Bad Teachers Cause Student Failure? Great Doctors Have Patients Who Die.

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In discussions of the reasons for using value-added data to assess teacher effectiveness the following argument for firing teachers comes up a lot: “If a heart surgeon fails at his job, she/he will no longer retain that job.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Who in his right mind would want an incompetent heart surgeon? Probably the same people who would want an incompetent teacher.

But there is a serious problem with this argument: even the best heart surgeons have patients who die.

The best heart surgeons have patients who die for most of the same reasons that patients of less stellar heart surgeons die; and, oddly enough, they are many of the same reasons that students fail, even some students who are taught by really, really good teachers.

It is really very simple and can be explained in three words: uncontrollable external factors.

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Heart surgeons have patients who don’t follow aftercare instructions,who smoke, eat fatty foods, eschew exercise, drink excessively and otherwise engage in other activities that render the heart surgeon’s skills moot.

They also have patients who come from high poverty areas where getting good nutrition is more difficult and high-calorie foods are more common. And they have patients with genetic proclivities that make maintaining good heart health particularly challenging.

Many of those patients die. It is not the heart surgeon’s fault.

Even the best heart surgeons will tell you that they are not miracle workers and can’t make you healthy if you don’t do what you have to do.

Patients have to take responsibility for their own health; if they don’t, no heart surgeon can save them, no matter how well-trained or how highly skilled.

Teachers deal with uncontrollable external factors, too.

The uncontrollable external factors affecting teacher effectiveness include poverty, inadequate early childhood development, and brain-based aberrations that make learning particularly difficult.

Teachers have students who don’t take responsibility for their learning the same way some heart patients fail to assume responsibility for their health. We have students who don’t pay attention to instructions, fail to exercise their minds, watch high-fat television programs and otherwise engage in activities that render our teaching moot.

Many of those students fail. It is not the teacher’s fault.

Of course, heart surgeons have one big advantage over teachers.

Image by lschmitt77 via Flickr

They can replace defective or damaged parts. New valves? Not a problem. Reroute blood around a clogged artery? We do it every day! Need a new heart? Done!

I wish surgeons could do the same with brains.

But even then, it would be up to the individual to use it.

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12 Responses to Bad Teachers Cause Student Failure? Great Doctors Have Patients Who Die.

  1. Heart surgeons along with replacing parts have the luxury of dealing with one heart at a time. Imagine that world in teaching?!

  2. theteachingwhore says:

    Thanks to you, I have a new phrase–uncontrollable external factors–to explain my predicament. As a high school teacher in a lower-income area, two of my UEFs are students who go straight from school to work at the local fast food restaurant until midnight or even later on most school nights and parents in prison or rehab or MIA. I never give up on a student, yet I also know I simply cannot educate children exhausted from frying burgers and lacking any redeeming parental input. On a related note, I have a significant number of teen students who are kicked out of their parents’ house and left to fend on their own. So….I’m really going to be able to reach those kids??

  3. Hi Deven,

    Nice post, as usual. I’m curious if you think the more apt metaphor is the hospital or clinic. I think it’s fair to say that if an infection rate at a hospital is high, the first level of responsibility is the hospital administration. That’s pretty much how I see it in a school.

    But there is a second level of responsibility. Those – usually very few – doctors who are not doing their jobs well enough.

    So much of the conversation about “teacher quality” neglects the fact that there is a real problem, but it’s only usually a very small number of teachers on any particular staff.

    I remember reading one of your posts saying something like it’s common knowledge among the staff who are those very few teachers who are not suited for the job.
    That’s consistent with my experience.

    If the teaching profession focused on timely interventions focused precisely at those teachers, if they exist in a particular school, I think we could get to a much more useful Public Discourse about “education reform.”

    No doubt to me most “reformers” paint with a very broad brush. Creates just the kind of demonization we all know is prevalent. But perhaps the best response is for teachers organizations to admit the real problem so that it could be solved faster, rather than slower.

    • David Reber says:

      While it is important to deal with the small percentage of teachers who aren’t up to snuff, it never ceases to amaze me how the burden of doing so is laid at the feet of teachers and their unions.

      Plain and simple: hiring/firing of teachers is the job of school administrators and elected school boards. If this job isn’t being done effectively, it is NOT the fault of teachers or unions.

