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“Teaching Quality” and “Teacher Quality” Aren’t Synonyms

April 21, 2011 By Kaye Thompson Peters, Fellow

When I became an English teacher nearly 14 years ago, I expected a cut in pay. I expected students who would not turn in their homework and piles of papers to grade every weekend. Those were the challenges I was prepared for.

What I didn’t expect was to be vilified as the reason American schools are “failing.” Somehow it has come to this—teachers are the reason students are “failing,” meaning they cannot pass standardized tests. If we could get rid of all the bad teachers, we would have great schools.

There is a certain logic that could lead a person to this conclusion. After all, if a teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s education (which is widely believed and credited), then a failure of a child’s education must be the result of that teacher, right? We identify it, put a face on it (that bad teacher we had in sixth grade) and—voila—the problem is labeled. Good.

Or is it? If our schools are really that bad across the country, there must be a lot of bad teachers. And that is where we run into the nexus of the problem. For there to be that much bad of anything, there is a systemic failure. It is the system—and its underlying assumptions about learning—that need examination.

Linda Darling Hammond, a well-respected educator and academic who has studied teacher evaluation, says there is a difference between teacher quality (what any one teacher brings to the classroom in terms of skills and content knowledge) and teaching quality, which is much larger. Teaching quality takes into account not just the teacher but the factors that affect the quality of teaching such as additional school duties, paperwork, administrative support, school environment, and class and student load. In other words, teaching quality is dependent upon a system.

The American school system, then, is where we should seek improvement. We currently school our children under a system designed in the late 19th century using a factory model. By the time most students reach seventh grade, they spend six to seven hours a day being “assembled” one hour at a time. Add an English part; then it’s on to the math class for an equation addition. While elementary schools are not divided into content hours that so closely resemble an assembly line, and are structured so that there could be a more integrated approach to learning, the truth is there is still reading time, math time, and daily oral language time.

As our corporations have transformed into more flexible and synthesized operations that encourage collaborative thinking, we are educating the workers of tomorrow in an antiquated, hierarchical system that segregates content and thinking.

When our current system was designed, a large concern for public schools was to assimilate immigrants from Europe into our society so they would not challenge our country’s institutions and would become American citizens. We were training them for the factories in which society wanted to employ them. Public schools, by law, take all students. Today, our schools are filled with immigrants from many more and more diverse ethnicities—children who saw parents murdered in Somalia, the Hmong and Karen people of Asia, Mexicans, Eritreans, and Ethiopians.

At my high school, more than 45 languages other than English are spoken in students’ homes. African Americans, whose ancestors were not even allowed in the same public schools with my parents, resist such assimilation as was designed into the original system. Yet, we expect all of these students, regardless of the length of time in America, to speak Standard American English.

We have mainstreamed students with mild to profound learning disabilities. These populations have enriched our schools, but today’s students are far from the homogenous group for which the current system was designed. And we are educating them not for factories, but for jobs that demand they think. Yet, we label schools as failures when we cannot move them through the system like widgets on a conveyor belt. When they snag on an algebraic concept or don’t interpret a piece of literature “correctly” on a state reading test, we label them “at-risk” or in an “achievement gap.”

The assumption that any standardized test can effectively measure learning in such a variety of students is flawed. Any teacher can tell you that there are myriad ways that students demonstrate learning—ways that are more relevant to life than a bubble test.

In fact, the current focus on testing is destructive. It has jettisoned us back to the drill and test, empty-vessel approach to education of 50 years ago that has further ostracized and dishonored our most “at-risk” students while confining everyone’s learning. (For those of you who don’t remember that long ago, the guiding philosophy of schools in the first half of the Twentieth Century was that students were empty vessels into which teachers poured knowledge.) Compounding the problem are consultants who, for a handsome sum, will offer training in the latest fad that leaves teachers not knowing how they are supposed to be teaching or to what standards from year to year.

Good teachers—the kind of teachers who light fires in students’ minds and challenge them to think—find themselves at odds with such a system. Ironically, Japan and China, whose test scores we envy as a country, are now moving to the more collaborative, constructivist model we are abandoning. They have come to realize that the rigid, standardized education that has put them at the top of the testing heap does not foster the kind of critical thinking that creates a Google or an iPad.

If we want to win this race, as our president has chosen to see it, then we need to follow the lead of corporate innovators and hire good talent (teachers), provide the tools and support the talent needs to do their job and then respect their work. When this state and country recognize that Google, not U.S. Steel, is the model for 21st Century schools, we may be able to make a dent in that achievement gap. Until then, teaching quality will be limited by the system in which teachers must operate.

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  • Dean says:

    April 21, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Does anyone else think the teachers union contract has become an impediment for improving education?  The unions came about because of starvation wages.  But now the tenure provisions of the contract make it excessively difficult for the schools to weed out ineffective teachers. 

    It’s sad to see the Wisconsin governor take the extreme position of canceling public employee collective bargaining rights.  Changes need to be made but the push-back from his position will only delay any meaningful action.

  • Linda Rich says:

    April 21, 2011 at 11:27 am

    WOW, as a high school English teacher in a first ring suburb, I couldn’t agree more if I had written this myself.  Thank you for putting into words what so many of us feel. Being told daily that you are a failure because students who made it to high school without knowing how to read aren’t taught how to read in one semester is like being told you are a failure for not catching fish in a street puddle.


  • Kaye Thompson Peters says:

    April 21, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Teachers’ unions are not an impediment to educational reform but have in fact been the fount of any meaningful reform that has happened in the fads of the last 30 years. Tenure only requires that a teacher be given due process and not fired on whim. Unions are not just about the wages, but about having a place at the table for those who work with students daily and, in fact, know better than any legislator what our students need. That is why we continue to need teachers’ unions more than ever.

  • Will says:

    April 26, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Teaching and testing are not synonyms.
    Teacher and motivator are!
    Teaching and encouraging are!
    Teaching and checking for understanding are!
    Teacher and coach are!

    Getting from point A to point B aren’t the same for every student.  Knowing where point A is, is helpful (ASSESSMENTS).  Knowing how to get from point A to point B is helpful (CURRICULUM).

    However, requisite skills for learning and essential knowledge for living well are not synonyms. I believe there are four fundamental attributes which, linked together, enhance human potential and facilitate meaningful achievement.

    I call this approach to optimizing human well-being FLOURISHING:
      1. Satisfy basic human needs;
      2. Acquire necessary personal growth assets;
      3. Apply vitality skills and behaviors; and,
      4. Live with purpose - Find meaning in life!

    I would be happy to elaborate on the FLOURISHING concept if any one is interested.  I believe that the process has merit and can improve the quality of teaching and learning.

  • Susan says:

    May 11, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    Thank you for this article! Our problems with the education system in America are complex, but you have really hit this nail squarely on the head. I am passing this along.