Bad Schools Have Good Teachers Too

By Andrew Pillow

When I joined Teach For America 7 years ago the first thing they did was tell me how important I was. “Research shows that the single most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher…” they said. This statement is, of course, true and something I will never forget. However, it is not the whole truth.

It is well established that there are a variety of other factors that contribute to a student’s success. The most of which may be teacher quality, but the rest of which cannot be overlooked. Poverty, home-life, neighborhood, funding, policy, and previous educational experience all play a critical role in the academic achievement of a student.

The idea that teachers are important but the only a piece of the puzzle sounds obvious. However, the “teachers are the most important factor…” refrain makes it sound like the only thing that matters is teacher quality. Unfortunately, to many people, the next logical inference to make from that statement is good schools are good because they have good teachers…. and bad schools are bad because they have bad teachers.

If you think I am overreacting or exaggerating this claim consider the fact that states that award a “teacher quality bonus” typically give most of those awards based on standardized test data. Which is the literal embodiment of the idea that schools get good scores because of good teachers, and bad scores because of bad teachers.

While it is undoubtedly true that good schools are likely to have good teachers, it is not a given that bad schools have bad ones. In fact, there are more than likely good teachers at every school.

I have worked with teachers that came from “bad” schools. Most of them ended up being pretty good teachers. Which makes sense when you think about it. Teaching at a school without the infrastructure, funding, and support of an affluent school likely requires teachers to develop their raw skills.

On the flip side, I have also had the privilege of working with teachers from so-called “great” schools. Most of them were fine also, but what people might find interesting is that some of these teachers were not good. As a matter of fact, some of them were downright bad. I’ve worked with highly decorated teachers, from highly acclaimed schools that literally couldn’t get through a lesson at my school… and my school isn’t even “bad”. This makes sense as well. It’s not hard to see how a teacher teaching in a school with funding, support and well-equipped students and families would struggle to adapt to a school without those things. After all, what inner city teacher hasn’t wondered how good their lessons would be if the kids would just stop talking? Or how good would their plans be if they had access to that awesome curriculum?

This is not to say that teachers in suburban or affluent areas are bad, but inner-city teachers deserve their due too. They shouldn’t be judged as poor teachers simply because they can’t overcome all the obstacles their students face within the four walls of their classroom. Standardized tests scores are not purely a function of teacher quality.