It’s the Teachers, Stupid

All the time and money we spend on education reform will mean nothing if we don’t grow the pool of qualified teachers.

Getty Images
Getty Images

It has taken long enough, but the people responsible for setting the nation’s pace on education policy seem to have finally figured out what’s most important. We need better teachers and more of them to go around.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan get it. And so does Michelle Rhee, D.C.’s chancellor of public schools. Obama and Duncan want to spread quality teachers around more fairly and, like Rhee, boost salaries to keep them in the classroom and attract others of high caliber. Headed in the same direction is a new charter school that laid out $125,000 salaries to recruit faculty all-stars to teach mostly low-income Latinos in New York City.

Still, hardly anyone in education will speak the expensive truth: There aren’t enough good teachers to go around, so they get rationed. Who’s going to replace those all-stars going to that new charter school?

It may be obvious that teachers are the most important adults in any school system. But if it’s so obvious, why have governors, mayors, school superintendents, members of Congress, education secretaries and—dare I say—presidents been focused for so long on every level of school management except the one that counts the most?

For over 30 years, I’ve reported on education, and I have watched the waves of management “reforms” come and go. There have been magnet schools, schools-within-schools, charter schools, private schools via vouchers and school-based management programs. Some big-city districts have created neighborhood sub-districts.

But these solutions only change the central office. All these so-called reforms are irrelevant because whatever their effects, they do not change students’ experiences in the classroom. Teachers transform students, not the schools’ leadership structure.

I have often said that I’d take a good faculty with a bad principal over a bad faculty with a good principal. A poor principal can’t stop capable teachers from doing their best for students. But, a talented principal can’t possibly compensate for all the failings of teachers who don’t know what they’re doing.

Parents already know this. When a child comes home from the first day at school, how many parents ask first, “How do you like your principal?”

To be clear, I’m not blaming teachers for the failings of urban public schools. The country actually has a better teaching corps than it deserves, given the low pay and limited autonomy granted these college-educated professionals.