Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, make education policy.

2010 was a tough year. It was for me, and for many people throughout the country. But when I talk to my teacher friends, I realize how lucky I am to be out of the classroom.

I’m not alone. More and more longtime teachers have had enough of being devalued and demonized. Teaching is an incredibly hard job—one that most people can’t handle—but in the last decade teachers have been worn down by layers of micromanagement from policymakers who have never taught at all. Scores of veteran, expert teachers across the country describe in a recent article how educational policy has taken the joy out of teaching and makes them want to leave the profession.

Here in California, things are even worse. According to a study done by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, the ranks of teachers is declining, and even more significantly, so are the ranks of college graduates entering teaching credential programs. In the last seven years, the number of enrollees in teacher preparation programs has almost dropped in half, from 75,000 to 45,000.

And yet studies show student enrollment in public schools in California is going to grow. So let’s just juxtapose these two trends here. A recent article cites numbers for both trends:

  • The number of students in California’s public schools is projected to increase (4% in the next decade)
  • The number of teachers and college graduates seeking a teaching credential is decreasing (3.4% in last three years; 50% for first and second year teachers)

What frustrates me is that everyone in the educational policy arena—whether Republicans promising “No Child Left Behind,” Democrats promoting a “Race to the Top,” or billionaires who believe they can solve any problem because they profited massively from the right technology at the right time—think they can fix the problem through greater teacher accountability.

They all see the problem as making sure teachers are better. George Bush, Arne Duncan, and Bill Gates all agree that the solution is to provide a “highly qualified teacher in every classroom.” So they each propose variations of creating standards and assessments to measure how teachers are meeting the standards, and they throw a whole lot of money at their own solutions, which in turn gets spent by a few non-educators to produce systems to control the quality of the millions of teachers who actually do the work of teaching.

Instead these policies are destroying the profession. Rather than improving the quality of education, education policy makers are undermining teachers—who spend every day with our children in the classroom—by eroding their passion, enthusiasm, power, and dignity. And they are also rupturing the pipeline of future teachers. With all the negativity being directed toward teachers, young and talented college graduates are less likely than ever to enter an already difficult career path.

But real classrooms, just like real students and real teachers, are not simple or easy. Teaching is incredibly complex, and policy makers need to stop focusing on the latest “snake oil,” whether high-stakes testing, school accountability report cards, or public teacher effectiveness ranking.

Invariably these approaches take the premise that teachers are the problem, and so the solutions serve to further disempower the profession. But there is no giant reservoir of effective teachers just waiting to fill the vacancies as ineffective teachers are culled from the system.

The disconnect between education policy and classroom reality is the result of those who can’t teach making education policy. Instead of more assessment and stricter accountability, we need to focus our collective energy on encouraging existing teachers to stay and enticing new college graduates to enter the profession.

6 thoughts on “Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, make education policy.”

  1. After viewing your recent webinar I was intrigued by the Facebook posting of this article.

    Good article. Truly intelligent and gifted teachers get the “big picture” of educational reform and how it applies to what they know as a teacher. But the truly intelligent and gifted shouldn’t be teaching, they are needed else where for a production driven economy.

    The disconnect between policymakers and teachers is a problem, local schools/communities (if they truly desired effective schools) could nix all those problems if all community members could agree to privately fund their own schools (and refuse to pay their property taxes). Teachers feel pressure and stress not because a policy is a bad policy, or made in bad faith, but because whether or not the policy is effective determines how much money they receive. It is uplifting to see some (small) signs that communities are willing to contribute more privately.

    Unfortunately, any differences/changes will be superficial until we the people decide it is no longer OK for our government to finance their programs with a fiat currency run by a central bank.

  2. Thanks for your feedback Danny. Not sure I quite understand all of it, but for me personally, I just think we need to truly respect the profession of teaching by giving teachers more control of their workplace, not less. I’m not saying there is no role for parents, local communities, or state and national agencies, simply that you can’t micromanage an entire nation’s worth of the most challenging work anybody does, nor can policies be effective when they simplify everything down to a single set of numbers.

  3. I was a science teacher for 20 years. Ever more paperwork, no money for cost of living adjustments, ever more professional development, when a student does something wrong the teacher is in more, much more trouble than the student. Many of us went into teaching for the stability, certainly not the pay. Now there is less of both. Took an early retirement and am a pharmacist now. Could I teach? Yes. The way they now want me to? Never. At least I got a small retirement, that will be more than most new comers ever get. Districts have incentive to get rid of people before retirement age and unions are just there but no longer part of the picture. It is just no longer desirable.

  4. Thanks for your sobering perspective Jack. I wish I could say things have improved in the last couple of years, but policy makers continue to use the stick approach (standardized testing and evaluation) rather than the carrot approach (increased pay and time for quality professional development) that would truly elevate the teaching profession and quality of education.

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