You are probably familiar with the concept of the “superstar teacher,” particularly since it is perpetuated in popular culture through movies like the classic Edward James Olmos film “Stand and Deliver” and 2012’s “Won’t Back Down.”The idea is that with the right teacher – a committed, bright, in-tune, talented teacher – P-12 problems like the achievement gap and high dropout rates will cease to exist. If only every student had a standout teacher like the ones portrayed in these shows, the very P-12 system as we know it would be transformed for the better.
I do believe in the power of teachers, both positive and negative, on their students. I train educators for a living and have written books about following “the calling” to become a teacher. I do think that teachers make a difference – but I cannot put all of my faith in these “superstar teachers” to reform the education system the way that is truly needed, and here’s why:
There are not enough superstars for the schools that need them. The schools that desperately need some sort of superstar saviors are often unable to attract them. In a study on urban schools and poverty released by the National Center for Education Statistics, urban administrators said that they had difficulty attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.
Teachers are normally only temporary fixtures at a school. Teachers come and go, moving from school to school or on to different careers. In their early years of teaching and when nearing retirement, they have a particularly high attrition rate. Location of teaching position definitely impacts mobility and attrition rates. Most studies show that suburban and rural school districts have lower attrition rates than urban districts.
Poverty is a problem that teachers cannot fix. Schools with higher percentages of students living in poverty had fewer resources available for teaching. They often have a persistent achievement gap and lower standardized test scores. Counting on teachers to counterbalance these structural issues by themselves is a recipe for disaster.
Parents need to become more involved. When parents get involved with their children’s education, they tend to succeed academically and perform better on exams. They miss fewer school days and tend to be more conscientious about completing school-related work outside of school. Conversely, children, whose families are not as involved in their school experiences, are often unable to compete academically with peers, have irregular attendances, and are less likely to graduate from high school.
School leaders also have a role to play in the success of students. Districts, for example, can create a reform team to restructure their school districts. Restructuring teams normally consist of a school board member, the superintendent and assistant superintendents, principals, teachers, and other pertinent individuals.
Once the team is created, efforts must be made to assess the district’s capacity for implementing and sustaining school reform. The team must ask itself whether the district has all of the resources needed to implement and sustain a successful school reform. In extreme cases, when the district feels it is unable to coordinate its own reform effort, the team might want to consider allowing the state department of education to oversee the reform process.
Another option for schools that feel they are lacking in the area of certified and experienced reform personnel is to hire an educational consulting firm.
I think it is unfair to blame teachers solely for the performance of their students. Yes, they play a role in shaping the young minds in their classrooms and yes, they should be held accountable for that. However, it seems to me that the root of issues in classrooms that tend to cause the most problems for students (like poverty and ill-equipped or uninvolved parents) should be the target of any true reform.