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Adler begins: "The first to discover that teachers make perfect scapegoats was George W. Bush. When he ran for president for the first time twelve years ago, Bush had a problem. He wanted lower taxes to be his rallying cry, but while taxes in Texas, the state where he was governor, were indeed low, the schools in Texas were notoriously bad."

Critics of the American education system often blame teachers for the problems they see. (photo: Kean University)
Critics of the American education system often blame teachers for the problems they see. (photo: Kean University)

Scapegoating Teachers

By Moshe Adler, CounterPunch

16 February 12


he first to discover that teachers make perfect scapegoats was George W. Bush. When he ran for president for the first time twelve years ago, Bush had a problem. He wanted lower taxes to be his rallying cry, but while taxes in Texas, the state where he was governor, were indeed low, the schools in Texas were notoriously bad.

The numbers are no better today: Texas ranks 47th in the county in literacy, 49th in verbal SAT scores and 46th in math scores. To blind the public to the evidence of what low taxes do, Bush produced evidence of a miracle: When it comes to education money is not what matters, he declared; what matters is holding teachers accountable. In Houston, Bush told voters, the superintendent of schools held teachers accountable, and as a result Houston saw a dramatic improvement in school quality, particularly when measured by high school graduation rates. So convincing was the miracle that as soon as he took office Congress agreed to pass the Bush tax cuts and the No Child Left Behind law.

Eight years later the "Texas miracle" was exposed. It turned out that the numbers had been cooked: Instead of the 1.5% drop-out rate that Houston had reported, the actual rate was somewhere between 25 and 50 percent. And in order to boost test results children who were considered weak in even just one subject were prevented from entering the 10th grade, the year in which the tests were administered. But by then the truth no longer mattered because the ideas that taxes are not needed to run a democratic government and that teachers, not budgets, are responsible for the failure of schools had invaded the body politic.

When Bush ran for office the rate of unemployment was low and there was a surplus in the government coffers, rather than a deficit. Today the economic situation is dire and most Americans believe that inequality is the biggest problem that the country faces. Occupy Wall Street blames the 1% — but the 1% and their elected officials have found someone else to blame: Bad teachers are back.

A new study just out from economists at Harvard and Columbia would seem to offer the proof. The study does not claim that the measurement of teachers will produce better students–this was Bush's claim and it has already been exposed–but instead that the measurement of teachers will make students richer as adults.

President Obama echoed themes from the study when in his State of the Union Address, instead of acknowledging Occupy Wall Street, he stuck it to teachers: "A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance," he said. "Give them [schools] the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones…and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn."

Unlike the Texas miracle, the Harvard-Columbia revelations are not based on fraudulent numbers. But what is deeply problematic is the spin that the authors give to their findings. The study examined the incomes of adults who, as children in the 4th through the 8th grades, had teachers of different "Value Added" scores, with Value Added defined as improvement in the scores of students on standardized tests. The study claims that the individuals who had excellent teachers as children have higher incomes as adults; we will examine the validity of this claim below. But first we must ask what these higher incomes mean. When they were children, these individuals were poor. What the H-C authors fail to mention is that even when they had excellent teachers as children and therefore have higher incomes as adults, these individuals, despite their higher incomes, remain poor.

The devil is in the details: the average wage and salary of a 28 year old in the H-C study who had an excellent teacher was $20,509 in 2010 dollars, $182 higher than the average annual pay of all 28 year olds in the study. How does this compare to the average salary and wage of a 28 year old in this country? The authors excluded from their study people whose income was higher than $100,000. As we shall see, this exclusion is problematic; but to do the comparison we must do the same. The average salary and wage in 2010 of a 28 year old who earned less than $100,000 a year was $29,041, 42% higher than the income of a 28 year old in the H-C who had an excellent teacher. In other words, even if we accept the numbers that the authors of the H-C study choose to spin, having an excellent teacher cannot pull people out of poverty.

