“The research-based truth is that the teacher effect (i.e., 10-20% of the variance in test scores) is not strong enough to supersede the powers of the student-level and out-of-school influences and effects (i.e., 80-90% of the variance in test scores) from one year to the next.” Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, Rethinking Value-Added Models in Education
The current push by the Obama administration, Arne Duncan, and many state departments of education to solely tie student achievement to teachers, demonstrates that they are ‘true believers’ when it comes to the power of the teacher. That sounds magnanimous. It has the smell of being a strong supporter of teaching. In practice, it continues to erode the quality of our schools. Why?
In defense of the massive increase in testing and the use of those tests in high stakes decision-making, these individuals point to one assumption: “The teacher is the single most powerful influence on student achievement.” All we need do is focus on the teacher. Ignore that teachers don’t receive adequate funding for their classrooms. Ignore the fact that the school has not been able to buy textbooks in over six years. Ignore the fact that the heating systems, the plumbing systems, and ceilings are all falling into disrepair and crumbling. In a word, under Race to the Top and Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waivers, schools have been given the go ahead and excuse to spend all the funding they can on testing and ignore funding for resources for the classroom and for professional development. In addition, schools have also been given permission to ignore the effects of poverty and other outside-the-school influences on achievement as well. This agenda of relently laying the burden of all learning on the back of the teacher has allowed states to continue to pour increasing amounts of money into testing and accountability systems with the belief that because the teacher is the most important influence of student learning, nothing else matters.
You will see variations of that statement, but this belief about teachers is the heart of what I will call the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine,” a statement of faith so many policymakers, politicians, and even educators have so recently declared allegiance to. It is used as an excuse to ignore and wall-off a whole range of societal problems, such as child poverty and lack of healthcare, because they do not matter as much as the teacher. It is also used the dimiss the need to adequately fund schools, because tied to this belief is another myth, “Just throwing more money at our education problems won’t fix them.” No one is advocating “just throwing money” at problems. What we do advocate is providing money for the resources needed to give our students a quality education. The cheap, mythological fix that all we need do is shift the entire burden of student achievement to the shoulders of teachers is simply throwing less money and creating many new problems. After all, why would anyone want to be a teacher in a system that demands results without providing the means to bring about those results?
So what is wrong with “The Powerful Teacher Doctrine?” We, as Americans, love our heroes, and we have created quite a few, and are quite fond of creating them when none exist; just look at our movie industry. Now, in the interest of school privatization, in the interest of dismantling the teaching profession, and in the interest of accountability promotion, it has been declared that achievement is to be balanced entirely on the backs of teachers. In doing so, we have created conditions in our education system so that teachers may demonstrate their “heroic efforts” against all odds to increase student achievement. We want our teachers succeed against powerful odds, so we create a system, both educational and socially, that forces heroic action. These conditions are created by our politicians, policymakers, state education leaders, who continue to use the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” to starve schools, classrooms, and teachers of funding, because all that matters is getting a good, heroic teacher in those schools in classrooms and student achievement will increase. Our education leaders and politicians keep education funding stagnant and then expect our schools and teachers to overcome the mess they’ve created.
It is no doubt that education funding remains stagnant. Just look at North Carolina as an example. I haven’t seen a new textbook in five years in our school, and that’s in any subject area. Our legislature this year provided a meager $25 million on the table for textbooks statewide. By the time that’s distributed to the schools, schools like mine only receive around $2,500. Now, how many textbooks can you purchase with that? Just look at the price of a popular science textbook. Take Glencoe’s current student biology text priced at $87.48. If you do the math, purchasing a class set of only 30 is $2624.40. A class set means that not every student gets a textbook either. This is a pure example of how our state politicians and education leaders are using the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” to keep education funding low in the area of textbooks. After all, the extension of this belief is, "The omnipotent teacher is resourceful and can find ways to teach students without resources.” All we need are good teachers in the classrooms and the resource problem will take care of itself.
This “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” drives other areas of funding as well. North Carolina spends a miniscule amount on professional development too. Teachers are often forced to pay out of their own pockets to attend national conferences in their teaching specialities because there is no funding for such activities. Once again, this belief that good teachers will find ways and resources to improve their instruction is the underlying belief. Many good teachers do find ways to learn how to improve their craft. But when one looks to the medical field or business, these organization invest in resources for professional learning. Not so in public education. The expectation is that teachers come out of college, fully-developed professionally and willing to pay for their own training if it is needed.
My whole point here is not to deny the impact a teacher can have on students in their classrooms. They do impact student learning. The problem I have with the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” is that our politicians, policymakers, and some educators use it as an excuse to not adequately fund and provide resources needed for education. School leaders often buy into this argument so much, that they forget to advocate for increased resources. They make a conscious decision that “advocating for increased resources for my school or district” is outside my sphere of influence, so they give up. It is this very thinking that has put our schools in the starved conditions in which they operate.