The Teachers’ ‘Code of Silence’

By Glenn Sacks

Police officers are well-known for their "code of silence"—their hesitation to divulge information about the misdeeds of other officers. As Los Angeles witnessed during the Rampart scandal, this code is often the greatest enemy of prosecutors and police reformers.

Law enforcement, however, is not the only profession with a damaging "code of silence." Educators have a similar code, and our silence serves to keep failing teachers in the classroom, to the detriment of hundreds or thousands of students per teacher. Studies estimate the number of failing teachers at between 5% and 18%, and most high schools or middle schools have teachers who are failing, or close to it.

High school and middle school teachers know about failing teachers because we often have the same students and, no matter how much we may try to ignore harsh words about our colleagues, the students tell us, or tell each other in our presence. We try to ignore it because we know how hard teaching can be. We try to ignore it because any sign of agreement from us in front of the students serves to undermine the struggling teacher. We try to ignore it because we do not want to seem petty or mean, because we have to deal with our failing colleagues in meetings and on committees, and because it is "none of our business" anyway. Countless times I have debated whether to remain silent as I listened to an earnest but out of touch parent express complete faith in a teacher whom I knew to be damaging his or her child’s education.

Teachers are evaluated primarily through administrative observations, though many times overworked administrators and department chairs fail to conduct them. Even when they are done, all but the worst teacher is usually capable of surviving them if he or she knows about it in advance. The failing teacher tells the students the day before that "we are going to have a visitor tomorrow and anybody who causes problems while the visitor is here is in big trouble" and promises future reward. It usually works.

By carefully scheduling the observation times in advance, the administrator is telling the teacher "I won’t be stopping by your class unannounced to see what’s really going on in there because I don’t want to know. Let’s arrange exactly when I‘ll come in so you can put on the necessary show and then we’re both covered."

Sometimes a failing teacher’s classroom is a daily battleground. In other cases, failing teachers and their students reach an unspoken agreement—the teacher pretends to teach and the students pretend to learn. The students are given a light amount of busy work and the students use the extra time to do work for their other classes, pass notes, or chat in low voices. Everybody is happy—the class is relatively quiet (often an administrator’s judge of a teacher’s competence goes no deeper than the question—"is it quiet in there?"), the failing teacher survives, and the students have less work to do. When it is necessary, the students will put on a show in front of any bothersome visitors.

Failing teachers often compound their problems by refusing to refer out disruptive students. Failing teachers know that most administrators know little about what is really happening in the classroom and that, as long as they do not bring attention to themselves, the teacher will be presumed to be "doing fine." Referrals serve to draw unwanted attention from administrators.

One of the reasons that administrators often would rather not know about failing teachers is that it is frequently difficult to find suitable replacements. This is particularly true of teachers who work in crime-ridden areas where few teachers want to go, or who teach one of the many subjects where there is a shortage of qualified teachers. According to former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, 28 percent of high school math teachers and 55 percent of physics teachers have neither majors nor minors in their subjects. Over a third of all teachers in grades seven through twelve are teaching a subject that they have not studied.

More importantly, because of the union and tenure protections teachers enjoy, it is costly and time-consuming to terminate a teacher, particularly once their probationary period is over. Nationally, it takes between two and three years and costs roughly $60,000 to fire a teacher.

It is unspoken but well understood among teachers that these protections often keep bad teachers in the classroom, yet because of the trying nature of our profession we are hesitant to surrender these safeguards. That is why I am skeptical that a genuine solution to the problem will ever come from us. Failing teachers? We’d rather not talk about it.


This column was reprinted in best-selling author/radio host Larry Elder's book Showdown: Confronting Bias, Lies and the Special Interests That Divide America.em>