The exclusion of people with high incomes involved some 4,000 individuals, or 1.2% of the sample. The authors justify it by claiming that such people are outliers. But what if it turned out those high income earners had "bad" teachers? Including them in the study would have completely changed the results. Excluding a large number of the best performers from a study about the effect of teaching seems strange.

There's more. While the H-C study found a statistically significant, if meaningless, relationship between the "value added" of teachers and incomes at age 28, the authors did not find a statistically significant result at age 30. Why? In the study the authors explain this by the small number of 30 year olds in their sample. In their interviews with the media and in public presentations the authors do not mention this result at all. Yet the number of 30 year olds in their sample is 61,639, and these are all students who went to school in the same city. Is this a small sample? To gain an appreciation for the size of the sample consider the fact that in order to estimate the unemployment rate that it publishes every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics relies on a national survey of 60,000 households with an average of 1.95 adults in each. Surely if 120,000 peoples are a good size sample to study a labor force of 150 million people spread all over the country, a sample of 61,639 is a good size sample to study a population of fewer than 5 million elementary school students who all come from the same school system. By any measure the sample size is not only adequate, it is fantastically huge, and the result is not statistically significant.

But the statistically insignificant results for 30 year olds may have been inconvenient for the authors for another reason. An increase of $128 a year is small by any standard, so the authors resorted to estimating a lifetime increase in earnings due to this increase. To do that they assumed that the percentage increase in income, 0.9 of one percent, which they estimated for age 28, holds for each year of a person's working life. And perhaps this is why the authors chose to ignore the results for the 30 year olds. All that their findings permit them to claim truthfully is that an excellent teacher increases average annual income by $128 at age 28, and that this effect disappears at age 30. But then there would have been nothing to report.

Doesn't teacher quality matter? Not when it comes to explaining the deliberate assault on the wages of workers by executives with the support of most of our elected officials. A federal law permits states to pass the doublespeak Right to Work law. Boeing, a major recipient of government largess, has just moved production from Washington State to South Carolina because, according to Governor Nikki Haley, "We are fighting the unions every step of the way. We are a strong Right to Work state and going to stay that way." The Supreme Court has recently ruled that executives can use shareholders' money to their heart's desire to influence elections. Executive pay remains totally out of control and totally unregulated. Government workers have lost the right to bargain collectively in several states. These are the laws that must be changed if we are to fight poverty. Does the president really believe that teachers can change all these laws by themselves when he says that "a great teacher can offer an escape from poverty?"

The attack on "bad teachers" is a dishonest diversion, and nothing more than a reincarnation of the Texas Miracle. The problem is the power of the 1%; the solution is to pass it to the 99%.

Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. He is the author of Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science That Makes Life Dismal (The New Press, 2010), which is available in paperback and as an e-book. your social media marketing partner


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+11 # harris.carlus 2012-02-16 16:15
Although the conclusions this article draws are not new, attention is once again drawn to what should be obvious-people who come to school putting a value on the process fair better than those who have not been taught this lesson. Yes, there are bad teachers. But the percentage of those who are do not justify the number of students who will not thrive, no matter how enriched the educational environment may be.
-29 # Jmac 2012-02-17 00:48
the more bueracracy schools can hide behind for thier adminstrative failings the more kids will slip thru the cracks.
there are alot of good teachers but i think there are more BAD teachers that just like to pick up a paycheck and walk the party line and teach out from a power point.
+22 # BradFromSalem 2012-02-17 10:03
Why do you hate people that work so hard for so little. We pay Broadway stars good money to perform the same performance night after night in front of a live audience. Movie stars make even more money, and get multiple do overs.

A teacher is a performer, their art is communication. Their performance is always live and it changes not only daily, but often must be ad libbed.
Their audience is populated with persons that would much rather be doing something else. After all, the kids aren't paying to be there.

And teachers probably get paid the same as a set director on a big movie.

How dare you denigrate these people?
+13 # b_niles57 2012-02-17 11:53
Your post should read:

The more bureaucracy schools can hide behind for their administrative failings, the more kids will slip through the cracks. There are a lot of good teachers, but I think there are more BAD teachers that just like to pick up a paycheck, walk the party lie, and teach from a Powerpoint.

