A devastating picture of the teacher crisis

Who’s Teaching Your Children?
Why the Teacher Crisis Is Worse Than You Think and What Can Be Done About It

By Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles
New Haven, Yale University Press, 224 pages.

Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles dedicate their engaging new book “to the hardest working, least appreciated, most undervalued worker in our society… the classroom teacher.” It’s an odd dedication for this volume, the main point of which is the poor quality of America’s public school teachers.

Troen and Boles taught in a Brookline elementary school for more than 20 years; nevertheless, their book is a harsh indictment of the teaching profession. Who’s teaching your children? According to the authors, it’s people who score near the bottom of the scale on the SATs and Graduate Record Examinations, and who can’t find Guatemala on a world map or who themselves misspell one out of 20 words on a blackboard.

And they’re as poorly trained as they are poorly qualified. “An American master’s degree in education is probably the least challenging program on the planet,” the authors write. Education schools are “profit-driven organizations with weakened standards for students, curricula, and facilities,” they say. “Self-esteem seems to have replaced academic rigor even at the top schools, such as Harvard.” No school can afford empty seats and so they accept mediocre students, then give them high grades, regardless of their actual performance. “The pattern of mediocrity and incompetence begins in schools of education with courses like Math for Teachers (read ‘math for dummies’) and infects the entire system.”

The authors have a long list of reforms they consider misguided.

One might think, Troen and Boles point out, that teacher certification regulations “would act as a filter to prevent poorly trained or unqualified teachers from entering the classrooms of America.” Not so, they say. “The laws of supply and demand exert enormous pressures to put teachers into classrooms, regardless of their qualifications.” Indeed, such regulations are “less stringent…than those for lifeguards, accountants, hairdressers, cosmeticians, opticians, plumbers, and other people who are licensed to deliver services to the general public.” And even these minimal standards are often waived.

It’s a devastating–and accurate –picture. The chronic shortage of good teachers, as Troen and Boles say, is “the single most critical problem in public education.” But it’s for good reason that the best academic talents don’t head into elementary and secondary schools, the authors acknowledge. Teaching, they say, is “a dead-end vocation with no career path, low pay, low status, and poor working conditions.”

The job is the same on Day One as it is 30 years down the road–unless the teacher leaves the classroom for administration, where the jobs are a nightmare in their own way. The profession offers no promotions and no pay raises based on performance; thus, there are no incentives for improvement. “How can such a job even be called a career?” Troen and Boles ask.

In big-city schools, teaching “has become increasingly dangerous, unhealthy, and unpleasant.” New teachers find their classes filled with “the most challenging kids in [their] grade level…, all the castoffs the other teachers don’t want to deal with.” They get very little support from principals, who rarely visit classrooms and are not, in any case, instructional leaders. And woe be to those who seek out assistance.”Teachers learn early that one does not ask for help,” they write. “Should a teacher ask for help, a red flag is likely to go up among her colleagues. ‘She’s in trouble,’ the signal is flashed…. [It is taken as] an admission of incompetence.”

The working conditions are lousy in other ways as well. Teachers seldom have telephones, fax machines, and personal computers–amenities taken for granted in other professions. They have only limited access to a copier. To that list, Troen and Boles could have added no voice mail or e-mail, which would facilitate communication with students, parents, and other teachers. Moreover, much of a teacher’s time is taken up with what the authors call “baby-sitting” on the playground, cleaning cafeteria tables, and other such menial and housekeeping tasks, not to mention the precious hours they waste meticulously documenting the disruptive behavior of “troublemakers.”

Of course an important question, which the authors do not pose, is why the school culture has the teachers, rather than the students themselves, wiping the lunchroom tables. Nor do they point out that order in the classrooms, hallways, and elsewhere is seldom an expected and enforced norm. How can working conditions and instructional quality be improved without raising expectations about behavior?

Troen and Boles do discuss at length other aspects of the disastrous culture of public schools. The isolation of teachers is at the heart of that culture. Classrooms are eggs in a crate, walled-off one-room schoolhouses containing a single grade. The result: Teachers don’t grow professionally through the exchange of ideas, collaboration, and teamwork. Rather, having come to the job poorly prepared, everything they learn thereafter they learn by themselves, by trial and error.

And if they manage to become successful as teachers, they will get no reward, only hostility. “In the rigid school culture, star performance is discouraged by egalitarianism–the belief system that supports the preposterous premise that each teacher is the ‘equal’ of any other teacher,” say Troen and Boles. That belief underlies the flat pay scale: Every teacher with the same seniority and the same credentials (as measured by the number of courses taken) is paid the same, regardless of effectiveness. Moreover, teachers who “try too hard” are considered rate-busters, they say, setting standards that their colleagues resent rather than emulate.

This leveling they see as not only counterproductive, but unnatural. “Without hierarchy there is no status, and without status there are no distinctions,” Troen and Boles note. “Distinctions are necessary in order for humans to make sense of their social landscape… In a world without status, we are without a compass.”

The consequences of structuring a profession on the basis of misguided egalitarianism are grave. Excellence is not simply discouraged, but actually stifled. Mediocrity becomes the norm. “No cultural value is more stringently enforced than the status quo,” Troen and Boles write.

