There aren’t — and never will be — enough “Great Teachers” to go around


by David Safier

My headline, "There aren't enough 'Great Teachers' to go around," may sound like garden variety teacher bashing, but actually it's just the opposite. The meme, "We just need more Great Teachers," is one of the many ways of blaming our current crop of "bad" — read, union — teachers for our schools' problems. Just get rid of all those lazy teachers feeding off the government trough, the argument goes, replace them with "Great Teachers," and our children's achievement will soar. We don't need more competent teachers or more very good teachers, mind you. Only "Great Teachers" need apply.

Most of us have had only a few teachers we would categorize as Great. We've had lots of teachers we would categorize as very good, good, mediocre and bad. But Great? That's a rare designation we reserve for the miracle workers, those truly exceptional individuals who cause you to quicken your pace as you walk toward their classrooms and make you sit up and take notice of everything that's going on in class, to put in the extra time and effort, because you can't help yourself. Studies indicate teachers like that can actually make students' learning soar. It would be wonderful if we had schools filled with Great Teachers, but is that realistic?

The numbers make it unlikely we'll ever get a country filled to the brim with Great Teachers. Right now, we have about 55 million school children in grades K-12 in the U.S. To educate them, we've hired over 3 million teachers.

Three million teachers. Is it reasonable to expect that many professionals in any field to be Great? Well, one out of three ain't bad. A million Great Teachers would probably do the trick, but that's still asking a hell of a lot. Do we have a million Great anythings in this country?

We have lots of good doctors. But Great Doctors? Would anyone say we have even 10,000 doctors in the country who are so exceptional, they can detect that invisible something in our symptoms and test results, then give us laser-precision care? How about Great Lawyers? How many lawyers have such transcendent legal minds and skills, they can give their clients spectacular legal representation?

Matthew Ladner, who used to be the Goldwater Institute's education guy and now works with Jeb Bush's conservative Foundation for Excellence in Education, likes to refer to Great Teachers as rock stars. Ladner's solution to our educational woes is to find rock star teachers, pay them six figure salaries and give them, oh, say, 40 kids in a class, because, see, rock stars can handle big crowds no problem.

It's an interesting metaphor. How many true rock stars are there in the country, musicians selling millions of songs and packing huge arenas? Even if we include country, hip hop and all the other pop music genres, what do we get? A few hundred? Lower the bar a bit and add the warm up acts that play before the rock star makes it to the arena stage, and maybe we'll hit a thousand. If you do the same math with Great Athletes and include every athlete on a team in the "majors" of their sport — we know not every NBA basketball player, for instance, is Great, but let's include all of them anyway — what will we have? A few thousand Great Athletes?

And yet, people think it's reasonable to expect a million or more Great Teachers to educate our children. Unlike doctors, lawyers, rock stars and professional athletes, teachers are underpaid — under-respected too — but somehow, some people believe the absolute crème de la crème of every college and university will knock on schools' doors begging to teach in overcrowded, underfunded classrooms, and these very smart, very capable, idealistic young people will automatically turn into Great Teachers and spend the next 30 years in the education field. It's absurd, and it's demeaning to the dedicated teachers who are giving their all to their students every day, to blame them for not meeting a nearly unattainable standard of excellence.

We absolutely should do everything we can to recruit better teachers and hold onto them once they join the profession. Let's raise the bar, do what we can to make the field more attractive to the best of our college grads, the ones who know they can get a good job in any profession they're suited for yet decide teaching is their best option. Some other countries pull their teachers from the top 10% of their graduating classes, while our teachers tend to come from the middle of the pack. We should do better than that.

But let's not pretend that raising the quality of our teachers a few notches will create miraculous transformations in our students' achievement. Miracles do happen in classrooms, but just like Great Teachers, they're not, and never will be, the norm.


  1. I agree totally. I saved the point about raising the bar for my next-to-last paragraph and probably should have spotlighted it earlier, but hey, that’s blog biz.

    I purposely left out solutions — how to get more high quality teachers and keep them. Salary is important, but teachers are a very un-mercenary bunch. Like that couple you met, give them enough for reasonable comfort, and that will suffice. But there are intangibles, like respect (ironically, the people who are pushing the Great Teachers meme are chasing people out of the profession by demeaning them), more planning time (most countries give their teachers more), adequate supplies. Things like that can make the difference between the kind of stress that keeps you striving and utter frustration that makes you want to throw up your hands and quit.

  2. Interesting post, David. I agree with your points, but I think what really counts is how good our average teachers are. And, on that front, it’s just math. If we pay teachers better, we make teaching more attractive as a profession compared to other alternatives. When I was campaigning, I knocked on the door of a young couple, both former teachers. They loved teaching and I could tell from speaking to them that they were both good at it. But they left the profession within a year of the birth of their first child, because they, you know, wanted to provide for that child and his future siblings. Bottom line: If we didn’t pay our teachers so poorly, those two young teachers likely would have spent a 40 year career teaching, and likely been an inspiration to thousands of kids.

    For whatever reasons, we’ve made a choice in our society that teachers are low value. Lawyers are high value. Doctors are very high value. Baseball players have huge value. And CEOs have astronomical value. But teachers have been deemed low value. Implicilty, that means we don’t value education. We can say we do, but until we start paying teachers appropriately those are hollow words.