People are allowed a typo or grammatical error in life, but not when they are busy blaming teachers for their own shortcomings.

Did you have a bad English teacher you like to blame for your spelling and grammar mistakes? Over the 12 years you were in school, NONE of them taught you to capitalize "I"? I don't believe it. I'm guessing it's easier to blame and scapegoat teachers than it is to take personal responsibility for your own academic shortcomings.

You are angry at yourself, but are projecting it out on innocent people- the teachers who work their butts off to help you not sound ignorant and uneducated when responding to thoughtful articles like the one above!
+10 # b_niles57 2012-02-17 12:11
Still fuming over this one! Perhaps if your teachers were not so worried about teaching to standardized tests, they would have had more time to concentrate on helping you becoming a thoughtful citizen who is able to express him/herself in a coherent fashion.

As is, you are a poster child for the argument against strict test-based teacher evaluations. I'm guessing you passed your tests, but are still unable to demonstrate the fruits of your education. Why is a teacher supposed to be held accountable for a student such as yourself who apparently slept through 12 years of English? YOUR teachers were worse than those who had attentive students who actually cared about their education? Huh?
+10 # tonenotvolume 2012-02-17 16:07
As a teacher, I can only sigh at your grammar and spelling skills. It's easy to blame teachers for your lack of motivation, inconsistent parental involvement, and poor self-discipline . Stop making excuses and blaming. Start being accountable for yourself.
+3 # tomo 2012-02-17 13:38
Right you are, harris.carlus: "people who come to school putting a value on the process fair better." My first teaching, back in the late 1950's, was as a Catholic seminarian in his early twenties with almost no special training in teaching and with no identified gifts for the subjects I was arbitrarily assigned to teach. I taught in a Catholic high school, and most of the other teachers there were much as I was.
Nonetheless, our school won academic contests and athletic contests all over California, and had a well earned reputation for excellence. Later, I taught in public high schools. I was wiser, worked harder at preparing classes, and was surrounded by seasoned and professional teachers. The results seemed remarkably paltry by contrast with my experience at the Catholic high school. It occurred to me that what was missing was the deep commitment of parents and students to the educational process. So far from expecting improvement, parents and students seemed to band together in resistance to academic demands of teachers, and were usually highly successful at recruiting administrators as their allies. If anyone asks me today why the performance of so many of our high schools is so mediocre, my temptation is to say: "It's the principals of the thing." But that vents my frustration without getting at the root. My real answer is: "The attitudes of the parents make all the difference."
-17 # barbaratodish 2012-02-16 20:18
Statistics and DAMN statistics: i.e., a statistical "fact": You can drown in an inch of water!
Statistics: the relativity "blood" jargon that "courses" through the veins of academic sheeple that is basically the same as the illiterate drama and ego jargon of the majority : pure obnoxiousness!
+7 # BradFromSalem 2012-02-17 08:50
Your point? Or are you just trying to be verbose and vague simultaneously?
0 # Texas Aggie 2012-02-19 14:12
The point made, deliberately or not, is that the original study used statistics to paint a false landscape. I can't speak to the intention of Ms. Todish, but that in fact is what her comment says.
+6 # BradFromSalem 2012-02-17 09:03
Sometimes a bad teacher for one student is a great teacher for another. And vice versa. How do we measure how well a teacher is performing since the results of their work may take years to determine? I think the study that the authors justifiably criticize is trying to accomplish that determination. Unfortunately, even in their criticism much is missed.
Of the students studied, how many had happy lives? What was their divorce rate, criminal rate and level of public service? These questions are not being asked and in fact are totally ignored when rating teachers.

