The “Green Line” of Ed Reform?


The arguments in education reform (and what I call “reforminess”) are now so entrenched, I feel like I’m at the point of abandoning responding in complete sentences and could just use a number to refer to a “set” list of rejoinders.

Check out this exchange between The Frustrated Teacher, and Mimi Carter on Huffington Post. Reform-y types love to cite studies on the importance of teacher effects on student outcomes. It’s the same darn argument that I’ve seen about 2,000 times already:

  1. Point: A quality teacher is the most important factor and has the biggest effect on student achievement;
  2. Counter Point: Teacher quality is the biggest “in-school” factor, out of school factors (parents, neighborhood, income level, etc.) have a larger effect.

While I truly appreciate TFT’s setting the record straight, I think that he and others would agree, this is NOT where we want the discussion on school reform to be. Instead of talking about improving the conditions we work in, improving teacher preparation, and yes improving teaching (which we do want to do, just not be backed against the wall of being forced to accept the label of incompetence).

If we want to be like Finland, then we’re going to need to:

  1. Have some more income equality, since when you cross-tab PISA/NAEP test performance by income level our students who are not in poverty do pretty well comparatively (Bracey, see page 3). Most Americans would like more income equality than we currently have. My state recently considered food stamp and other poverty support cuts (like health care) to shore up the education budget and keep the cuts there below of the amputation level. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul! Make no mistake, I’m going to have to deal with my families having less health care, and less food.
  2. Slim down the standards, and seriously pare-down the number of standardized tests;
  3. Improve teacher training by extending the “internship period” (student teaching) and paying stipends. It’s what they do in medicine and law firms, in addition to the Finish education system;
  4. Give teachers autonomy to teach the material and standards as they see best;

If you treat us like professionals, and train us well, if things go as they did in Finland, you will start to see an improvement in that you will retain your best teachers, and attract others to the profession. This compares with the current situation where half the teachers leave in the first five years. Some may have needed to go, but there are also some really good teachers leaving too.

There is no way that you will create a more professional teaching corps in a system that relies on an ongoing influx of new teachers who leave after two to five years. That is a job at McDonalds, not a profession or career.

20 Comments to

“The “Green Line” of Ed Reform?”

  1. October 11th, 2010 at 7:53 am      Reply Tom Hoffman Says:

    Just pointing out that they’re blatantly misrepresenting a key point of their argument is essential though.

  2. October 11th, 2010 at 1:01 pm      Reply Scott McLeod Says:

    Should ANY organization – corporate, educational, government, charitable, whatever – expect employee job tenure/security to be what it used to be? Aren’t all employment sectors experiencing much greater job mobility and employee turnover than before? Is it a winning strategy to somehow think that we can persuade most new teachers that they’re going to stay in the profession for decades? Just wondering out loud here…

    • October 11th, 2010 at 4:12 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      But Scott, they hold up Finland as an example, where teachers do have that sort of job security. Do we want to be like other high performing countries, or do we want to be like the banking industry? Since I left banking, I’ll tell you that the type of turnover that started to come to that industry in the 1990s (when I worked there) would be crappy for education, and I think is a big reason why the business imploded recently, but that’s my hobby-horse, and yours is teacher tenure.

      Hey I saw this comment on an EdWeek post:

      plthomas wrote:
      I grow exhausted with the Finland claims, Walt, especially since, as you accurately note, time after time, we conveniently fail to mention the huge disparity in childhood poverty when comparing the US to other countries. . .

      Also of note, I have seen research in the US on selecting teachers form the best and brightest, and the results aren’t what people assume; from one of my doctoral committee members, for example:

      WHEN BEST DOESN’T EQUAL GOOD, Sears, Otis-Wilborn, & Marshall (1994), Teachers College Press

      Maybe we need to concentrate on making teachers better through selection and training at teacher prep programs (I think that’s closer to your bailiwick). Anyway, my next post will be on how the profession might change, so never let it be said I didn’t think things needed to be fixed, or have suggestions on how to do it. Seriously though Scott, we will never eliminate that achievement gap without some changes in income levels in this country. The countries that do it have much “flatter” economies. Is your feeling that it doesn’t matter, or that teacher quality still sucks in spite or in tandem with that?

  3. October 11th, 2010 at 4:23 pm      Reply Scott McLeod Says:

    Hi Alice!

    I’m not arguing against the desirability of a stable teaching force in which teachers refine their craft over decades. I’m just saying that I don’t know if it’s achievable. It doesn’t seem to be possible in the corporate world and those folks can offer a lot better incentives (and, often work environments) than we can in P-12 schools…

    • October 11th, 2010 at 4:43 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      Are folks leaving teaching for that reason? I run across almost as many teachers like myself coming in from the corporate world, but I’m guessing you have some stats at hand on that?
      Tenure may be “reformed” despite what I think about it. I would hope we “reform” some of the PARS programs (peer-based union participatory programs for working with troubled teachers and getting them out if they don’t improve). I wonder if the big changes will be in pay? Denver tying pay to test scores, and Baltimore eliminating step and column? I still don’t know how I feel about Baltimore. I know I think basing it on test scores ala Denver is a really bad idea.
      But Scott, you still haven’t answered my question, is the quality of education for poor children because of bad teachers, or other factors, or both? I’ll let you have it both ways or one way, but I’d love an answer to this.

  4. October 11th, 2010 at 4:34 pm      Reply Tom Hoffman Says:


    While it is difficult to uphold job protections in a country with so few organized workers, it does not follow that teachers should simply cede their security to fall in line with other occupations. There is no reason for teachers to accelerate this race to the bottom. And there is no reason that countries with greater workers rights cannot be competitive in the current global economy. Look at Germany.

    • October 11th, 2010 at 4:48 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      Tom, I’m curious, because although European countries have unionization and long tenure in jobs, Denmark has the kind of turnover that Scott talks about. It’s just a heck of a lot more “palatable” because they have sweet jobless benefits from the state (not the employer). I wondered when I heard that if they had that same turnover in teaching and government jobs?

  5. October 11th, 2010 at 4:40 pm      Reply Scott McLeod Says:

    Whoa, whoa, whoa! I’m not advocating against teacher tenure, or that teachers should give up job protections…

    What I’m trying to say (apparently unsuccessfully?) is that the idea of holding a job / career for decades is rapidly disappearing. That scenario is on its way to being the exception, not the rule. Businesses are learning to navigate this new employment environment, which is characterized by greater employee mobility, contracted work, and so on. I think schools probably should too, instead of trying to preserve a model that no longer seems to apply in the world at large. In other words, how do we design teacher recruitment / induction / PD / etc. strategies in an environment of job mobility rather than stability? I don’t know the answers to this, but I think they need to be explored…

    • October 11th, 2010 at 4:53 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      I think we definitely need to look at induction Scott. I do think we are already having a ton of turnover in teaching, so in that sense, people are treating it as a stop on their career path. As someone who has taught in a lot of high-turnover schools THIS SUCKS! Sorry, I know you’re just throwing it out there, but it was a big reason we ended up being persistently failing at my site (not the only cause, but a major one).

  6. October 11th, 2010 at 4:47 pm      Reply Tom Hoffman Says:

    Nonetheless, “everyone else is doing it” is not a good argument. It is by no means clear that repeated career changing is good for people or businesses.

    • October 11th, 2010 at 4:49 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      Yeah, well my experience seeing this type of turnover in banking, not good. Institutional history gets lost really quickly in that kind of system. Although I love the new (computer, tech), I have certain respect for the old (history major and all).

  7. October 11th, 2010 at 4:58 pm      Reply Scott McLeod Says:

    @Alice: I think the evidence is pretty clear that a high-quality teacher is the #1 influence on student learning inside the school system. Of course that impact is dwarfed overall by the influences of other factors outside the school system. The general rule has been 20% school factors, 80% outside factors (give or take a few points depending on the study), and we’ve know this at least since the Coleman Study of the late 1960s. The rare, exceptional school that can defeat outside forces through internal mindset/organization is exactly that: a rare exception. It can be done – and it has been done – and we can learn from those schools – but it’s awfully hard to scale up…

    @Tom: I think there’s a difference between what ‘should be’ and ‘what is.’ The bottom line is we can’t make employees stay. We can try, but we can’t make them. And since they’re leaving education – and all other employment sectors – in greater numbers than before, with more shifting to new position / employers / careers, we can try to design for it (while still attempting to retain the strengths of the current system) or ignore it. I’m not a big fan of ignoring big trends that affect you whether you want them to or not…

    It’s not that ‘everyone else is doing it so we should too.’ I think it’s a market reality that we have to face?

  8. October 11th, 2010 at 5:05 pm      Reply Tom Hoffman Says:

    I don’t get the impression that people teaching 10 years and then deciding they want to try something different is a substantial *problem* in US education. There is a problem with teachers flaming out and leaving within the first 5 years, particularly in the first few, but that’s not because they’re feeling fickle about their career, it is because teaching isn’t working for them.

  9. October 11th, 2010 at 5:18 pm      Reply Scott McLeod Says:

    (twice as many teachers leaving the profession as in the late 1980s, and not b/c of retirement?)

    I’m no expert on this by any means, but I think the general rule is we lose about half of all new teachers within 5 years or so. NCTAF,, has the stats on this; you could check there to see for sure…

    • October 11th, 2010 at 6:14 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      I’m having a hard time finding the study, and I remember it from earlier. Didn’t it list reasons why folks left? My own observation is like Tom’s most folks I see leave wanted to stay, but they weren’t prepared, and the work conditions sucked. I see that group argues for better working conditions, which I would list as really critical.

  10. October 11th, 2010 at 6:06 pm      Reply Tom Hoffman Says:


    You’re ending up in a completely different place than you started.

    If you want to argue, as your link indicates, that people are leaving teaching quickly because it is an unattractive option today, YES, I agree.

    If you want to argue, as you seemed to start this thread, that people are leaving teaching quickly because that’s something that is happening across the entire job market, and thus we simply have to design strategies for handling people’s new preference for change and instability, I don’t agree with the diagnosis or the cure.

  11. October 11th, 2010 at 6:14 pm      Reply Scott McLeod Says:

    I’ll actually argue both!

    But in the case of the latter, that’s fine; we’ll agree to disagree. The labor data show increased mobility across most professions. If you want to ignore the trends, okay by me. As I said above, although I’m not sure what the end result would look like, I think schools would be better served by trying to design for it…

  12. October 11th, 2010 at 6:31 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

    Y’all know what’s really sad? I’m staring at the I’m Here for the Learning Revolution button from NECC 2008. Talk about dreams deferred…
    Okay, pity party over.

  13. October 11th, 2010 at 9:31 pm      Reply TFT Says:

    The status quo argument is countered by pointing out that crappy schools are a symptom of what nobody wants to deal with-poverty.

    The status quo is abysmal. We could fix it, a la HCZ, by providing universal health care and free, high-quality early childhood education.

    Telling folks they should look at the disease instead of a symptom is not advocating for the status quo. Quite the opposite.

    Thanks for noticing me.


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