Most of the elements of public school culture that appall Troen and Boles are the consequence of collective bargaining agreements that not only address bread-and-butter issues (pay, fringe benefits, hiring, firing, promotion), but also dictate professional development and most aspects of a teacher’s day. And yet, astonishingly, the authors basically give the teachers’ unions a pass, writing off outside criticisms as “union bashing” (“a popular sport,” they note).

Teachers “succeed only when the culture in which they work encourages their efforts to excel,” Troen and Boles argue. “That rarely happens.” Indeed, they say, the “culture of the schools manages to defeat virtually all education reform initiatives designed to improve public education.”

The first statement is unquestionably true. The structure of incentives in teaching today actually discourages a drive for excellence. But the second point–that educational culture defeats all efforts at change–is not. Education reform is certainly an American habit, one with a long record of poor results. But many of the school-improvement initiatives now underway here and elsewhere are in part an effort to change that culture, and appear to be doing so.

In Massachusetts–the state the authors ought to know best–MCAS has altered incentives by clarifying (for both teachers and students) academic expectations and attaching consequences to underachievement. In North Carolina and Texas, the package of standards, testing, and accountability have also improved student learning quite dramatically, by the measure of scores on the nation’s “report card,” the National Assessment for Educational Progress. It is a point that Troen and Boles do not make because they are adamantly opposed to high-stakes testing, which they blithely dismiss as a “misguided short-term solution.”

It’s not the only one. Troen and Boles have a long list of other reforms they consider misguided: homework, charter schools, home schooling, vouchers, for-profit educational companies, pay-for-performance salary rules, and curricular materials that script daily lessons to reinforce basic math skills “rather than [offering] a conceptual understanding of mathematics and real-life problem-solving skills.” In their view, these are all “Band-Aids and Boondoggles,” although some of their reasons for so labeling them are unclear and others border on the bizarre. What’s wrong with learning basic math skills? And if schools need to raise academic standards–a crucial matter they ignore –surely homework is essential.

It is their attack on charter schools that is the most curious. For instance, they complain that charter schools have to “duplicate personnel and services ordinarily provided by an existing infrastructure,” thus creating bloated bureaucracies within each school. It is one of many bewildering charges.

In fact, the charter schools should be immensely appealing to Troen and Boles. After all, the good charters have the differential salaries they’re looking for, generally paying more for teachers who are especially needed or simply superb. No misguided egalitarianism works to promote mediocrity and inertia; ambition and imagination are rewarded, and innovators thrive.

The best charter schools attract academically gifted teachers who have not had to get useless graduate degrees in education from an academically vapid institution, and are in a school they have chosen to join. The principals themselves, not a central office, picks the staff. Moreover, the principals are instructional leaders, and new teachers get the help they need. In addition, teachers have phones, e-mail, and numerous other add-ons that contribute to learning.

The schools are small. Instruction is usually a collaborative effort; the egg-crate classrooms are gone. Teachers are supervised and held accountable for student results. Those who aren’t teaching effectively lose their jobs. The school day, week, and year is often longer. Absenteeism and tardiness are not tolerated. The insistence on disciplined behavior makes every classroom a place of learning and reduces the “baby-sitting” to which teachers are usually assigned. Good professional development is incorporated into the daily life of the school. And so forth. Given everything they have to say about the teaching profession and the culture of the ordinary public school, Troen and Boles should be the strongest advocates of charter schools.

Indeed, the book closes with a description of an elementary school they say would truly work, which they call the “Millennium School.” It sounds almost identical to the best of the charter schools that I know–with most of the elements described above. Their other proposals for change seem to clash with their own trenchant critique of the educational status quo. For instance, Troen and Boles insist that teachers need to have a master’s degree in education, just one based on tougher standards of admission to graduate schools of education and tougher licensing exams. But what about the pressures that they say keep the standards low –the education schools needing warm bodies in the seats, and schools needing warm bodies in the classrooms? Perhaps they think that more-professional working conditions will attract better candidates, but working conditions won’t become more professional as long as they are dictated by restrictive union contracts. The authors want “school-college collaboratives” to deliver professional development, but what’s the point of collaboration with graduate schools of education that they say have elevated self-esteem over academic rigor? Troen and Boles want to see professional assessments of teachers before they are licensed, but what’s the measure of professional excellence? Will student test results be one criterion? Troen and Boles have a vision of an ideal school and an ideal profession, but are unwilling to confront the obstacles to realizing their dream.

Thus, the authors open with a hard-hitting critique of public schools and the quality of the teachers within them, but close with a relatively timid solution to the problems they describe. They appear to lack the courage of their own convictions–or the willingness to embrace the full implications of those convictions.

Meet the Author
The institution of public education, Troen and Boles write, “is now showing clear signs of disintegration”; it’s in a “state of disarray,” with the result that “desperate parents are pulling their children out of public schools and looking for alternatives.” Disintegration in the schools, desperation on the part of parents. Clearly, change much more comprehensive–and thus radical–than what Troen and Boles contemplate would seem essential. In fact, they might have asked a basic question: Within the traditional public school structure, is fundamental reform even possible?

Abigail Thernstrom is a member of the state Board of Education, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a commissioner on the US Commission on Civil Rights. She is also co-author of the forthcoming book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.