It would be a wonderful thing if we could do a valid lifetime student achievement against every teacher. But until we have a time machine, I just think we are stuck with old fashioned peer/supervisor reviews. They may not accurately predict student success, but then we still have not honestly defined success.
+12 # Glen 2012-02-17 09:52
Kids can have great teachers but still fail in their lives over all. That is a reflection not of what they learned, but the conditions under which they live at home and in the community. We are also dealing with a lot of damaged kids now.

Sadly, elementary school teachers, especially, are tasked with parental duties, nursing duties, counseling, and so much else, that teaching gets harder every year. Hard to teach a hungry, tired child who wasn't even put to bed the night before.
-1 # barbaratodish 2012-02-19 15:37
Sounds like a defensive teachers, professors, etc., "pity party"! Teachers, et al, need to tell students, especially in economically disadvantaged urban areas, that mere survival IS a success, but the mostly middle class who act in "loco parentis" would have to believe that, and they mostly have had zero experiences with the life and death issues that the poor struggle with almost daily. Instead, most teachers, professors, etc, mistake the drama and ego of quality of life issues and the illusions of competing for $, fame and power AS life and death issues and they rate success on such illuions! We may all engineer our own victim hoods(in natural catastrophies, we fetishize survival in drama & ego rituals, when it's survival,regard less how relative survival is, that counts). We need 2 c the drama & ego in victimhood rituals.
+3 # Glen 2012-02-21 12:35
Have you taught school Barbara? Have you welcomed a classroom of kids, two thirds of who come from single parent homes and don't get enough to eat and spend too many hours alone? I'm talking about 5 to 12 year old kids, not adults in college. How about the abused kids? Most of those kids go to school for care and food as much as an education.

Decent teachers have that "pity party" as you call it for the kids, not themselves. Schools have been a political football for too damn long, and from politicians or corporations that have no clue what they are talking about. Never even stepped into a classroom.
0 # barbaratodish 2012-02-21 23:27
Yes. I taught & saw very few decent teachers. Some teachers turned out the lights & told kids to "put your heads down on the desks and sleep"! Others put kids in closets for "discipline"! I tried to be a whistleblower about this & was fired. (Other teachers lied & said I was doing what I reported others doing! I was formerly homeless and related, empathized with all of Newark's(NJ) poorest. I blew the whistle on administrators, teachers & I was demonized, fired, unsupported by the union for it.I ran many times for the Board of Ed (it's called an Advisory Board now because the Newark Public schools are taken over by he state.) I was prevented from getting any publicity& even disqualified from being a candidate a few years ago due to my own signature being considered bogus! (I changed from just using my initials for my first and middle name to the complete names, because I thought they might try saying my signature was intials instead of fully written out! IRONY!) Also tried running for Mayor of Newark and the corruption , candidateds being undermined, etc is just like in the documentary "Street Fight" by Marshall Curry. I hate having to write about these things because it sounds too much like a "pity party" but I continue to try to teach, now at universities but because I am doing what is called "academic squatting" (defying bureaucracy and reaching the students a la Paulo Freire's "pedagogy of the Opressed") I keep getting fired or euphemistically , not re appointed!
0 # Glen 2012-02-22 09:06
In some ways you are proving the point of the article. In others you are proving the politics of beating up on schools. Also, your community is another gripe teachers have concerning their teaching experience. Sure, you are right about there being bad teachers, but a lot is determined by administration, community, and those creepy politics.

You jumped in with both feet in a community where politics rules, right along with a type of fear within a school's staff. I've seen it. That does, though, prove that schools are a football, with irrational policies and nonsense such as No Child Left Behind. Teachers and good administrators are, in truth victimized.

