Skip to content

Does effectiveness decline with age?

June 23, 2010

Denver-area parent and education activist Christopher Scott recently posted a response to Senator Michael Bennet’s post about his new bill for improving leadership in schools. He correctly points out the mismatch between Bennet’s rhetoric about supporting teachers, and his track record of doing so while he was the superintendent of Denver Public Schools. He also points to some disturbing trends that have developed over Bennet’s (and his hand-picked successor, Tom Boasberg’s) tenure as leader, like the culture of fear that permeates much of the district, and an increase in the number of older/veteran teachers targeted for dismissal.

This is an issue that hits close to home for me. As a former DPS teacher, I [won’t say anything else until after I meet with my lawyer tomorrow!]. Likewise, I’ve seen some cases up close where, much like this one about Mary Pishney from Bromwell, a teacher who was once widely regarded as highly capable and effective suddenly became known as a terrible teacher…just as the push to “get tough on tenure” really started to pick up steam. It echoes a larger theme that’s gained a lot of traction in the press recently; namely, that the ranks of tenured/veteran/older teachers are swollen with terrible educators who are nearly impossible to fire, and that school reform cannot proceed until it becomes easier to get rid of them and replace them with more effective/younger ones.

Obviously there are some senior teachers who are extraordinary. You recruit young talent you think is good for the future, and to just get rid of that by the numbers seems to me to be a nonsensical approach. -Joel Klein

Note the assumptions made here. “Some” senior teachers are extraordinary; we’re left to infer what he thinks of the rest of said teachers. (Aside: Last I checked, only “some” of any group of people could be considered extraordinary at anything. If we require a national corps of extraordinary teachers to meet the basic demands of the teaching profession, we might want to examine what’s being demanded of teachers…) “Young” and “talent” often go together, as if only young teachers have the talent necessary for the job.

Now, I’m not saying there are no lackluster veteran teachers– there are, just like there are lackluster new teachers and lackluster mid-career teachers (and lackluster plumbers and lackluster doctors and lackluster shop owners…). Rather, I think it’s more than a little weird that many veteran teachers who were once very highly regarded are all of a sudden becoming pariahs in their lifelong professions. Research on what makes teachers effective is mixed, but experience and professional development— which are naturally linked to the number of years one teaches– usually have positive effects. It just seems too coincidental that at this moment in history, when all eyes are on public education, and when state and local school budgets are shrinking, that the group containing the “worst” teachers would just happen to also be the group containing the most expensive teachers. Likewise, how convenient that getting tough on those bad old teachers would also just happen improve a state’s chances of winning federal money in the Race to the Top competition.

Back to Ms. Pishney’s story, and what’s happening in Denver (emphasis mine):

Pishney was one of 58 DPS teachers who failed their evaluations this past school year — more than twice as many as last year. According to Shayne Spalten, chief human resources officer at DPS, that number reflects a push for higher teacher standards. “We’ve really emphasized with principals the importance of addressing performance issues they’re having with teachers,” she says. “Teachers have a significant impact on how much kids are growing academically in classrooms. We’re focusing on that.”

Last week, Colorado applied for $175 million in round two of the federal Race to the Top education grant contest, after losing out in round one. The weakest part of Colorado’s first application? Its plan to improve teacher quality. Colorado’s chances this time could be helped by a controversial measure passed by the legislature last month that largely ties [teachers’] fate to their students’ achievement

I wholeheartedly agree that teacher quality is essential. But I question those who immediately assume that the teachers we have– especially our most experienced ones– aren’t quality professionals, or that there is anything to be gained by treating teachers as adversaries, instead of supporting them to be their best.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2010 12:58 pm

    Summarizing our discussion on FB:

    There is no measure for teacher effectiveness in the American educational system. This is because there are next to no standards of student learning that are localized to the course of study and separated from other factors, particularly prior and independent learning by the student. Therefore, one cannot determine what the level of effectiveness is, let alone conclude that it is declining.

    An additional point is that the measurable effectiveness I described above only pertains to the student’s ability to pass certifying examinations. However laudable that may be for technical, professional and clerical tasks, particularly in a merit civil service system, this measure fails to account for inspiring creativity in one’s students and advancing the field of study. Such factors in assessing the value of a teacher to a college or university will doubtless remain forever immeasurable. Attempts to measure it in the past has resulted in the infamous “publish or perish” criteria for tenured professors, which only the university bean counters applaud.

    • Sabrina permalink*
      June 24, 2010 1:15 pm

      I think your point about inspiring creativity and advancing the field is crucial. Teachers like that are the ones we all want in schools; if you look at our cultural fantasies about great teachers, they tend to be those types (like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society). But in a world where everything is about standardized tests and “measurable effectiveness,” teachers like that will *never* survive. What they do can’t be captured on paper. That’s one of the reasons I care about this issue so much.

      Thanks for reading, and if you’re still jonesing to talk about assessment, don’t worry– that discussion is definitely coming!


  1. What does it mean to be well-educated? « Failing Schools
  2. What does it mean to be well-educated? « Cooperative Catalyst
  3. Retaliation in Denver Public Schools, Pt. 1 « Failing Schools
  4. A Letter to Arne Duncan « Failing Schools
  5. A Letter to Arne Duncan :: Sabrina Stevens Shupe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: