Why teachers can’t get no respect

Teachers can get more respect if they police their own profession, taking the lead in developing ways to get rid of incompetent teachers, writes Dan Willingham on Britannica Blog.

The presence of a small percentage of incompetent teachers has an outsize impact on the respect that the profession garners. Social psychologists have known for years that stereotypes are fed, in part, through selective attention. If a parent believes that there are a lot of bad teachers, he is likely to think about and notice the single bad teacher in a school and fail to notice the 129 good-to-outstanding teachers.

. . . The presence of a small number of poor teachers also has an outsize impact on the respect for the unions themselves. Deserved or not, unions have the reputation of protecting the rights of individual teachers at all costs, no matter how incompetent the teacher.

He thinks this is important for the teaching profession, but won’t make a big difference in school effectiveness.

Like Eduwonk, I think Willingham underestimates the number of non-performing teachers — and the benefits of firing them. I remember a fourth-grade teacher telling me that half her students came from the class of a third-grade teacher who did no teaching, though she was big on hugs. The students had lost a year. The other half had been taught the third-grade curriculum and were ready, more or less, for fourth-grade work.

Evaluating teacher effectiveness is not for the faint-hearted, of course. In Harvard Education Letter, Richard Rothman analyzes the challenges in implementing  “value-added” measures to distinguish excellent, good, mediocre and poor teachers.

Education Sector analyzes how value-added analysis works to evaluate school and teacher effectiveness in Tennessee.  Here’s William Sanders’ response to the report.

About Joanne


  1. It’s amazing how many people think teachers have any kind of say so in something like this.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    Your example brings up an interesting point, which is that teachers are frequently a good judge of the quality of other teachers. I am not opposed to bringing data (such as test scores) into the evaluation arena–with improvement as the goal and separation as only the last ditch effort when all else fails (or the teacher simply recognizes that they would rather be doing other things). There is such a thing as 360 evaluation–which includes evaluative input from not only supervisors, but peers and subordinates.

    Many people are enamored of the “get rid of the lemons” philosophy–but I don’t know too many places where this is heavily (and successfully) relied upon. Replacement is a very expensive option (in terms of both salary replacement, as well as orientation time, learning curves, etc). It is generally more effective/efficient to improve who you’ve got–unless the job is a very simple one and the labor market overflowing. The “Toledo Plan” developed with the AFT puts a toe in the water, although it really only targets the lemons. Requiring an annual evaluation that includes peer input, with follow-up improvement planning, offers some thoughtful possibilities. Teachers would at least have to weight the effects of soft-balling their peers against the results of having to live with a colleague not pulling his/her weight.

  3. You know, many folks point at parochial schools as excellent environments for successful teaching. And I know the argument that “they hand pick the best students”, but that may only be part of the story. When it comes to teachers, at least in my state, there are no multi-year contracts or tenure. Teachers receive a one year contract, generally are paid less than their public school counterparts and receive significantly less in benefits, yet there is a pride in teaching at these schools that isn’t as noticeable at the public school. I suspect that it may be partly because teachers know that a bad apple will not be in the system for long. These teachers take pride in their teaching and know expectations are high. Teachers who are in education for the job security, summer vacations and bucks don’t last in the parochial system.

    BTW…I wish we would hand-pick our students, but in this economic climate, few are turned away. I believe the atmosphere of high expectations creates its own filtering factor.

  4. Physics Teacher says:

    Maybe teachers in catholic schools are allowed to teach the subject matter and not to simply engage, er, entertain, the troops.

    This is not a teacher issue, but a teaching philosophy issue, which is sent down from above.

  5. Was the intent to be ironic? The story of the one bad teacher seems to be fresh in your mind. What about the other 129?

  6. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Huh? Teachers don’t hire or fire anyone. How do you take more responsiblity for something for which you have absolutely no responsiblity at all?

    It is pretty easy to figure out which web pundits have no idea what they’re talking about.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Point is, teachers’ unions defend the incompetents. Teachers could, theoretically, change the union practice.
    Went around on this on a teachers’ board and discovered that they claim unions actually advise the lemons to go quietly and put up only a pro forma defense.
    You wouldn’t see this happening, probably.
    Nice comment and all, but the reality is, we see serious defense efforts on behalf of genuine lemons, so what the unions–teachers’ unions, remember–actually do is unclear.
    IMO, it’s administrators who don’t want trouble.
    Talked to a jr hi prin about a useless math teacher. “Three years until retirement.” was his comment.

  8. Andy Freeman says:

    > Replacement is a very expensive option (in terms of both salary replacement, as well as orientation time, learning curves, etc). It is generally more effective/efficient to improve who you’ve got

    “Improve what you’ve got” may be cheaper, but it only works if the alternative is replacement.

    I don’t care what happens to bad teachers – I’m just as happy with fix as I am with replace. However, I do have a significant issue with folks who protect bad teachers.

    Public school advocates have a long history of responding to a problem with a “better solution” that never happens.

  9. Miller T. Smith says:

    We cannot police our profession unless we become professionals. Loaded sentence.

    Right now the district could not staff the schools if the union became a professional organization which determined who became a teacher. And if we were professionals we would negotiate with the system on an individual basis for our compensation packages.

    The system can’t live with that.

  10. Two points:

    1) We have reasonably clear measures of student performance in basic vocabulary, reading, and Math. How do you rate the performance of Art students (and by extension, their teachers)? When Chubb and Moe composed their rankings of schools for their study of school effectiveness, they used standardized tests of Reading, Math, and Science, but not Social Studies, because Social Studies scores didn’t correlate with anything (which is pretty funny if you know any statistics).

    2) Policymakers will approach a workable solution to the problem of incompetent teachers to the degree that they create an uncoerced, unsubsidized market in education services.

    Mike makes a good point. “Teachers” influence hiring and retention decisions, usually, only through union-dominated licensing boards. This puts the union in a serious conflict of interest. It is as though the legislature (which creates licensing boards) has given to a committee of lawyers the power to deermine which clients who have placed lawyers on retainer those lawyers must defend.

    The most direct solution to the problem is that suggested by Chubb and Moe, that policymakers give to Principals at individual schools the power to hire and fire staff, and to parents the power to determine which schools their children shall attend.

    PS (Physics Teacher)…I have had to reconsider the traffic cop, air traffic question. You were right. It still doesn’t apply to the education industtry, however.

  11. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I live in right to work state. Most of the teachers in my district aren’t a member of any of the available unions.

  12. School districts differ enormously in many ways, one of which Lightly Seasoned points out. In my opinion, sitting on our board for 12 years, our suburban school district would have fired fewer than 5% of our teachers had we been able. In part this was true because in California teachers can be (and are if the board is good) fired for any reason in their first two years and we had been careful with keeping only good teachers for their third year. However I learned enough about some other districts to realize that some districts had much worse faculty. In other words I agree both with Willingham and Joanne.

    One the most disgusting aspects of teachers unions is that they do not take responsibility along with their enormous power. This is especially true regarding their impact on budgets and teacher (non)dismissal procedures. Hence I have heard many times union teachers saying that management errors are the only reason poor teachers are kept on or not helped to improve.

    Unlike Margo/Mom I think most teachers have no clue how good their compatriots are unless they are “downstream” from someone especially bad or good as in the example. Usually their opinions are based on staff meetings, teachers’ lounge discussion, and friendship. If they happen to get into another classroom, then eyes are opened (and mouth shut, unless you know them well and provide good wine).

  13. Enormous power? Here in Texas teachers cannot strike or collective bargain, so the unions are little more than liability providers.

  14. In California the unions bargain all the time, so far only on work conditions (which includes most important aspects of a school, since teachers *are* the school) not curriculum, although there was an effort a few years ago to include that too. They rarely strike although they can, but they do demonstrate a lot. Unfortunately the state controls each district’s income and the unions don’t restrict their salary and benefit demands to numbers that would leave the district financially solvent.

    They provide aggressive legal protection and, in my experience, threaten to create bad labor relations when a permanent teacher faces an unsatisfactory performance review. (Generally our district got along relatively well with our local, so the threat was serious.)

    Ultimate question: whose kids get a better education and at what cost? I don’t know the answer, but I’ll bet on Texas.

  15. Texas ranks near the bottom in another of categories, including SAT and ACT scores. This comes after years of NCLB type reforms based largely on testing.

  16. Comparing states that use different standards is not an easy task. However, the Fordham Institute has published several reports on this topic. Here’s a link to one of them.


    The Fordham Institute gave California an A grade for its standards. Texas got a C-. That still put Texas in the top 1/3 to 1/2 of states. A D was the most common grade.

  17. California standards are strong. Anyone who knew all the material would be a well educated person. However the standards are so strong that many people would never meet them so the difficulty is how the schools cope with not meeting the standards.

    A similar issue exists in meeting NCLB requirements that every child should have a well qualified teacher. This can be demonstrated by meeting any of several standards. Some are plausible like having a college degree in the subject taught or passing a test. But at the bottom of the possible standards to qualify are having an observation and submitting a portfolio. Not passing an observation or portfolio: having or submitting! In other words the system is set up to do nothing but fulfill paperwork requirements. That’s not the fault of NCLB it is the fault of those who implement it.

    The weakness with having the principal and higher administrator determine who is a qualified teacher is that not all administrators are up to that task, but the advantage is that it is clear who is responsible.

  18. “Highly qualified” seems to be most commonly defined in terms of education degrees/courses, as opposed to content, which is consistent with the ed-school control of k-12 education and its teacher preparation. That is where I have a problem with the current situation, but it has existed decades before NCLB. On another post, I mentioned a retired senior executive at a top high-tech firm who has both BS and MS from top engineering schools. He volunteers as a tutor for physics, pre-calc and calc, but is not “qualified” to teach these courses because he has no ed courses. He could teach in college, however. There’s something very wrong with a system that says that someone with a PhD in History is unqualified to teach high school, but someone who has taken 18 semester credits of history (perhaps taught by the above PhD) as part of a secondary-ed major is “highly qualified”. It’s the educrats’ job-protection plan for all ed schools and their graduates. Of course, private schools are happy to welcome lots of “unqualified” teachers, who then don’t have to deal with the ed bureaucracy.

  19. Margo/Mom says:


    I believe that demonstration of content knowledge is a required criteria. In my state (new) teachers must pass a content test in order to be licensed and considered HQT. However, all states had to deal with the issue of not showing existing teachers the door, so most had a period of time during which teachers could demonstrate competence in a variety of ways (HOUSSE, I believe is the acronym, although I forget what it stands for)–and that’s where the portfolio submission and lots of softer requirements come in.

    I am generally supportive of the requirement for pedagogy (teaching classes) in addition to content (even knowing that the “how-to’s” of teachers are at least partially learned on the job). It is very important to know something about the science of teaching, learning, development. Your advanced degree friend, if seriously interested in teaching, might qualify through some existing alternative certification programs. I have certainly sat through some gruelling college+ level course taught by folks who knew their content but could not teach. I have also gone back for seconds in areas where I was less interested (or required to take) the content, just for the sheer joy of being taught by someone who knew their stuff and knew how to teach.

    I can’t deny that job protection is behind many many choices made in education and elsewhere–but I don’t have any greater cynicism about folks who teach education at the higher ed level than I do about the folks who teach at the elementary or secondary level.

  20. Physics Teacher says:

    believe that demonstration of content knowledge is a required criteria. In my state (new) teachers must pass a

    True, but no one seems to care how well you do on them. It should disturb people that you can score at the very top in content knowledge but the ed-drone interviewing you won’t even bother to look at the score you got.

    It is very important to know something about the science of teaching, learning, development. Your advanced

    True, but I’ve never seen an education program that provided this. One needs training to cook in a fancy French restaurant, but one isn’t trained to cook by creating one’s very own recipes out of thin air with no experience, and then to have them scrutinized only for format, font, and spelling.

    In the much more rational world of the culinary arts it is the experienced chefs who write the cookbooks and recipes and who philosophise about world cuisine, and it’s the novices who slice, dice, and sautee until the basics are perfected. If culinary training resembled education training it would be completely worthless (and, there would be no cookbooks to buy at Borders because expert cooks wouldn’t be writing down their expertise)

    qualify through some existing alternative certification programs.

    Been there, done that, and although these folks weren’t as dimwitted as in the traditional ed schools, it proved nearly impossible to get a job and move forward. I would never recommend an alternative program UNLESS you can afford to be unemployed year after year. Perhaps, if and when the economy booms one day and a genuine teacher shortage befalls us. When I was in an alternative program school districts were practically laughing at me. And once you miss that window right before school starts, you generally have to wait another year.

    I have certainly sat through some gruelling college+ level course taught by folks who knew their content but could not teach.

    As have many of us. But I suspect that the worst of my teachers in college were people who wanted to do research and considered teaching a penalty of sorts. I think anyone who wanted to do a good job, did (with practice, of course)

    In general, I don’t recall my high school teachers being better at teaching than my college teachers, inspite of whatever teacher training the high school teachers received.

  21. Margo/Mom says:


    I can’t tell if you are advocating for the current system, the previous system or have just given up on the hopelessness of it all. I am with you with regard to the disrespect given to “outsiders” by educators. I graduated with a teaching cert, but used my education in other ways for a number of years. The experience I gained outside the classroom was very valuable–but in no way recognized pay scale, or anyone in a position to hire me. I did spend some years in a niche (teaching GED classes through an adult ed program) at a later point, as well as some time as a sub (which gave me the advantage of a fly on the wall perspective that has been invaluable as a parent)–but to actually get into a regular classroom (being hired in that small window in the fall), would have meant being hired on not as an experienced professional, but as a first year rookie.

    It has been absolutely ages since I actually took classes in how to teach, so some of it is a bit fuzzy (I recall learning how to run a projector and a mimeo machine). I still would hold to the value of understanding that scaffolding is Vygotsky’s contribution and that Friere has a whole lot to say about education in a sociological sense, and knowing what Erikson has to say about what it is that adolescents are about. When I was in school formatting and fonts weren’t even in the lexicon yet, but it was helpful to go through writing sample lesson plans (and I learned a whole lot more later on when I was teaching kids–outside of school–and thinking about whether they were learning from the things that we did).

    But–beyond having a someone actually look at the test scores, what kinds of things would you recommend to qualify someone for teaching–both at the entry level (as in without this you don’t make it through the door) and as greater indicators of quality?

  22. I think Houss is High Object Uniform State Standards ( plus evaluation maybe). I’m glad to hear there are subject matter requirements in some places now. Of course the details of the test matter.

    The most outstanding teacher I know is a math and science teacher who came to teaching after 10 years as a biologist. She has an incredible gift for working with 7th and 8th graders, maybe the toughest years of all. My kids had her, my wife has worked with her and I’ve been in her classroom a number of times. She began teaching in a charter school when credentials were not required for California charters. After she had established herself state law was changed and she had to get a credential to keep her job. Mother of two, full time teacher .. a major effort (night time) and expense. She honored me by asking for a recommendation to the teacher program. I had to fill out a standard form projecting how well I thought this person would do in the classroom. I wrote a detailed letter which I could use *without modification* for recommending her for county teacher of the year award. The school ignored my sass, accepted her and she continued to teach. (She said she learned some good stuff in the program, but overall wished she hadn’t had to do it.)

  23. i.e. High Objective Uniform State Standards

  24. Physics Teacher says:


    I think that teacher training should be an apprenticeship program, at least two years in length. I think those who won’t work out should be rejected early on before they’re into it too deep. These apprentices could then provide some of the assistance that teachers could use. I also think that teaching assistants should be a normal part of the k12 landscape. If you’re going to spend money on schools this is where it should go.

    I think that lesson plans should be written by experienced and highly regarded teachers so novice teachers have something substantial to follow instead of learning by trial and error. Teaching is the only profession (that I’ve seen) in which every generation starts at square one repeating all the mistakes of the previous dozens of generations. I see absolutely no reason why ed school students should be writing lesson plans. It’s like writing recipes when you can’t cook. Learning to cook takes time. Writing it down is far less time-consuming and less important.

    Just as experienced teachers should have far greater involvement in the training of new teachers, they should also have the primary role in evaluating them. Adminstrators should concentrate more on disciplining rowdy and lazy students instead of applying ignorance to ferret out “bad” teachers.

  25. There are plenty of engineers who repeat the errors of generations past. I suspect this is common to any human endeavor.

  26. You know what would restore the respect of teachers? Respect from administrators and school boards.
    I’ve seen effective teachers harassed and chided for doing their primary job – teaching their classes. There are so many non-classroom teaching duties that teachers are now required to be performed that we scurry around trying to stay ahead of them and avoid the wrath of a parent looking for a fight or an administrator too cowardly to stand up to unreasonable parents. Have a day full of classes and meeting with students in school to help them study? Put it on hold because Johnny is going on a week-long family vacation during a school week and the parents have just given you 7 hours noticed that they want a week’s worth of assignments for Johnny, which of course will never even be looked at. Failure to provide work to students not in school is a mortal sin.
    I don’t know how many write-ups I’ve seen modified by administrators so that students are no longer assigned a detention or if they do have a detention they are given a wide window of days to serve it (can’t conflict with a hair appointment).
    Students are aware that teachers are now expected to entertain with their lessons and I have seen students meet with administrators to complain about how “boring” a teacher is – usually followed by increased attention from the administration.
    Schools must listen to parents and students with the desire to improve the school, but to treat them as equal (or superior) partners in the educational process is a mistake.
    It is this imbalanced relationship that has cost teachers their respect.