      Don’t buy the ed-deformers’ line about unions protecting bad teachers – they don’t. Unions protect contracts. Show me ONE contract in this nation that does not allow effective administrators to remove incompetent teachers. ONE. I’m waiting…

      • theteachingwhore says:

        David–I totally agree. I have taught for 23 years and never seen a union in my district or anywhere in my knowledge support a crappy teacher. Admin is just too lazy to do anything about bad teachers. They would rather issue directives to ALL instead of addressing the few who are bad teachers. Good teachers know they have to respond personally to failing/bored/problematic students and not punish the whole class for the behavior/attitude of a few. Why doesn’t admin do the same?

      • We agree. What I see is that if Unions don’t take the lead it leaves a vacuum that under the new budget and political pressures being faced by all parts of education system – most especially in poor Urban communities.

        You say and I agree that no Union “will allow effective administrators to remove incompetent teachers.”

        What I can’t quite understand is the lack of the Unions focus on ineffective principals as the place for the most efficient interventions.

        From what I can tell of the “make over plans for Urban Schools” is step one is replace the Principal. I would think that Unions would naturally support it.

  4. Stevie Ray Charles says:

    I know going for two comments in a day is record for me, but as I said, I like this place and the conversations and ideas it produces. So….
    As a parent I’d like to say that I think Parents are the problem for the Teachers, weather good or bad, Teachers are a secondary stimulus, positive or negative. Parents ARE the number one “uncontrollable external factors” that you are speaking of above. Most Parents really, really leave a lot to be desired. I tell people about how I’ve raised my son and they say to me, “You know you can have a life too.” I find this to be the most selfish, ridiculous, incredulous and downright stupid thing that a parent can say. My answer is “Yeah, I have a life, and with it I decided to have a child.” Acting like it’s not a helluva lot harder to be a good parent than say a good Doctor, Teacher, Chef, Stockbroker, Lawyer, is the height of hypocrisy, and is what should be the center of this discussion, not Teachers.

    I will admit that for the first 7 years of my sons life I studied and adhered to what is called “Healthy Attachment Parenting”, which included spending all my time with my Boy from birth to age 7, with an accent on spending the maximum time possible with him ’til he was three. I left career dollars on the table big time to do this, and only took work that allowed me to bring him with me to work when I needed to, There were no Baby-sitters in the first three years, and only two occasions to have him babysat between ages 3 to 7. Make no mistake, I worked, I played music with friends and generally didn’t alter much except for the time I gave my Child. What I find is most Parents are too selfish, and self centered and lack the basic creative discipline to take care of one child much less a couple or three. Lastly, as an engaged Parent, I will say I run up against a lot of Mom’s that really have no clue what they are doing, and think of their children as little vanity symbols, while most Dad’s are totally unhinged about even thinking about taking care of one of their children day to day, and as a result are by and large absent, leaving one overwhelmed and under- prepared mom to do all the dirty work, which really they don’t want to do, and are happy to tell you that. Kids do better with good parents, and there aren’t too many of them out there.

    Just so this board knows, People tell me all the time what a great Dad I am, I tell them, “The Jury is still out.” Humility would really help these folks, and not for anything it would help a lot of Teachers too.
    Best advice I got when I knew I was becoming a Dad was from my family doctor, he said it’s pretty simple, “Be Around” I find many families struggle to do this much for their kids, sad. But I’m here to tell you at the end of the day my awesome educator online friends, it ain’t your fault. It’s the Parents. They are scary, lazy, egoistic, and it’s not ABOUT their kids, especially when they say “it’s all about my kids”….Like athletes who say “it’s not about the money.” It’s a drop dead give away. Y’know?

  5. Stephanie says:

    I must disagree with most of your comments. This is a faulty comparison. Unlike surgeons, who see their patients once or twice a year, we see our “patients” for the majority of the day, every day. Teachers absolutely make the difference and the sooner we embrace that reality, the sooner we can climb out of the mess we are in. There are plenty of examples of places that are beating the odds without parental support…

    Stephanie–20 year educator

  6. Another incredibly great story shared by Education on a Plate. I sure do enjoy reading your articles.


  7. […] Yes, heart surgeons get fired if they’re bad, but not if a few patients die — that’s expected. (Deven Black) […]

  8. […] Yes, heart surgeons get fired if they’re bad, but not if a few patients die — that’s expected. (Deven Black) […]

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