The Myth of the Bad Teacher: 2023

If you are paying attention to traditional or social media, you are aware of the following stories being told about US public school teachers in 2023:

  • Elementary teachers are failing to teach reading effectively to US students.
  • That failure is “because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it,” according to Hanford.
  • Elementary, literature/ELA teachers, and history teachers are brainwashing students with CRT.
  • Elementary and literature/ELA teachers are grooming children to be gay or transgender by forcing them to read diverse books and stories.

Except for teachers themselves and some education scholars, these new bad teacher myths are both extremely compelling and almost entirely false. Writing in 2010 during a peak bad teacher movement in the US, Adam Bessie explains about the bad teacher stories represented by Michelle Rhee and perpetuated by the Obama administration and Bill Gates:

The myth is now the truth.

The Bad Teacher myth, [Bill] Ayers admits, is appealing, which is why it’s spread so far and become so commonly accepted. Who can, after all, disagree that we “need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom?” Even Ayers agrees that he, like all of us, “nods stupidly” along with this notion. As a professor at a community college and former high school teacher, I nod stupidly as well: I don’t want my students held back, alienated, or abused by these Bad Teachers.

This myth is also seductive in its simplicity. It’s much easier to have a concrete villain to blame for problems school systems face. The fix seems easy, as well: all we need to do is fire the Bad Teachers, as controversial Washington, DC, school chancellor superstar Michelle Rhee has, and hire good ones, and students will learn. In this light, Gates’ effort to “fix” the bug-riddled public school operating system by focusing on teacher development makes perfect sense. The logic feels hard to argue with: who would argue against making teachers better? And if, as a teacher, you do dare to, you must be “anti-student,” a Bad Teacher who is resistant to “reforms,” who is resistant to improvements and, thus, must be out for himself, rather than the students.

The Myth of the Bad Teacher

Bessie concludes, “The only problem with the Bad Teacher myth, as anyone involved with education is intimately aware of, is that problems in education are anything but simple,” and ultimately, in 2023, these myths are not supported by the evidence.

For example, as the authors of a report out of UCLA assert about anti-CRT attacks on teachers:

We put “CRT” in quotation marks throughout this report because so often the conflict campaign’s definition of “CRT” (like its description of actual K–12 practice) is a caricatured distortion by loud opponents as self-appointed “experts.” The conflict campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school.

The Conflict Campaign

The bad teacher myth in 2023 “thrives on caricature” and anecdotes that, as noted above, as very compelling but ultimately not only lack credible evidence [1] and logic, but also cause far more harm than good in terms of reforming education, serving student needs, or recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

The bad teacher myth in 2023 is targeting educators who are 70-90% women, and those teachers under the most intense attacks tend to be elementary teachers who are even more disproportionately women and the lowest paid educators [2]:

Further, there is little evidence that students today are uniquely underperforming in reading achievement, yet the bad reading teacher myth is perpetuated by misrepresenting reading achievement through misleading messages around NAEP reading data (see Hanford’s chart that ironically suggests gradual improvement, not a crisis).

Two problems with the bad reading teacher myth is that NAEP reading proficiency is not grade level reading, as Loveless examines:

NAEP does not report the percentage of students performing at grade level.  NAEP reports the percentage of students reaching a “proficient” level of performance.  Here’s the problem. That’s not grade level. 

In this post, I hope to convince readers of two things:

1.  Proficient on NAEP does not mean grade level performance.  It’s significantly above that.
2.  Using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.

The NAEP proficiency myth

And the low levels of reading proficiency are historical, not a recent set of data that constitutes a reading crisis:

If we want to rely on NAEP reading scores, however flawed that metric, the historical patterns suggest a relatively flat state of reading achievement with some trends of improvement in the 1970s (which was followed by the manufactured myth of schools failing with A Nation at Risk [1983]) and steadily from about 1990 until 2012 (an era demonized as a failure due to reliance on balanced literacy).

Notably, the “science of reading” movement tends to be connected to legislation starting around 2013 and Hanford’s journalism beginning in 2018, and that NAEP data has remained relatively flat except for the Covid drop.

Again, as Bessie acknowledged over a decade ago, the real problems with education, teaching, and learning are very complex and far larger than pointing fingers at teachers as “villains.”

For most of the history of US education, student reading achievement has been described as “failing,” and vulnerable student populations (minoritized races, impoverished students, students with special needs such as dyslexia, and MLLs) have always been underserved.

The dirty little secret about teacher quality related to student reading proficiency is that those vulnerable students are disproportionately sitting in class with early-career and uncertified teachers who are struggling with high student/teacher ratios.

Are students being underserved? Yes, but this is a historical fact of US public education not a current crisis.

Are low student achievement and reading proficiency the result of bad teachers? No, but these outcomes are definitely correlated with bad teaching/learning conditions and bad living conditions for far too many students.

In 2023, just as in 2010, the myth of the bad teacher is a lie, a political and marketing lie that will never serve the needs of students, teachers, or society.

Way back in 1984 when I entered the classroom, I was excited to begin my career but quickly discovered that despite my respect and even love for my English professors and teacher educators in my undergraduate degree, I simply was not prepared well enough to do my job, notably as a teacher of writing.

I set out to learn by teaching, and do better. During the late 1980s, I was fortunate to learn further through the Spartanburg Writing Project (Nation Writing Project), where I discovered that much of my on-the-job training was misguided (thanks, Brenda Davenport).

Anyone who teaches knows that becoming an effective teacher is a journey and that those first 3, 5, or even 10 years are challenging and include a great deal of growth that cannot be accomplished in teacher certification programs.

None the less, everything surrounding teaching, and especially the teaching of reading, can and should be better.

That was true in 1940 and every decade since then.

Teacher and school bashing, shouting “crisis”—these have been our responses over and over; these are not how we create a powerful teacher workforce, and these will never serve the needs of our students who need great teachers and public education the most.

The myth of the bad teacher is a Great American Tradition that need to end.


[1] Valcarcel, C., Holmes, J., Berliner, D. C., & Koerner, M. (2021). The value of student feedback in open forums: A natural analysis of descriptions of poorly rated teachers. Education Policy Analysis Archives29(January – July), 79. https://doi.org/10.14507/epaa.29.6289

[2] See Our study found new teachers perform just as well in the classroom as their more experienced colleagues

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