Demand for ‘teacher quality’ could doom schools


VANCOUVER – The federal government’s Race to the Top program for improving American education won’t work because it’s based on a faulty assumption, according to a WSU expert in teacher development.

“There is no one national version of a quality teacher,” said Associate Professor Jason Margolis. “Successful teaching depends on where teachers are, how well they understand the thinking and culture of their students, and how well they use that information to help the students learn.”
Journal commentary
Margolis is a WSU College of Education faculty member in Vancouver. He makes his case in “Why Teacher Quality is a Local Issue (And Why Race to the Top is a Misguided Flop”), a commentary published in the journal Teachers College Record.

  • 06-22-10 Teachers College Record – Why Teacher Quality is a Local Issue (And Why Race to the Top is a Misguided Flop) 

“The concept of ‘winning the race’ with ‘better teachers’ as foot soldiers is based on false premises, specious science and a general disregard for who students and teachers are and how they actually engage in learning in schools,” he writes.

Washington is among the states competing for grants from the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top Fund, created by the U.S. Department of Education to encourage reform and innovation in public schools.
Identify and replace
In his 2009 speech announcing the program, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that “states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals … and improve or replace ones that aren’t up the job.”
Duncan offered no definition of an effective educator, Margolis noted, but did say that states refusing to link high-stakes test results to teacher and principal evaluations would be banned from the money pool.
“What I see happening is that states are gaming the system. They play the federal game to get lots of money,” said Margolis. “You can play around with tests in order to improve scores, but there’s no evidence this will advance learning.”
Downplay the tests
If the Obama administration really wants to improve education, it should downplay tests and insist that teachers and principals not be passive recipients of outsiders’ ideas, Margolis argues. Instead, they should be active collectors of information about their students, and constantly plan and adapt how they teach.
Without that shift in approach, Margolis fears for the future of the country. “Our education system has become too regimented, and we’re forcing students to think inside of little boxes,” he said. “As a result, we’re losing our innovative edge; we’re losing our imagination.”