Good to great

The women of the popular TV show “The View” turned their attention recently to tenure, irking teachers with their condemnation of unions for failing to chase bad teachers from their ranks.

“Bad teachers don’t do anybody any good. So the union needs to recognize that parents aren’t going to stand for it anymore,” declared host Whoopi Goldberg.

The Twitter fallout was quick from educators under the hashtag #WithoutTenure. “Without tenure, teachers can be fired for using research-based practice because it doesn’t fit with someone’s ideology.” “Without tenure, I can be fired for insisting even children of privilege do the work.”

Goldberg responded with a video clarification in which she said, “I am all about teachers. My mom was a teacher. I like great teachers. I don’t like bad teachers. I don’t think bad teachers should be given the gift of teaching forever badly.”

Here is my objection to the discussion on “The View,” and the ensuing debate about bad teachers and tenure. The villain in America’s classrooms is not teacher tenure.

If tenure were the hitch to better schools, Northeastern states with long-standing teacher tenure should trail Southern schools without it. Yet even the most rabid tenure opponents would never argue students face brighter prospects in Mississippi or Louisiana than in Massachusetts or New Jersey.

Nor is the problem “bad” teachers.

What’s undermining classroom achievement is the gulf between OK teachers and terrific ones.

A “bad” teacher story now travels far and wide over the Internet so everyone is aware of the Oklahoma teacher found drunk and without pants in her classroom. News sites provide a rogue’s gallery of teachers who have slept with students.

What gets lost in these sensational tales of teachers-gone-wild is that thousands and thousands of teachers show up every day, and keep their pants on and their hands off their students. And they remain dedicated despite overcrowded classes, stalled raises and fewer resources. (On average, teachers will use $500 of their money this year for classroom supplies. How many of us would use our own funds to buy staplers, light bulbs or copy paper for our workplace?)

My four children have experienced very few “bad” teachers, and those teachers typically didn’t get a second year in the classroom. However, my children have had many adequate teachers, a reality I realized only after seeing fantastic teachers in action.

After the first week of classes, I asked a neighborhood teen how she liked her high school teachers. While delighted with most of them, she described one as “really nice, but I don’t think she can move me far enough along in my writing to be ready for AP classes next year.”

Yes, that’s one self-possessed and mature young woman. But if you talk to teens, you’ll find many are astute at assessing teachers. (Studies consistently suggest student surveys are a reliable measure of teacher effectiveness.)

Few kids I chatted with about the new school year deemed any of their teachers awful or incompetent. Most said their teachers were fine.

However, only a few proclaimed their teachers were incredible. And those great ones are often legendary — which is why several teens expressed regret they didn’t get Mr. P for science, or Dr. P for language arts.

And that, to me, is the challenge — not getting rid of “bad teachers,” but deepening the pool of great ones by helping good-enough teachers make the leap.

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