You are not having a pity party. You are relating actual events that you SHOULD share. Many Americans don't understand it. Teachers get very little support, or are manipulated by a system that is dying.
-1 # barbaratodish 2012-02-21 00:32
What is judged to be bad and what is judged to be good is also subjective, so why judge at all, why even attempt to communicate, let alone teach?
-24 # Jmac 2012-02-17 00:45
Low or high taxes have very little to do with school quality. It's all about HOW it's spent and the STANDARDS you hold teachers to.
If you let crappy teachers continue to only do what prevents them from getting fired then you're going to reap the results. Every employee gets an evaluation and if they consistently suck then they should be fired, not allowed to hide behind union benefits.
How about we stop worrying about statistics and use some common sense, techers complain the kids suck, parents complain the teachers suck. It doesn't add up.
0 # b_niles57 2012-02-17 11:19
What is unclear? Common sense shows that the quality of students you teach (social, emotional and academic), and the quality of your school environment (dictated by principle and out of teacher's hands)would greatly affect one's ability t teach effectively. No Brainer.
0 # b_niles57 2012-02-17 11:55
principal. Groan.
+8 # b_niles57 2012-02-17 11:30
Also- I love the "crappy teachers should get fired like in the private sector" line of thinking. HA! Tell that to all the "Too Big To Fail" money manager types. They got bonuses! Where does this bizarre dream of "private sector people get regularly evaluated and fired if they do not meet standards without any consideration of outside factors" come from? It doesn't describe any job I've ever had.
+3 # tonenotvolume 2012-02-17 16:15
And if we all listened to "crappy" individuals like you, there would be continual scapegoating of teachers. Congratulations on your recent graduation from the School of Trolls.
+7 # tomo 2012-02-17 21:12
I'm pretty sure, Jmac, you're not a teacher. I've known teachers all my life--and I can assure you nothing is more injurious to a teacher's tranquility than trying to hold students to high standards. Parents call it "picking on my kid." Principals fall all over themselves saying to the "offending" teacher: "You've got to be flexible. This isn't a matter of lowering standards--we have the highest standards here. This is a matter of paying attention to the special circumstances of this kid. He doesn't LIKE to write. Writing makes him tired. You, as his teacher should know this better than anyone. As a very gifted teacher, you ought to be able to find a way to teach him without teaching him to write." Substitute for "without teaching him to write," "without teaching him to read." Substitute: "Without teaching him to divide one fraction by another." "Without teaching him about Napoleon." "Without teaching him how big Neptune is." Etc., etc. Believe me: all of that, and worse, has been said.
+5 # futhark 2012-02-18 04:13
I was told quite bluntly in mid-career by one of my students that my popularity with her peers suffered chiefly BECAUSE I really expected them to "learn the material".
+3 # Texas Aggie 2012-02-19 14:25
Texas proves that money DOES have a strong effect on school quality. Texas is divided into districts that often have wide discrepancies in their tax base and thus have massive differences in the money available to educate children. That inequity is then made worse by the formula that is used to allocate state money to the different school districts.

Not at all unexpectedly, the ones with the most money per student (Fort Stockton, some Dallas and Houston area schools) do a lot better than the poor districts (San Antonio, other Houston area schools.)

And I notice that you fail to mention that one of the factors that most inhibits teachers from being able to teach is that their syllabi and subject matter along with the way they are to be taught is dictated from on high, not by what teachers find to work best. When some idiot principal who doesn't know the difference between a sell and a cell tries to tell a teacher who has worked in biology all his/her life that they don't know how to teach biology and should do it differently, then you are set up for failure. Are you surprised to know that many administrators are there because they failed at teaching? Are those the ones you want telling other people who know what they're doing to change the way they teach?
+11 # futhark 2012-02-17 03:27
Teachers work under conditions of almost total isolation. I know, having taught high school science for 32 years. Opportunities for collegial observation and sharing are almost nil, so one has almost no opportunities to learn new approaches to instruction first hand. For a few years we had opportunities to use professional development time for visiting other schools and for getting together with other local teachers of our subjects, but this was terminated in favor of lecture-type presentations, usually about getting our documentation in order for the accreditation process following the latest fad: "portfolio assessment" or standards and benchmarks or STAR testing.

It's pretty easy to lose interest in improving and keeping up to date when you lose the opportunity to interact with other teachers. Administrators who could facilitate changes and improvements also seem to be allergic to going into classrooms for purposes of informal observation as specified in contracts. They seem all too eager to unilaterally declare programs and instructional practices that seem effective to teachers as "ineffective", usually when it involves replacing activities that have worked for years with new and expensive "standards aligned" curriculum.

