“Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education Reform


 Student achievement is soundly measured; teacher effectiveness is not. The system is spending time and effort rating teachers using criteria that do not have a basis in research showing how teaching practices improve student learning.”–Mark Dynarski, Brookings Institute

Goodbye Mr. Chips. Up the Down Staircase. My Posse Don’t Do Homework. To Sir With Love. Dead Poet’s Society. Mr. Holland’s Opus. The 4th season of The Wire.

The “great teacher” movie has become a bit of a cliche. But decades of film and movies work on our emotions for good reason. That reason is not “Wow, this teacher’s practice is soundly based in practice that research shows improves student learning!”

“You cannot ignore facts. That is why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways.”–President Barack Obama, announcing Race to the Top


Reform movies usually fail. Won’t Back Down, a piece of blatant choice advocacy, bombed at the box office. Waiting for Superman was a big hit in elite circles but for a film designed as propaganda, it notably failed to move people to action, or even win considerable praise from the unconverted.

In general, performance-obsessed folks are the villains in mainstream movies and TV.

In Pump Up The Volume, the villain was a principal who found reason to expel teens whose lack of motivation and personal problems would affect her school’s test scores. This was before charters, when such practices became encouraged.

In Searching for Bobby Fischer (the movie, as opposed to the book), the parents reject the competition-obsessed teacher who wanted the boy to spend all his waking hours on chess, giving equal time to a homeless street guy who advocates a more open, aggressive, impulsive approach to chess. The parents preferred a son with a happy, rounded life to a neurotic who wouldn’t know a normal life. (Their son is, today, a happy well-rounded brilliant man who never became Bobby Fischer. In every sense of that meaning.)

In the famous season 4 of The Wire, AVP Donnelly tries hard to “juke the stats” by gaming the test, “spoonfeeding” the “Leave No Child Behind stuff”. Prez rejects this approach: “I came here to teach, right?”

I can think of only one movie in which a teacher was judged by his test scores and declared a hero:  Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver.

But most people throwing about Escalante’s name and achievements don’t really understand that  it took  fourteen years of sustained effort, handpicked teachers, legally impossible demands of his students, and a supportive principal to get 73 kids to pass the AB Calculus exam, with another 12 passing the BC, with around 140-200 in his program, out of a student population of 3500 . Once Escalante lost his supportive principal, he  was voted out as department chair because he was an arrogant jerk to other teachers, and handled defeat by  leaving the school.

Escalante’s story, channeled through Jay Mathews, thrilled policy wonks and politicians, and the public was impressed by the desire and determination of underprivileged kids to do what it takes to get an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have. But those same wonks and politicians wouldn’t have tolerated Escalante’s tracking, and 2% would have been an unacceptably low participation rate. He rejected a lot of kids. Mine is a contrarian view, but I’ve never though Escalante cared about kids who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the work he demanded.

“Teachers should be evaluated based on their ability to fulfill their core responsibility as professionals-—delivering instruction that helps students learn and succeed.”–The Widget Effect ((publication of the National Council for Teacher Quality)

In the book We Need To Talk About Kevin, the teacher Dana Rocco makes two brief appearances. The first is in a parent-teacher conference with Kevin’s mother:


We don’t know how Dana Rocco’s students’ performed on tests, or even how she taught. But purely on the strength of this passage, we know she is passionate about her subject and her students, who she works to reach in ways straightforward and otherwise. And in the second passage, we learn that she kept trying to reach Kevin right up to the moment he split her head open with a bolt from crossbow while she was trying to carry another of his victims away from danger.

In Oklahoma, a hurricane blew down a school, and they pulled a car off a teacher who had three kids underneath her. Teachers were pulling rubble away from classrooms before the rescue workers even got there. Were they delivering on their core responsibility as professionals?

The Sandy Hook teachers died taking bullets for their students.

Were they fulfilling their core responsibilities as professionals? Would NCTQ celebrate the teachers who abandoned their students to the deranged young gunman, who left their students to be buried in rubble? Could they argue that their efforts were better spent raising test scores for another ten years than giving their lives to save twenty students?

“Most notably, [the Every Student Succeeds Act} does not require states to set up teacher-evaluation systems based in significant part on students’ test scores—a key requirement of the U.S. Department of Education’s state-waiver system in connection with ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.–Stephen Sawchuk, “ESSA Loosens Reins on Teacher Evaluations”

ESSA is widely acknowledged to have ended the era of education reform, started in the 90s, hitting its peak in the Bush Obama years. Eulogies abound, many including prescriptions for the future by the same people who pushed the past policies that failed so completely, so spectacularly. In future years, the Bush-Obama choice/accountability reforms will ever more be accompanied by the words “roundly repudiated”. The world we live in going forward is as much a rejection of Michael Petrilli, John King, and Michelle Rhee as the “Nation At Risk” era was to the wasteful excesses of the 70s. The only real question left is why they still have billionaires paying their salaries.

