Top 5 Myths and Lies About Teachers and Their Profession

falseWell-funded misinformation campaigns succeed in part by leaving no rock unturned in the quest to smear whatever person or institution they are targeting. In these cases, is there any meaningful difference between a hoax, myth, rumor or an outright lie? Not really, because they all serve to discredit and undermine, regardless of intent.

For more than ten years, public schools have been assaulted by a barrage of destructive policies that have been fueled by the widespread dissemination of misinformation. It begins with corporate cash flowing into new think tanks and advocacy groups, or films like Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down.” And it all eventually trickles down to the neighbor a few doors down who asked you, “I support public schools and I love my own child’s teacher, but, gosh darnit, why can’t bad teachers ever be fired and what’s wrong with being held accountable?”

Needless to say, the conversation over public education needs to change course but is still largely bogged down in the morass of distortions and warped opinions.

Education psychologist David C. Berliner and education professor Gene V. Glass hope to help clear a path with their new book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools. Berliner and Glass take on and dismantle every half-truth, falsehood and bad idea that has undermined our schools, using logic and credible data to make their case.

“The mythical failure of public education has been created and perpetuated in large part by political and economic interests that stand to gain from the destruction of the traditional system,” the authors write in the book’s intro. “Many citizens conception of K-12 public education in the United States is more myth than reality. It is essential that the truth replace the fiction.”

Here’s a summary of the book’s response to some of the myths pertaining specifically to teachers and their profession.

Myth 1: Teachers Are the Single Most Important Factor in a Child’s Education

Great public schools depend on having first-rate teachers. Teachers work very, very hard. Their days are spent not only providing instructional and emotional support, but also performing countless other tasks to benefit their students.

However, many so-called reformers and lawmakers inflate this importance to such a degree that it permits them to ignore all the other critical factors that influence learning. The result: Let’s pin every failure on teachers.

Accountability is important but, as Berliner and Glass point out, it has become the “cornerstone of the education reform movement, putting teachers in an untenable position.” Do teachers control the economic struggles of their student’s families? Do teachers have the autonomy to make every decision about curriculum and instruction? Does the average teacher have at her disposal a wide range of effective and sustainable professional development opportunities?

They argue that accountability should be based on a metric that is a little more reality-based. “Families, communities, school boards, state and federal government  – society in general – all bear responsibility for student achievement,” the authors write. “Asking teachers to bear more than their share is shameful.”

Myth 2: Teachers Thrive on Competition

Reformers toss around the word “competition” as if it is some indisputably virtuous attribute that can turnaround any and all endeavors, including teaching our kids. Hey, it works well for the Fortune 500, so it stands to reason that a little rough-and-tumble competition will work for schools. Competition breeds better teachers and that will lead to higher student achievement.

And what would teachers be competing over? Merit pay of course, determined by standardized test scores. Putting aside the problems in trying to measure teacher effectiveness with a test score, the widespread potential for cheating, and the drill-and-kill instruction behind value-added measurements, Berliner and Glass argue that boosters of competition are making a number of damaging faulty assumptions. First and foremost is that students will benefit.

“Teachers are pushed to score the highest, which means others must lose. It means that many teachers  are likely to abandon their collaborative efforts of helping students of all classrooms succeed in order to increase the chances of their own classroom’s success. It means that teachers who seek a bonus, or fear getting fired, must plot to get the more affluent students because, as history shows, these are students with winning records.”

“Competition is a repugnant motivator that will alienate teachers from one another and decrease the chances of all students succeeding,” Berliner and Glass continue. “A Darwinian survival of the fittest, applied to education cannot be healthy for an education system inside a democracy.”

Myth 3: Teachers in the U.S. Are Well Paid Compared to Their Counterparts in Other Countries

No one argues that teachers make lots of money, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying to dampen talk of higher pay by claiming that, compared to educators in other industrialized countries, teachers in the U.S. have nothing to complain about.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average U.S. teacher with 15 years experience earns an annual salary somewhere in between $45,000 and $48,500, depending on a variety of factors including whether he teaches at primary or secondary level. While this is higher than the average OECD teacher, once you consider other variables, the salary picture in the U.S. darkens.

“In reality,” write Berliner and Glass, “American teachers are paid less than teachers in many other countries 1) relative to the wages of other workers with similar levels of education 2) based on the amount of time spent teaching each day 3) in terms of the salary differentials between starting and experienced teachers and 4) in relation to salary trends over the past decade.”

Overall, teacher salaries in U.S. secondary schools make up about 55 percent of total education expenditures, notably lower than the 63 percent average of OECD countries. And unlike in the U.S., the salaries of teachers in industrialized countries are very competitive with those of college-educated workers in other professions. Their salaries are on average only 10-18 percent less, compared to a 25-33 percent gap in this country.

Salaries in the U.S. have stagnated, even declined, making it more difficult to recruit new teachers. Consider Singapore, South Korea, and Finland – all high-achieving nations – who not only pay their teachers salaries comparable to other educated workers, but also award bonuses for staying in the profession or pay teachers to continue their training. The teaching profession enjoys a status in these countries not experienced by educators in the United States.

Myth 4: Subject Matter Knowledge is a Teacher’s Most Powerful Asset

What makes a good teacher? A keen grasp of content knowledge? Of course, but teaching is obviously not just about the transfer of knowledge. And yet in the United States, the effort to downplay or outright dismiss the value of rigorous teacher education is fairly widespread. The Teach for America program (TFA) practically thrives on this perception. TFA recruits teachers from top schools who, while they may have impressive knowledge of a specific content area, often lack proper training in learning theory, child development, or pedagogical skills. (TFA’s inflated reputation is addressed in detail in 50 Myths and Lies)

As Berliner and Glass point out, “Telling, talking, lecturing, showing Powerpoints, putting students online or showing films is not what makes a teacher good. Teachers need to know how to start a lesson, motivate, act on information from formative assessments, manage classrooms, design tests and evaluate performance. There are literally hundreds of skills necessary for effective teaching. And these are quite separate from content knowledge.”

The authors also question how far subject area knowledge alone can take teachers who have to teach students 21st Century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, decision-making and creativity.

“The best teachers will have to know their content. But if that is their only asset, they will fail as teachers and fail the country.”

Myth 5: “Tenure” is About Protecting Bad Teachers

One of the most enduring and frustrating myths about teachers is that once you become a teacher, you have a job for life (thanks to those pesky unions) regardless of performance. You hear it everywhere: Teachers have tenure and that means they cannot be fired. The purpose of tenure – a term that is frequently misused – is to provide due process protection that allow teachers to voice their opinions, advocate for their students, and challenge inequities and bad practices without fear of unjust retaliation by principals, superintendents or school boards. But for politicians who have targeted educators and their unions, it is much easier to rally public opinion around the fabrication that it’s about protecting underperforming teachers.

“Teachers know their students better than anyone else in the school, and they can be put in a vulnerable position at certain times,” write Berliner and Glass. “What about the special education teacher who challenges conventional ways of schooling and opts for a more inclusive method over his superiors failed methods? … What about the teacher who refuses a principal’s request to change a student’s grade from a C to an A? Or what about the one that demands to teach evolution despite community pressure not to do so?

“Without due process, they might feel that the risk involved in speaking up is too high and choose to teach as required, ignoring what they see as the best interests of their students or their community.”