run into the nexus of the problem. For there to be that much bad of anything, there is a systemic failure. It is the system — and its underlying assumptions about learning — that need examination.

Linda Darling Hammond, a well-respected educator and academic who has studied teacher evaluation, says there is a difference between teacher quality (what any one teacher brings to the classroom in terms of skills and content knowledge) and teaching quality, which is much larger. 

Teaching quality takes into account not just the teacher but the factors that affect the quality of teaching such as additional school duties, paperwork, administrative support, school environment and class and student load. In other words, teaching quality is dependent upon a system.

Still in the 19th Century

The American school system, then, is where we should seek improvement. We currently school our children under a system designed in the late 19th century using a factory model. By the time most students reach seventh grade, they spend six to seven hours a day being “assembled” one hour at a time. 

Add an English part; then it’s on to the math class for an equation addition. While elementary schools are not divided into content hours that so closely resemble an assembly line, and are structured so that there could be a more integrated approach to learning, the truth is there is still reading time, math time, and daily oral language time.

As our corporations have transformed into more flexible and synthesized operations that encourage collaborative thinking, we are educating the workers of tomorrow in an antiquated, hierarchical system that segregates content and thinking.

U.S. education needs have changed

When our current system was designed, a large concern for public schools was to assimilate immigrants from Europe into our society so they would not challenge our country’s institutions and would become American citizens. We were training them for the factories in which society wanted to employ them. Public schools, by law, take all students. 

Today, our schools are filled with immigrants from many more and more diverse ethnicities — children who saw parents murdered in Somalia, the Hmong and Karen people of Asia, Mexicans, Eritreans and Ethiopians.

Forty-five different languages at home

At my high school, more than 45 languages other than English are spoken in students’ homes. African Americans, whose ancestors were not even allowed in the same public schools with my parents, resist such assimilation as was designed into the original system. Yet, we expect all of these students, regardless of the length of time in America, to speak Standard American English.

We have mainstreamed students with mild to profound learning disabilities. These populations have enriched our schools, but today’s students are far from the homogenous group for which the current system was designed. And we are educating them not for factories, but for jobs that demand they think.

Testing the wrong things

Yet, we label schools as failures when we cannot move them through the system like widgets on a conveyor belt. When they snag on an algebraic concept or don’t interpret a piece of literature “correctly” on a state reading test, we label them “at-risk” or in an “achievement gap.”

The assumption that any standardized test can effectively measure learning in such a variety of students is flawed. Any teacher can tell you that there are myriad ways that students demonstrate learning — ways that are more relevant to life than a bubble test.

In fact, the current focus on testing is destructive. It has jettisoned us back to the drill and test, empty-vessel approach to education of 50 years ago that has further ostracized and dishonored our most “at-risk” students while confining everyone’s learning. (For those of you who don’t remember that long ago, the guiding philosophy of schools in the first half of the Twentieth Century was that students were empty vessels into which teachers poured knowledge.) 

Compounding the problem are consultants who, for a handsome sum, will offer training in the latest fad that leaves teachers not knowing how they are supposed to be teaching or to what standards from year to year.

Good teachers have to fight

Good teachers — the kinds of teachers who light fires in students’ minds and challenge them to think — find themselves at odds with such a system. Ironically, Japan and China, whose test scores we envy as a country, are now moving to the more collaborative, constructivist model we are abandoning. They have come to realize that the rigid, standardized education that has put them at the top of the testing heap does not foster the kind of critical thinking that creates a Google or an iPad.

If we want to win this race, as our president has chosen to see it, then we need to follow the lead of corporate innovators and hire good talent (teachers), provide the tools and support the talent needs to do their job and then respect their work. When this state and country recognize that Google, not U.S. Steel, is the model for 21st Century schools, we may be able to make a dent in that achievement gap. Until then, teaching quality will be limited by the system in which teachers must operate.

This post first appeared on the site of Minnesota2020, a “Progressive, non-partisan think tank.”

Related stories

Detroit Public Schools To Be CorporatizedMore Schools Requiring Algebra II

Why Is Teaching Not Taken Seriously In The U.S.?


Photo by familymwr via Creative Commons
By Kaye Thompson Peters, Fellow, Minnesota2020


jane richmond
jane richmond6 years ago

Great article. Thanks

Elizabeth M.
Elizabeth M6 years ago

Thanks for this interesting article Cynthia.
Teachers have one of the hardest jobs there is!
Teaching quality is very important, but getting harder for teachers to teach with quality, with all the extra work they have to do. I have observed over the years that students are way more unruly and use a lot of profanity, which I feel comes from the home and their peers. Parents face up, you have to do your part!

lyn L.
l L6 years ago

What is this article paving the way for? Cause they are stripping the teachers with tenure and degrees with certifications and bring ing in teaching students. So what is the angle here. Are we setting the stage to accept the replacements who have less but have all this passion? Youngsters; if you live you will get old. Hope the new young don't strip you of what you worked hard to get when you played by the rules and did what was required only to have a golddigger show up and expect to go to the head of the class, having done nothing but feel entittled and throw a temper tantrum. chances go round, you know. what has happened here in america is unforgivable and of which we will come to regret.

