Who Will Teach the Children?

Obama’s education policy seeks the right mix of change and stability in the heated debate over the importance of teachers.

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President Barack Obama had more homework than usual this week. In the wee hours of Monday morning, Obama surprised administrators at Washington’s Sidwell Friends Academy, where his two daughters attend school. He and his wife showed up for the quarterly ritual known as the parent-teacher conference. After hearing about Malia and Sasha from their teachers, Obama stopped by Viers Mill Elementary School in Maryland, where he led a group of local students in chants of “read, read, read, read!”

The whole first family has been focused on education. The first lady penned an op-ed in U.S. News and World Report in which she sang the praises of the men and women who are training the next generation of America’s leaders: “We all remember the impact a special teacher had on us—a teacher who refused to let us fall through the cracks; who pushed us and believed in us when we doubted ourselves; who sparked in us a lifelong curiosity and passion for learning,” she wrote, citing data that shows “the single most important factor affecting students’ achievement is the caliber of their teachers.”

Michelle is right: A 2006 Brookings Institution report notes that “having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.” In the face of distressing recent reports that the racial achievement gap is as wide as it has ever been, that is an important statistic.

But is any teacher a good teacher? Is a smaller class a better class? That’s been the subject of a fierce debate in education-policy circles for years.

Lawyer and media mogul Steven Brill jumped into the fray with a lengthy screed about bad teachers last month in New Yorker magazine. He argues that teachers’ unions are too powerful; that the political cost of firing bad teachers is so great that the city of New York tolerates enormous monetary costs just to avoid doing it. One such teacher, “Patricia Adams,” was found passed out in her classroom: ‘There were 34 students present in [Adams’s] classroom,’” Brill reports. “When the principal ‘attempted to awaken [Adams], he was unable to.’ When a teacher ‘stood next to [Adams], he detected a smell of alcohol emanating from her.’ ”