Killing the Zombies: Why the “Bad Teacher” Canard Refuses to Die

Who is Clay Christensen and what is disruptive innovation in education?

Christensen is a professor in the Harvard Business School and the intellectual force behind the current education reform movement. The professor proffers that education has been basically unchanged for decades, a traditional classroom model, very little has changed including little improvement in achievement. Christensen acolytes argue that the traditional model must be “disrupted.”  A wide range of examples: placing schools in competition; public, private, charter, parochial and home-schooling through a voucher system. Traditional instruction must be replaced by an iteration of personalized learning in the form of computer-based learning and, impediments to removing “bad” teacher removed.

The “disruptors’ include the political leadership, from the White House to state capitals.  The $4.4 billion in competitive state grants, the Race to the Top (RttT), is a prime example. The lure of federal dollars to disrupt the traditional systems; RttT required the creation and expansion of charter schools as well as creating a student test score-based teacher evaluation system.

The New Teacher Project (TNTP), an advocacy organization, a “disrupter” organization, conducted a survey of school districts and a report – The Widget Effect. The findings:

Effective teachers are the key to student success, yet our school systems treat all teachers as interchangeable parts, not professionals. Excellence goes unrecognized and poor performance goes unaddressed. This indifference to performance disrespects teachers and gambles with students’ lives.

The 2009 report, surveyed fifteen schools districts across four states points to the absence formalized evaluation systems resulting in virtually all teachers rated satisfactory with few classroom observations.  For the TNTP there was no sorting of teachers by ability, no one is fired and no one is identified as being an exemplary teacher.

In districts that use binary evaluation ratings (generally “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”), more than 99% of teachers receive the satisfactory rating, Districts that use a broader range of rating options do little better; in their districts, 94% of teachers receive one of the top two ratings and less than 1% are rated unsatisfactory.

Since the release of the report the reformers, the “disruptors,’ have been successful, enormously successful, in convincing, coercing, luring states into highly structured teacher evaluation systems; to identify the high performers (merit pay) and prune away the low performers.

As part of their winning Race to the Top proposal New York State designed a multiple measures teacher evaluation system: 60% of a teacher score would be supervisory observations based on a rubric selected by the school district (Danielson, Marzano, Marshall and others), 20% based on a student growth data (VAM) on state grades 3-8 test scores and 20% on a locally negotiated metric – which could be test scores or other measures of student learning (MOSL). The data is pumped into a dense, extremely dense mathematical algorithm and all teachers receive a score that translates in a letter grade on the HEDI spectrum: Highly Effective, Effective, Developing and Ineffective. The teacher evaluation plan, called the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) has been amended a number of times – the current plan prohibits the use of student test scores for four years, is called the “matrix.”

The inclusion of a value-added measurement, the student test score algorithm has been sharply criticized by a range of scholars as well as teacher organizations, and, a state court, in a non-precedent setting decision, found the use “arbitrary and capricious.”

Millions of dollars to create a multiple measures teacher evaluation plan and the result: 1% of teachers are ineffective – the same as the Widget Effect report.

In 2009 The New Teacher Project bemoaned that only 1% of teachers were rated “unsatisfactory” and seven years later the New York State APPR plan found, you guessed it: once again, only 1%.of teachers rated “ineffective.”

Millions of dollars to create a teacher evaluation system, a host of “experts,” the application of dense mathematical formulations and the percentage of teachers rated ineffective is unchanged.

This couldn’t possibly be right!! … so say the disruptors.

In a recently released report, The Widget Effect Revisited: Teacher Evaluation Reforms and the Distribution of Teacher Effectiveness  (February, 2016), the authors conducted surveys of  newly designed teacher evaluation plans across a number of states and interviewed principals.

On the new plans, “… less than 3% of teachers were rated below Proficient”

The raters, the principals, also reported,

“…evaluators perceive more than three times as many teachers in their school as below Proficient than they rate as such.”

In lengthy interviews the principals expressed the reasons for not rating more teachers as below Proficient.