Silvia R.
Silvia R6 years ago

It's not the teachers, it's the students AND their parents! Parents are the first teachers children have and if parents lack to teach responsibility and respect, then it makes it tought for teachers. Teachers can teach everything they have to, but if the student does not want to or care to learn, they won't. Also, now more than ever before, both parents have to work, or households are run by a single parents and they have to work, thus leaving the child(ren) alone at home and can not be sure of how they behave at school, if they pay attention, complete their work - or even understand what they're suppose to be learning. It'a all about teamwork. Teachers like teamwork. They are open to working with parents and like doing so, but parents are the ones that have to take initiative in constructing a relationship with their children's teachers, as well as make the time to check on their children's behavior, homework, classwork, etc.

Magdalen B.
Magdalen B6 years ago

It's tough enough to do different one person shows for several different, conscripted audiences every school day.
I think this idea would finish me off:
"It's simple really, think you have a teacher problem, put a camera in the classroom so parents can review the teacher's job performance at the end of the day" Aaaaaaagh!

Carol Smith
Carol Smith6 years ago

I graduated in 1970 and even then English was one of those classes everyone expected to goof off in and coast and get good grades without even trying. This may be part of the lady's problem and some of you other teachers there. We also got politically correct and passed total illiterates even in the college world, and they cannot even sign a paycheck or fill out a job application. There is also a world of difference between a good textbook and a good teacher. Sometimes the text the school can afford and chooses is very poor indeed and a teacher can be expected to wave a magic wand and it will automatically rewrite itself. If the teacher brings too much outside the text into the class, they get mad too. Why not throw such a book in the trash instead of buying it in the first place, pray tell? Teachers are more secure with some book there, but if the book is honestly that bad, it should not be there at all. It happened to me once, long ago, in a class I was in, and can happen anywhere. Food for thought. The gifts of the teacher can be so wasted, either by bad books or by students trying to coast and politick up unearned grades.

Beverly H.
Beverly H.6 years ago

As a high school teacher, I agree regarding the reality of the world teens live in and the non-reality of the educational atmosphere. Teachers are overwhelmed with record-keeping including the expectation to call parents weekly, 120 phone calls phone each week in addition to every other task. And, quite honestly, teenagers' parents don't really want to hear from seven teachers every week. The PTA is composed of the resource volunteer, a president and vice president. That's all that come to meetings. When we have open house night out of all my classes four parents show up. When the kids quit being "cute" and little, when they start to talk back and know more about how to program the cellphone than their parents, they are no longer appealing and parents don't participate, at least they don't here. Then our auspicious and elected officials, and who voted for these idiots?? that must have been rigged, have moved to stop funding education. That means nationwide teachers are losing their jobs, last hired, first fired, regardless of the fact these are probably the ones that are the one who have the most zeal and idealism on how to make schools better. At my school this results in 40-50 students in each class next year in rooms designed to hold no more than 30 with resources that didn't even match the 30 student expectation. There will be only crowd control and babysitting, forget learning. Choose statesmen not politicians next time, if you can find one in touch with reality.

Danny W.
Danny Wilson6 years ago

So much to comment on, so little time.....
1. The single biggest problem we have in educating our children is the massive increase in knowledge over the last fifty years. The shear volume of information children are required to learn is enormous. Any wonder it's so hard. Think about it, after pre-school just how many hours does a child spend learning before they turn 18? It's alot, not just readin', writin' and arithmetic. And since when were normal human beings designed to spend that much time learning? I'm not saying it's a bad thing, just a child spends most of their life learning.
2. The 'factory system'. How fortuitous. Yes I'm for it. How else are you going to learn, in any detail, all that knowledge? Note the old 'factory system' was supposedly designed for manufacturing jobs, the new 'factory system' seems to be designed for college prep.
2a. And don't get me started on how much knowledge there is to learn at university! Talk about a 'factory system'!
3. This one's brutal, so read on. It's simple really, think you have a teacher problem, put a camera in the classroom so parents can review the teacher's job performance at the end of the day. Oh, did I say teachers, sorry, I meant children's learning performance. Guess that's why there will never be cameras in the classroom. Some parents want all the 'blame' on the teachers. Maybe it's not the teacher's?
4. I agree it's not just about info, it's learning to think, and think about all that knowledge.
5. Good luck!

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Diane Wayne
Past Member 6 years ago