My high school chemistry teacher warned me to stay away from the teaching profession and I tried to pass the same warning on to my students before I retired.
+7 # BradFromSalem 2012-02-17 09:10
Thank you for being a teacher.
+10 # Glen 2012-02-17 09:45
You did a good job explaining some of the difficulties. When I was teaching, the best teachers worked for the students and did a minimum of documentation of the type imposed by politicians and those who dictate without ever stepping into a school building. They favored independent classes and conferred with other good teachers.

There are so many different types of schools both in cities and rural areas, that it is impossible to set some sort of impractical standards. Consider the variation in the student population, also.

Bad teachers are out there, definitely, but those teachers who are good also have an influence on students not in their classes, simply by caring about students and sharing information. I taught long enough that I found ways to gather students for lessons, such as leading a science club, teasing with questions in the hall way or cafeteria. I actually got answers!

I also taught long enough to see the changes in families and students, and the change in parental attitudes. Too many fought the school, rather than working with the school. Social issues and poverty certainly does take away from a student's day of learning.

It is extremely complicated. Extremely. I'd advise kids to stay away from teaching, but cannot, due to such a great need for good teachers.
+7 # BradFromSalem 2012-02-17 10:05
Thank you for being a teacher.
0 # tomo 2012-02-19 12:43
"I also taught long enough to see the changes in families and students, and the change in parental attitudes. Too many fought the school, rather than working with the school."

I recall hearing an anecdote about Lombardi. Contrary to his custom, he had let a reporter sit in on Monday-morning quarterbacking. Lombardi spent something like half an hour berating a black linesman for missing a block. It seems he used just about every abusive remark he had in his vocabulary. There was no race-stuff--Lom bardi didn't do race stuff; but after the session, the reporter, who was white, asked the verbally battered black linesman if it didn't feel like just one more instance of "the man" taking the skin off his hide. The player looked puzzled at first, and then when he caught the gist of the question, burst out laughing and said, "God, man--you just don't know nothing about being a Packer. EVERY Packer is in big trouble with Coach--every day, all day long. That's what it is to be a Packer."

Abusive language didn't make Lombardi a great coach; but a highly intelligent and demanding approach to his players' potentialities did--and humoring his team was the last thing on his mind. It's a great tribute to the Packers who played for him that they understood this. I've often wished that the attitudes they and Lombardi brought to professional football could be brought more fully into the typical American classroom.
+1 # Glen 2012-02-21 12:46
Trouble is, tomo, Lombardi was not berating 6 year olds. He was whooping up on adults who are well fed, get exercise, are idolized, etc. Even if they are not idolized, they are privileged in spite of busting ass on the field.

Kids that are bullied in that way crumble right in front of you - or, as you say, parents jump in to defend an indefensible child who has denied their own personal responsibility due to parents behaving as if those children are already adults, needing no real education or structure. Structure, after all is a form of abuse. Sigh.

That attitude is the flip side of the neglected and/or abused children. Either way, teachers get little support. I've seen tough teachers, who are tough because they care so much, but not abusive. They get a lot of grief from both parents and kids.
+6 # RMDC 2012-02-19 08:05
Conservatives attack teachers because they essentially hate education. They would like to abolish public schools and leave education to the churches and elite private schools. Basically they have a model of the 18th century when only the kids of the very rich went to school and there were church run charity schools for some others.

They also hate Thomas Jefferson who wrote his own epitaph and did not mention that he was president of the US but did state his greatest achievement was the building of the University of Virginia -- in those days a free public school for all residents of VA (but not black or slaves -- Jefferson's one huge flaw). Jefferson always said that a nation needed a well educated population more than anything else, even a military.

But a fascist and fully militarized state does not need educated citizens. That's what we have now. A fascist state needs compliant consumers, people who won't mind being surveilled at all times and who don't know why anyone would join an OWS protest.

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