The curious case of Alabama’s Teacher of the Year: Bureaucracy, absurdity, and perverse policy
Ann Marie Corgill is, by all accounts and by almost any definition, a highly qualified teacher. It is regrettable that the modifier “almost” is necessary in that sentence, but its inclusion is instructive. From it, the people of Alabama can learn a lot about what ails their system of education.
More on Ms. Corgill’s story in a moment, but the Associated Press headline provides a précis: “Alabama’s Teacher of the Year Told She’s Unqualified, Resigns.”
Whether the title of “Teacher of the Year” is borne by a worthy titleholder every year in Alabama is unknown, but it certainly is in the case of Ann Marie Corgill, the reigning Alabama Teacher of the Year.
This is a woman who has practiced the art of teaching for over two decades; who has been called upon to teach other teachers about teaching; who has written a book about teaching. She went on to become a finalist—one of only four—for National Teacher of Year, regarded as the teaching profession’s highest honor.
But we know she is a great teacher not through her résumé but through her work. Ellen Anderson, her student: “Ms. Corgill is the best teacher I have ever had. She has taught us more in one year than all my other years combined. She made us feel important, empowered, and loved. . . . She is very special.” Kathy Snyder, her fellow teacher: “Ann Marie Corgill is an exemplary teacher . . . a teacher who represents the essence of our profession.” Betsy Bell, her principal: “Ann Marie believes that we can build a better world one child at a time. She is doing precisely that!”
In short, Ann Marie Corgill’s bona fides are inarguable—or so one would think. But modern bureaucrats do not think. When they were alerted this past week that Ms. Corgill lacked a certain certification, which she never had and never needed, she was deemed not a “highly qualified teacher.”
Ms. Corgill’s attempts to make sense of her Kafkaesque situation proved futile, met as they were by—to borrow her apt description—“a wall of bureaucracy.” At length, she tendered her resignation, writing regretfully: “After 21 years of teaching in grades 1–6, I have no answers as to why this is a problem now, so instead of paying more fees, taking more tests, and proving once again that I am qualified to teach, I am resigning.”
It has been well established, by over forty years of research, that the characteristics commonly found on a teacher’s résumé—such as education, certifications, and experience beyond the first few years in the classroom—have essentially no effect on a teacher’s quality. That is, how much a teacher contributes to the learning of his or her students has nothing to do with whether the teacher has a baccalaureate or doctorate, five years of experience or fifteen; and certifications certify nothing with regard to actual teaching.
Yet it is precisely, perversely, those résumé characteristics that govern Alabama’s approach to its teachers.
In Alabama, a person must minimally have a baccalaureate and a certification to be hired as a public-school teacher, and then is automatically given pay raises for having or acquiring advanced degrees and more experience. All of this is decided without inquiry into the quality of anything: not of the universities the teacher attended (the best equals the worst); not of the degrees awarded to, or the academic performance of, the teacher (majoring in education and graduating with a 2.5 grade point average equals majoring in math and graduating with a 4.0 grade point average); and, most importantly and illogically, not of the person’s ability to actually teach.
We should make it easier—not harder—for people to become teachers, and harder—not easier—for bad teachers to remain teachers.
As it stands, our system deters people who would have been great teachers from entering the profession, including both college students and mid-career professionals, and abuses great teachers already in the profession, including Ms. Corgill.
Worst of all, our system ignores the best interests of our schoolchildren, especially those most vulnerable.
At the beginning of the school year, Ann Marie Corgill had moved from Cherokee Bend Elementary School in the city of Mountain Brook to Oliver Elementary School in the city of Birmingham. She was now using her talents to teach children who are among the most disadvantaged, economically and educationally. Not anymore.
The children who just lost perhaps their last best hope at a good education will not, it seems certain, look back and take solace that a bureaucrat protected them from being taught by an “unqualified” teacher like Ms. Corgill.