The Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, with its emphasis on teacher quality, reminds me of something my father, a career Air Force pilot, once told me.
It was the early eighties, and the Marine Corps was having no end of problems with the new Harrier “Jump Jet.” There had been a series of devastating crashes, and people were beginning to wonder if there was something inherently wrong with the design. Drawing on twenty-plus years of flying experience, my father advanced a theory that certainly rang true to me.
A production airplane, he explained, has to be designed to a level of mediocrity. Even a mediocre pilot has to be able to fly it safely. This is because no operational squadron can count on placing only exceptional pilots in its cockpits. The Harrier, my father suspected, was just too demanding an aircraft for the average pilot. And the reality is that the majority of pilots are going to be mediocre—just good enough.
The same holds true, it seems to me, when it comes to teachers. To be sure, we need to weed out lazy, unmotivated, and incompetent teachers. But, no matter what we do, we’ll never be able to put an outstanding teacher in charge of every classroom. Like those operational pilots, the great majority of our teachers will be mediocre—just good enough. And, in my view, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I feel this way because I don’t believe that replacing a mediocre teacher with an inspired one will guarantee an improvement in standardized test scores—the main criteria some would use in judging teacher effectiveness. There are just too many variables in the equation, parental support and cultural background ranking high among them.
For example, as I look back over my own public school education, I can’t say that any of my elementary school teachers stand out as having been exceptional or particularly inspiring. But they got the job done, and they were able to do so for two reasons: They were supported by parents who understood the need for discipline, and they taught within a school system that didn’t reward or promote students who failed to perform.
Recently, I heard the noted conservative pundit Michael Medved proclaim that class size was not a significant factor in educational effectiveness. If I understood Medved correctly, he is all for judging teachers on the basis of standardized test scores. It seems to me that if we go that route, if we begin to purge teachers whose students fail to score well on standardized tests, we will need to build new schools—ones with large lecture halls. That’s because each member of that limited, elite corps of truly exceptional teachers will probably need to teach classes of 250 to 500 students. --EFP