School Bureaucracy: We Now Learn Good Teachers Are Valuable

Summary: Another in a string of commentary about flattening the school hierarchy, and the value of teacher and staff input to decision making.

Age old is the tale of the teacher, from the wise one, to the prophet, to the poetess, to the prosaic school teacher whose memory is carried life long by former students as testimony to the impact the teacher has had on their lives. Nearly everyone remembers fondly a particular teacher who reached into their lives and made an imprint that carries them to this day.

That pivotal experience of a teacher in elementary, middle school, or high school has entered the chambers of myth and archetype well beyond the individual’s experience, and so has become a bedrock truth; the culture knows that good teachers make a difference. Colleagues know who the better teachers are, and students and parents certainly can identify those who make an impact and those who do not.

In truth, many people go into teaching, and then stay in teaching, because of the belief and then the experience that what they say and do in and out of the classroom makes an impact that their charges will never forget. Makes up for the low ceiling pay, by a long shot. A good teacher’s life is never a wasted life.

So I have mixed feelings when I read in Nicholas Kristof’s column, that “It’s All about Great Teachers.” (Seattle Times, 1/13/2012) Kristof discusses a study by economists at Columbia and Harvard, first reported in recent weeks, that found that certain teachers (“good teachers,” of course) had such an impact on their charges in elementary or middle school, by comparison with that of more pedestrian, or even bad teachers, as to affect their students’ lifetime earnings to a significant degree, as well as whether or not they would go to college, or whether or not a young lady would become pregnant as a teenager.

I suppose it is a good thing to now learn, as we have in other studies, though few as comprehensive as this one, that the efforts of good teachers have been quantified into monetary and specific, measurable terms of social impact. It is probably good that these measures will give argument to the honorable bean counters in congress and our legislatures, that money spent now on quality teachers will reap “profit” in a variety of “products” down the road. I am saddened that something we have always known must be “proven” before we can act on the knowledge, or maybe the knowledge has never been the point, but the will and the wisdom as a culture to act on it.

Hopefully, these econometrics as cited will build on the momentum generated by many other efforts to improve our schools, and the breast beating by well meaning leaders that our schools are a disgrace and must be reformed.

Here I come back to my concern about the impact of school hierarchy on these good teachers whose importance we now recognize. I wondered some posts back why the best and brightest, and the Teach for America crowd, and those who end up on Wall Street rather than the classroom – why would such ambitious independent thinkers put up with the unimaginative structures as they currently exist in too many school districts?

If a good teacher is so important, would not it make sense to bring that good teacher front and center into decision making, because arguably he or she knows something about reaching kids that many of his peers, including administrators, do not, or have forgotten in the years since they have been in the classroom? And, again, if companies such as Google and Toyota thrive on the upward generation of ideas from the grass roots, then why cannot schools adjust and till the same fertile fields?

Why not? Because too many school organizations retard the upward flow of information, are overly hierarchical in their set up, and too controlling in their management posture. Moreover, the incentives to “profess” – that is, to be professional, are sorely lacking. Good teachers affect their students; the irony is that while all applaud their importance, no one seems to listen to their ideas.

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