They failed for many reasons. But chief among their failures was their conviction that public education is measured by student outcomes. This conviction is easily communicated, and allowed reformers to move politicians and policy in directions completely at odds with the public will. Reformers never captured the  hearts and minds of the public.  They failed to understand that student academic outcomes aren’t what the public thinks of when they think of good teaching.

The repudiation of education reform policies and preferences in favor of emotion-based, subjective expectations is one of the most comforting developments of the past twenty years. Go USA.

About educationrealist

15 responses to ““Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education Reform

  • Roger Sweeny

    But chief among their failures was their conviction that public education is measured by student outcomes. … They failed to understand that student academic outcomes aren’t what the public thinks of when they think of good teaching.

    I’m not at all sure that statement is correct. But what do you think the public thinks good teaching is? If it’s not “student outcomes”, what is it?

    • educationrealist

      If it was student outcomes, don’t you think the hearts and minds would thrill to a different type of movie?

      • Roger Sweeny

        I haven’t seen a lot of those movies, and it was a while ago, but … as I recall, they all end with the students learning and passing. To me, that’s a student outcome.

      • educationrealist

        Do you know or care what the average score was, whether the achievement gap was closed, whether standards were high?

      • Roger Sweeny

        As I recall,

        3) Yes, the standards were high. Part of the feelgoodness was that the students were now living up to their potentials, not failing or just being passed along.

        1) It seemed to be implicit that, yes, there were grades and, yes, they were considerably higher than they had been.

        2) To the extent that there was a “diverse” student body, they all seemed to respond. Again, implicit, but, yes, the achievement gap was closed.

      • educationrealist

        “My Posse Don’t Do Homework” didn’t haev much ion the way of standards. Neither did To Sir With Love or Up the Down Staircase. It was all about reaching kids and getting them to try.

  • Roger Sweeny

    You know the movies better than I do.

    I suppose the question is, “getting them to try” what? My guess is that much of the answer is “getting them to try” to be educated. Now, that may well not involve them doing well on standardized tests. I think that’s a big part of Dead Poets’ Society. But they are trying to meet some standards. What exactly the standards are is left vague because it would be too technical, taking away from the drama. Hidden Figures doesn’t go into the mechanics of calculus.

    Most education reformers believe education can be measured by scores on standardized tests. No, that’s not quite right. They believe it can be measured better that way than by the traditional process where teachers give tests and assignments (some of which are graded), keep track of their students’ progress/participation/behavior, put it all together with personal beliefs about what the mark should be, and give a grade that determines whether the young person gets credit for the course or not–where a passing grade means the person never needs to show knowledge of that subject again.

    The movies are certainly not about getting good scores on standardized tests. Except, as you mentioned, Stand and Deliver. Standardized tests are not cool. As part of the progressive coalition, Hollywood does not believe in them. But I think in the background of most of the education movies is the idea that once the students have been “reached” and “gotten to try”, they will do better by some valid standard and get better marks, and that means they are getting an education that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

    • educationrealist

      “But I think in the background of most of the education movies is the idea that once the students have been “reached” and “gotten to try”, they will do better by some valid standard and get better marks, and that means they are getting an education that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

      Sure. But do they think that blacks will do as well as whites, that poor kids will do as well as rich kids, and so on? Clearly not. No one thinks the To Sir With Love kids or the My Posse Don’t Do Homework kids are every bit as advanced as your average suburban kid.

      • Peter Gerdes

        Those are all valid concerns but they are not objections to the idea of measuring how student outcomes are affected but merely technical concerns about how such outcomes should be measures.

        Indeed, it is technically trivial and I suspect many of the advocates of using test scores to quantitatively assess teacher’s impact would say that *of course* if it turns out that student race, student socioeconomic class or any other measurable factor affects the expected change in student test scores over the course of a year it should be regressed against when evaluating teacher performance.

        Now, it wouldn’t surprise me if the optics of doing something like that are far too bad for any politician to endorse (you expect poor black kids to learn less than rich white ones!?!?!?) but that’s not a problem with the underlying methodology but just our political will to implement it.

        I mean surely you believe that in some sense two teachers given statistically identical (randomly allotted from the same pool) classes each year if one of the teacher’s classes improves more than the other that’s evidence of at least one *part* of teaching excellence. Of course, as your examples point out, its not the only factor but, since one can’t tell who will be the hero in a disaster, thats not something which can be used for administrative decisions or incentivized.

      • Peter Gerdes

        Though, on reflection, I’m actually less sure about that statement then I was when I started. Its certainly true IF the social purpose of education is primarily to ensure that students learn how to do trigonometry or American history but I’m not totally convinced that’s true.

      • educationrealist

        I think IQ would be a better predictor. But consider comparing a suburban school to an urban school and matching up IQs. Would you expect the kids in the urban school, surrounded by lower IQs, to do as well? The effort of teaching in that school is greater.

        I think teacher quality is better measured through engagement. That is, imagine you’ve got 2 classes of 35 kids with average IQs of 90-100. The successful teacher would be the one who got the kids to try more, to feel better about school and to continue on trying. That might not be reflected in test scores.

        Kirabo Jackson’s work has suggested as much.

  • surfer

    Escalante was a stud.

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