One of the great mysteries yet unsolved: having all teachers become truly effective.


We know who are the most effective teachers in our schools and who are not. Yet, we rarely consider ourselves as one of the weaker teachers. A principal confirmed this point when she told me that after interviewing all of her teachers, she learned that the weaker ones were always somebody else, and never the teacher being interviewed. And parents know which teachers they want for their children, but often have to count on the luck of the draw.

The crabs-in-the-cage mentality, however, ensures we are treated the same. To begin to change this, we can ask:

  1. How can we break out of this persistence to support mediocrity?
  2. Why don’t we pay closer attention to evidence that confirms the centrality of our role in student achievement?
  3. How can we become open to data analysis of performance levels?
  4. Why do we support simplistic satisfactory/unsatisfactory performance rating systems that assure, absurdly, that over 95% of us are guaranteed a satisfactory rating?

Michael Jones, in the Boston Globe, sums up the absurdity of this system in one sentence: “At 72 of [Boston’s] 135 schools, not a single teacher was given an unsatisfactory evaluation. Fifteen of these are on the state’s list of chronically underperforming schools.” When we remain hunkered down with the crabs-in-the-cage mentality, we not only perpetuate mediocrity and failed practices, but we also deny the opportunity to identify and verify factors that define greatness.

Dr. William Sanders, now a senior research fellow at the University of North Carolina, designed the seminal Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVASS) that provides convincing evidence that teacher effectiveness is the leading factor in student achievement. Sanders claims that teachers are ten to twenty times as significant as the effects of other factors, such as socio-economic status, race, urban versus rural, and heterogeneous versus homogeneous grouping. Whether or not we agree with Sanders’s research model and conclusions, we know some of us are better teachers than others. It behooves us to know the difference and then strive to teach as the best among us do.

Other researchers, notably William Damon, lament the passivity and apathy of today’s students and the discouragement of teachers. At the same time, he, too, recognizes teaching as “the very heart of schooling. Because a child’s learning requires a framework of guiding relationships … the teacher is the single most important resource of any school.”

How can we make all teachers effective?

For more on this crucial issue see Chapter 12 “Abandon the Crabs in the Cage” in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: