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Why Teacher Quality is a Local Issue (And Why Race to the Top is a Misguided Flop)

by Jason Margolis - June 22, 2010

This commentary argues that the Obama administration's Race to The Top is based on false premises, specious Science, and a general disregard for who students and teachers are and how they actually engage in learning in schools. Instead, the author proposes a re-defining of educator quality through an anthropological lens, a re-discovering of the work of Geertz (1983), and an educational pursuit of understanding rather than a mythical "top."


It has been nearly a year since Arne Duncan gave his platitude-laden speech heralding the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, announcing $4.35B in state grants targeting common standards and assessments as well as better statistical measurements of student achievement (Education Department, 2009). Moreover, the speech and subsequent policy decisions have sought to improve teaching by building from his assertion: “To boost the quality of teachers and principals … states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals … and improve or replace ones that aren’t up to the job.” Teacher quality is now a national priority.

Not surprisingly, last July Duncan offered no definition of an “effective” or “quality” educator in his speech. He only provided a counter-example – states that refused to link high stakes test data to teacher and principal evaluations would be banned from the money pool. Since then, there has been similar silence on concrete definitions of “quality” because Duncan knows (but can’t say out loud) a “dirty little secret”: There is no such thing as “Teacher Quality” and there is no mythical “Top” to get to. Teacher quality – and what it means to help students learn – is a uniquely local and temporal issue. A quality teacher is not the same in Los Angeles, California as in Bar Harbor, Maine; is not the same on the west side of Los Angeles as the east side; is not the same in a middle school on 35th St. as an elementary school on 128th St.; is not the same in that middle school’s Rm. 353 as Rm. 355; and is not the same in Rm. 355 on Monday as it was on Friday.

While the Obama administration’s rhetoric has emphasized “stepping out of comfort zones” and “challenging the status quo,” it has ironically (or hypocritically) continued the path of No Child Left Behind – with an emphasis on standardization, quantification, and penalization. And its narrow definition of educator quality as being abstractly measurable and solely linked to student test scores is nothing new.  

What this commentary proposes is a radical shift in national education policy and funding – a true challenging of the status quo: Teachers and principals should be educated and evaluated by their capacity to tie anthropological data collection on local student and school culture to instructional planning and action to enhance student learning.

The Good, the Bad, and the Misdiagnosed

A recent Newsweek theme issue, “The Key to Saving American Education” (March 15, 2010), echoes Duncan’s loud but tone-less siren. It disparages schools of education for “a lot of insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy” and praises a Louisiana law that “can track which ed schools produce the best teachers, forcing long-needed changes in ed-school curricula.”  

Here, as well, the authors never state which theory is relevant, which pedagogy is the least insipid, nor what a quality teacher is – they only provide counter-examples of the “worst” teachers. The closest they come to a definition is in relating teacher quality to standardized tests by asserting, “Measuring teacher performance based in part on the test scores of their pupils would seem like a no-brainer.” As examples of “truly bad teachers,” the authors cite several examples of teachers who have sexually assaulted students.  

But these are not “bad teachers” – they are bad people and citizens. Their lack of “quality” has nothing to do with their teaching, their theories and pedagogies from a school of education, their inability to engage young minds. They are criminals in any field. What would be more challenging – and, of course, is not taken on in this article – is making teacher quality concrete. Sketch out a picture of two teachers seeking to, let’s say, engage a group of 10th graders in Charles Dickens. Teacher A is successful – having “quality” – and Teacher B is “bad” and should be fired. Tell us what Teacher A and B are doing; what theories they are drawing from; how they are relating to students in and out of class; the format of their lesson plans; their own knowledge of the content; their passion for teaching.  

The Newsweek authors – who, like many, think they know more about teaching than they actually do – do not provide these essential specifics even while stating that teacher quality is the most important link in the educational chain. My response is that of course teachers matter, thanks for noticing. And so does the quality of the child’s parenting and nutrition, the school’s resources and morale, the education system’s supports and barriers, the country’s opportunities – and, both literally and figuratively: Whether the child was hit or hugged that morning.

How to respond in learning-centered ways to real kids living real lives in real communities is certainly something that requires quality teachers, but that level of “quality” may or may not show up on test day. Where it will show up is in the daily interactions between students, teachers, and administrators, and in the ways educators respond to what they learn from (and about) their own student population.

Why We Need To Re-Discover Geertz: Now

Before No Child Left Behind and its subsequent mandates dominated the educational landscape, there was a growing interest in looking at education through an anthropological lens. Specifically, Geertz’ Local Knowledge (1983) resonated with many educators who borrowed his ideas on the study of culture and human thought and applied them to the study of local school culture and student learning.

Geertz explains how appreciation for local culture involves neither glorifying one’s view of themselves nor being deaf to the “tonalities of their existence” (p. 57). He explains how science has moved us towards a “radically unific view of human thought” (based in psychology) while simultaneously there has been a progressing equally radically pluralistic view of everything being “culturally based” (p. 148). This has led to a divisive fear of both relativism and particularism, which can be seen in education in so many endless battles over teaching and learning (phonics vs. whole language; scripted lessons vs. constructivism; process-oriented learning vs. product-oriented achievement; standardized tests vs. exhibitions, portfolios, and performance-bases assessments).

