An unfortunate aspect of the current debate on education in our country is the polarizing nature of the discussion. It would seem that everyone must be in the “Education Reform Camp” (teachers and unions are the problem, charter schools and firing people are the answer) or the “Status Quo Defender” camp (all our problems could be solved if we were just left alone, had a better curriculum, and were given more money). Of course, I over-generalize here, just for fun – but I hope you get my drift.

Education leaders on both sides of this debate are heavily influenced by the extremists in their respective camps. Pick a fight and raise hell and you’ll be ballyhoo’ed as a champion. Compromise and you’ll be vilified as a wimp and sell-out to the cause. Unfortunate, but true.

What we should agree on is that our education policies should be all about improvement.

A recent study noted that in the U.S. we recruit teachers from roughly the bottom quartile of college graduates. What are we doing to get higher caliber candidates into the teaching pipeline and are we preparing them for the tough job they have ahead? A recent study from Tennessee suggests, at least in that state – but I bet the results pan out across the country, there are significant differences. We can do better in preparing teachers.

We also do a pretty terrible job of recruiting and screening teacher candidates. Some research even suggests that being really bright, having a high GPA, and coming from a top school actually hurts your chances of getting hired. I did a recent webinar for AASPA on this issue. We can do better.

Teaching in many schools is a lonely experience. Most schools allow for little real and meaningful professional learning, collaboration, or interaction opportunities for educators. The traditional model of professional development is for someone on high to devise an “initiative,” get some funding for it, and then cram it down through various organizations to the classroom teacher. By the time it gets to them, it frequently has little meaning or relevance to what they face on a daily basis. We need to turn this whole system upside down and empower teachers in schools to tell the system what they need, and then configure the system to deliver. Again, we can do better.

We also don’t do a very good job evaluating teachers. Dan Weisberg’s “The Widget Effect” shone the light on this national issue. I would venture that just by paying attention to the fundamental elements of validity (does the evaluation measure good teaching) and reliability (is the evaluation administered consistently) we could dramatically improve the quality teacher evaluations, and actually make them something that can lead to improvement. We can do better!

Then there is the issue of teacher dismissal, which garners all the headlines … and may be all that many of you remember about reading this piece.

Let me be clear on this next point, because we have a really hard time talking about it and I want to be very clearly understood: By far, the vast majority of teachers are amazing, kind, and selfless people who would do anything they could to help kids and help their community. These are the teachers who have inspired us, who saved our lives in one way or another, and who deserve our gratitude for their service and for sharing their gifts with us and our children.

There is also a small minority of teachers who are failing our kids and our schools. Sometimes, a teacher is failing our kids because of the system they have been put into and they lack the necessary supports and leadership to be successful. However, there are also teachers who are failing our kids because they either don’t have what it takes (talent or knowledge) or they don’t have an interest in getting better.

Great teaching is really hard work and (contrary to popular opinion) not everyone can do this well. But the structures we have now treat all these kinds of teachers the same regardless of their quality. We ignore the real differences in teachers because it’s a difficult conversation and the determination of quality involves a degree of human judgment. Because of this, we have created systems and legal protections beyond those in any other field that make it nearly impossible to remove an ineffective teacher.

We have all been complicit in creating and perpetuating this system – teachers, unions, administrators, school boards, legislators, governors, and the voters. All of us are to blame for where we are now … and all of us must share in the responsibility of making it better.

It’s about improvement – we can do better.

Jason Glass
New York, NY