Teachers Can’t Be Trusted to Regulate Themselves

Another month, another Valerie Strauss article covering the resignation letter of a teacher in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog. Last month she covered what she called a “powerful letter” from a teacher in Louisiana. It read more like a temper tantrum. This month, Strauss has focused on the resignation of a teacher who actually appears to have taken a writing class at some point in the course of his own education. The result is easier to read, but makes many of the same tactical and logical errors that the post before it did.

The two letters are not unique. Their arguments are not new. Facebook, twitter, and blogs are filled to the brim with teachers complaining about the “broken” education system in this country while simultaneously decrying anyone who tries to reform it. Teachers, collectively, have taken an untenable position and the only way forward for them, as a profession, is to jettison the weak and under-performing of their group.

If they won’t do it themselves, we as a society are left with no choice but to do it for them.

In every career, profession, and job, employee quality varies from person to person. There are good lawyers and bad doctors. There are honest mechanics and shady preachers. The same is true of teaching. Not every teacher is amazing. Nor are they all talentless hacks. Yet, the national debate on education rarely deals with this nuance. Each teacher is painted with the same brush. This is no accident; it is the best possible state of affairs for the education lobby. It allows them to claim the moral high-ground at the first suggestion that there may be teachers who shouldn’t be teaching. You’ve heard it all: teaching is hard1, teachers are under-appreciated, they’re under-paid, they don’t get the respect they deserve, and so on.

Unfortunately for talented teachers, we are being forced to judge them by their weakest members because:

  1. Our students are not receiving the education we believe they should.
  2. Some of this can and must be attributed to a subset of teachers.
  3. If we cannot address that subset specifically, we have to speak about all teachers, generally.

Governments, when they are behaving rationally, will decline to regulate a profession or industry that can fairly govern itself. As it stands, there is no evidence that teachers, as a whole, are capable of this. What other professions fight so tenaciously to avoid accountability for the result of their work? What other professions see it as an insult that they can be fired for something other than a felony?

Talented teachers are responsible for this state of affairs. Instead of trying to rid their profession of poor or unqualified teachers, they circle the wagons. Teachers write letters like the ones linked above. They berate reform and dismiss reformers. They fight change at every turn. But something has to give. Something has to change. If teachers — the good ones — cannot be trusted to police their own ranks, then external entities will have to do the policing. That means government regulation. It means reforms directed at the profession as a whole. It means objective measures and tests. It means attempts at one-size-fits-all policies that are bound to be too tight here and too baggy there.

The situation is even worse than it seems, though. There is no reason for a talented, professional teacher to want the tenure system to exist2. Those that need tenure are exactly the ones who should absolutely not have it. Lack of accountability for the results doesn’t help the good teachers, they are already performing well. And yet, when there is a charge for more accountability or more flexibility in hiring good teachers and firing bad ones, are teachers themselves leading the charge? Not usually.

So teachers, both good and bad, will continue to moan and complain about how hard their jobs are, as though “hard” wasn’t the default state for any job worth paying someone a full-time salary and benefits to do. Teachers, both good and bad, will continue to lament how little they get paid, as though keep the ranks of teachers as large as possible were going to somehow increase their value. Teachers, both good and bad, will continue to oppose any measurement of their own progress, as if we will eventually let teachers just decide for themselves how good they are at their jobs.

And while the good teachers are standing up for the bad ones, the rest of us will have to view the entire profession with an adult dose of skepticism.


  1. It is amazing to me that it is not simply accepted as a given that there must be underperforming teachers if teaching is, in fact, difficult 

  2. This is not necessarily true for researchers who also teach, for a host of reasons beyond the scope of this post