* Time constraints (“It takes too much time away from running a school”)

* Teacher potential and motivation (“Fear of the discouraging of teachers”)

* Personal discomfort (“I have a difficult time telling teachers they’re failing”)

* Racial tensions (“Very difficult for a White principal to rate Black teachers poorly”)

* Quality of replacements (“I can’t find adequate replacements”)

* Voluntary departures (“I rate them Proficient and they leave – a deal is made”

* Burdensome dismissal processes (“The process is too complex and time consuming”)

Is the “problem” too many “below Proficient” teachers or “below Proficient” principals?

What the authors failed to investigate, admittedly not the purpose of the study,

* Inter-rater reliability: do the raters from school to school use the same rubrics, and, are they competent to assess teacher performance?

* The bell-curve conundrum: is the lowest rated teacher in the school “below Proficient” when compared with all other teachers in the district?  In other words, is it “arbitrary and capacious” to establish a system that guarantees that the lowest performer in a school must be below Proficient? After all, they may be more proficient than teachers in other schools in the district.

A second baseman on a major league team may be the “least proficient” among major leaguers and in the top 1% of all second baseman across colleges and minor leagues.

I know the idea is disquieting – perhaps only 1% of teachers actually are ineffective.

Prospective teachers must be accepted by a college and meet standards set by the Council on Accreditation of Teacher Preparation (CAEP), teachers must pass a number of nationally recognized pre-service exams, pass interviews by principals/hiring committees, teach a demonstration lesson and serve a probationary period as an at-will employee.  It should not be surprising that very few teachers who survive the rigorous pre-screening end up as “below Proficient.”

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman coined the term zombie idea: a zombie idea is “a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both.”

The disruptor “bad teacher” solution to increasing student achievement is an example of a zombie idea – in spite of reams of evidence the idea refuses to die.

What is so depressing is when compared to teacher attrition the “bad” teacher argument pales – in the lowest achieving, highest poverty schools about half of all teachers leave within five years, and, we have a pretty good idea of why they leave: the way they’re treated.

Susan Moore Johnson, at the Next Generation of Teachers Project at Harvard examines the issue of teacher attrition in the highest poverty schools in detail.  Yes, teachers commonly leave to wealthier, whiter schools; however, they are not fleeing the students, they are fleeing the working conditions.

If we know how to make significant differences (“Improve working conditions in the poorest school”), if we’ve identified the core problem (“Teacher morale and treatment”), why don’t we address the solution?

Those zombies are tough to kill off.

3 responses to “Killing the Zombies: Why the “Bad Teacher” Canard Refuses to Die

  1. Clay Christensen is another of those who think you can use a screwdriver as a universal tool. He believes in disruption as a vehicle to create change. Let’s leave aside the question about whether or not we should disrupt one of the few American institutions/traditions that has probably been a prime driver of the ‘melting pot’ which allows many different people to become one.

    Who says that we should ‘disrupt’ this fragile institution? What evidence do they have? What small controlled experiment do they advance as a sign of success? The fact that business runs this way is precisely why society should NOT PROCEED to do this in education. Businesses fail all the time. Do they want that for kids in experimental schools? Are they going to roll back the kids ages and remanufacture them as if they were widgets? Didn’t they read Humpty Dumpty as children?

    I taught in two schools at polar ends of the educational spectrum, and experienced scores more in another role for the last 20 years of my career. Want to know why people leave a worksite, or transfer to a better place? Having your pocketbook stolen, car damaged, difficult transportation, lack of supplies or support or training, are a brief (very brief) list.

    Disruptors believe that there is an ample supply of new staff. WHY? I don’t know, but I know that in NYC the schools opened short a couple thousand teachers most years except during the recent recession.

    Want to create the ample supply? First, DOUBLE THE STARTING SALARY! Second, reduce the time to maximum salary to eight years instead of 20+. and provide adequate resources and interventions for new staff. Third, recognize that each student is unique, and evaluate and support each one as the needs dictate. Fourth, provide working conditions at least as good as professionals have in other professional work.

    What the disruptors have done is to sharply reduce the number of entering teachers. With a recovering economy, the number of entering staff has plummeted. Families with generations of teachers have told their young to work elsewhere. The disruptors have almost succeeded in ruining schooling. It may already be too late to rescue.

    It is clear that THEY LIE ! They send their own offspring to a school that practices NONE of what they preach. In that regard, they are elitist, possibly racist, and guilty of pushing an untested experiment on OUR COUNTRY’S kids.


  2. You really do great work. I never miss a post. Thank you. — Charles

    On Thu, Jun 2, 2016 at 8:45 AM, Ed In The Apple wrote:

    > mets2006 posted: “Who is Clay Christensen and what is disruptive > innovation in education? Christensen is a professor in the Harvard Business > School and the intellectual force behind the current education reform > movement. The professor proffers that education has been basi” >


  3. Marc Korashan

    Disruption as a way to achieve desired change is an interesting idea. There is a built in, natural resistance to change in institutions and schools are no different than businesses in that regard. “we have always done it this way and it’s working well enough,” is a common refrain that reformers face when proposing change.

    The problem is not whether to disrupt existing structures, but what structures should be disrupted. The educational reform movement that Christensen and his allies in the Charter School movement and the administration is simply advocating for disrupting the wrong structures.

    The problem is not how many teachers are rated ineffective. Teaching is such demanding work that it tends to weed out the lowest performers, those unwilling to make the effort, very quickly. The real problem is the reliance on a particular testing methodology that doesn’t measure whether students are becoming proficient at anything other than taking tests. Test scores don’t tell us whether students are becoming motivated to read to learn, to want to study a subject in more depth, to value learning, nor even whether they are developing the mathematical and writing skills they will need to be successful in college and in the workplace.
    In our current economy, the ability to learn new skills so one can react to changing work conditions is more important than mastering any single skill.

    The new economy requires new skills and the blue collar workers displaced by the movement of manufacturing jobs overseas or the end of coal mining, need to be retrained to re-enter a new job market at a level above simple, low-paid service work. Students coming out of high schools today have to be prepared to make change jobs and see themselves as lifelong learners.

    Even more significant is that although the disruptors complain that the current system “treat all teachers as interchangeable parts,” their willingness to fire teachers and replace them with new, untried teachers is even worse. When Michelle Rhee complained in an interview that she needed to get rid of the poor teachers in DC the interviewer didn’t ask her where she would find all the great teachers she would need to replace them. There is in the reform movement’s underlying ideology a belief that teachers are fungible; that if you give them a recipe such as techniques from Teach Like a Champion, or a “teacher-proofed,” standardized curriculum then any reasonably intelligent person can and will teach effectively.

    This runs counter to the experience of the best teachers; those who made a commitment to the profession because they wanted to work with students, enjoy getting students excited about learning, and want each individual student to succeed. It takes time and commitment to the craft to develop that kind of skill.

    What is needed is to disrupt the reliance on standardized testing and to walk away from the notion that the only way to assess students is to develop tests in isolation from the work that teachers do in classrooms. I wrote in a guest blog here ( about the need to start to use growth portfolios as the way to assess both teachers and students.

    Developing a system like this will make standards more meaningful, engage and empower teachers to develop new ways to get students engaged, and will standardize outcomes, not curricula. Students can be allowed more latitude in choosing what they read or write about, and mathematics instruction can be more closely linked to solving real world problems and less about understanding abstract concepts.

    Moving in this direction requires changing schools to make them more about forming professional, collaborative communities where teachers talk to each other about what is working and meet to evaluate artifacts that demonstrate student progress and discuss what is working with their particular populations. It will, if done correctly and supported, permanently disrupt the idea that teachers close their doors and work alone. It puts students and teachers at the center of a reform process that is bottom up; not driven as the current reform effort is by politicians from the top down.

    We all know from watching movies and TV that you kill zombies by cutting off their heads. Bottom up reform is the best, and maybe the only, way to do this.


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