What is most important in anthropology, Geertz asserts, is the ability to get inside other people’s minds and figure out things from their perspective. I propose that this perspective has important implications for our current discussion and defining of “quality teaching” – that “good teaching” involves not a “knowing that” but a “knowing when” a particular approach to teaching is appropriate. This, to a large extent, will change based on location, time, circumstance, and basic human variation (the cultural-pluralistic view) while still being based in research and analysis (the scientific-psychological view). Thus, “the ethnography of thinking … is an attempt not to exalt diversity but to take it seriously as itself an object of analytic description and interpretive reflection” (Geertz, p. 154).

I assert, here, that the capacity to engage in an anthropology of thinking and learning – and then instructionally act based on that research – is what determines quality teaching.

Specific Implications across the Education System

Concretely, then, I propose: Teachers need to be anthropological ethnographers of students – particularly student learning – at the individual and group levels. “Quality teachers” interpret student words, actions, and work in sufficiently complex and actionable ways. The “best teachers” account for greater levels of complexity, and make their higher-level interpretations more actionable. They work to understand students through learning-centered conversations that are sometimes focused directly on the immediate content being explored, but other times may be centered around personal, social, or cultural issues that impact individual and group learning over time. They collect this data always, analyze it continuously, and share it with whomever will listen. They should develop their particular talents as teachers, and work wherever these talents are appreciated.

Principals need to be ethnographers of students/student learning as well as teachers/teacher pedagogy. They need to know both their students and teachers at the individual, group, and building levels. “Quality principals” are able to interpret the relationship between students (and their learning) and teachers (and their pedagogy) in light of individual, group, and building dynamics. The “best principals” follow their interpretations with actions that seek to improve student learning and teacher pedagogy in light of their particular school’s culture. They work to understand the impact of school policies on students and teachers through learning-centered conversations. They should model effective communication in interactions with staff, and be given the latitude to dismiss teachers who do not help their particular student population grow and learn.

Colleges of education certainly need to work to make themselves more relevant, but they also have a much more prominent role to play in advancing teaching than is heard in the latest education policy rhetoric. Drawing from their strengths in qualitative research, inquiry-oriented learning, and action research (linking theory to practice), they should provide teacher education students with: a wide range of theories and pedagogies; the tools to ascertain the needs of their local school and classroom population; and the capacity to then draw from their store of teaching knowledge to respond to specific individual and groups of students with appropriate plans, actions, and ongoing inquiry into student learning.


A science education student in one of my pre-service courses noted in a recent class presentation that human DNA is 99.9% similar, but that .1% difference accounts for all the human diversity around us. This diversity includes skin color, eye color, personality, learning style, and a host of other things that make us wonderfully different – though humanly the same.

As Geertz puts it, “The world is a various place … and much is to be gained, scientifically and otherwise, by confronting that grand actuality rather than wishing it away in a haze of forceless generalities and false comforts” (p. 234). Race to the Top is exactly one of those generalities that is quite dangerous to this country’s long-term educational enterprise. It implies that we are in a competition for some holy grail – the top (the one top) – and that we can take comfort that education policies targeting “teacher quality” will get us there. But the concept of “winning the race” with “better teachers” as foot soldiers is based on false premises, specious science, and a general disregard for who students and teachers are and how they actually engage in learning in schools.

In a poignant comment on power relationships, Geertz writes, “In the country of the blind, who are not as unobservant as they look, the one-eyed king is not king, he is spectator” (p. 58). And so it should be in education. Schools are filled with a variety of teachers and students – who know more about teaching and learning than they are given credit for. And principals, superintendents, legislators, secretaries of education—anyone who seeks to support endeavors of learning must be students of, rather than monarchs over, school culture. Only from deeper insights realized through close, analytical, non-judgmental observation of learning will impactful school reform (and quality teachers) prosper.  

To get us there, American schools do not need a race to the top – but a perpetual pursuit of understanding.


Department of Education. (2009). The race to the top begins – remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan. Retrieved May 27, 2010 from: http://www2.ed.gov/print/news/speeches/2009/07/07242009.html

Geertz, C. (1983). Local knowledge. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Thomas, E., & Wingert, P. (2010, March 15). Why we can’t get rid of failing teachers. Newsweek, 24-27.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 22, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16023, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:09:32 PM

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About the Author
  • Jason Margolis
    Washington State University, Vancouver
    E-mail Author
    JASON MARGOLIS, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Washington State University, Vancouver. His research interests include teacher leadership, and the intersection of school reform, school organization, and teacher work re-design. Recent publications include: Teacher leaders in action – motivation, morality, and money (Leadership and Policy in Schools, 2009), When teachers face teachers: Listening to the resource ‘right down the hall’ (Teaching Education, 2008), and What will keep today's teachers teaching? Looking for a hook as a new career cycle emerges (Teachers College Record, 2008).
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