Thursday, September 15, 2011
Best and Brightest
My colleague and I write a lot about education reform here on the TU. It may seem like we oppose much of the current reform. We do. Not because we are obstructionists. In fact it is obvious that our nation's education system needs continual improvement and we welcome positive changes. Less obvious is which if any of these reforms have merit. The one size fits all systemic changes that are being pushed by major players will do little to affect positive change in the average classroom. They may in fact do the opposite. What is certain is that the focus of many of the ideas and measures is the quality of the teacher. Many profess that an influx of the nations “Best and Brightest” to the teaching profession will do much to fix all that is wrong.
Of course there are bad teachers out there and a growing number of initiatives seem focused on identifying and then purging them from the profession. I have no problem when bad teachers leave. I have a problem when good teachers leave. That is happening with greater frequency. I also have a problem with how these efforts to root out bad teachers affect what I do in the classroom. Some cite the lack of teacher dismissals as evidence that bad teachers are protected by tenure and that it seems anyone can keep a teaching job. But they forget that many self select and quit. They also underestimate the complexity of judging quality teaching. It is true anyone CAN teach under ideal conditions. But there is much facing schools and done by today’s students in those classrooms to prevent such ideal conditions from materializing. When people realize how hard it can be many there including these Best and Brightest will say in effect “I’m out”, and head for the door. Knocking many of us regular teachers over as they rush past. But people teaching for the right reasons stick it out. That should matter. They find ways to improve or ask for help. They do a lot more for kids than what happens between the bells. To me it is far more important WHO a teacher is as opposed to WHAT they are.
As the focus shifts to those actually doing the instruction efforts are made to ensure all students have access to quality teachers. How could anyone oppose such a thing? But these efforts to identify bad teachers and standardize curriculum hurt me in a variety of ways. Couple that with the promotion of common techniques from the edgurus or edupreneurs of the day and you’ve got a tangle of adverse affects. These hurt quality teachers. Those that have control over what I do see teaching as a science. Where a variable can be altered and it will reproduce a desired outcome. Those who teach know it is an art. This disjoint lies at the heart of many issues and is in part a reason why we created this Teaching Underground. Those who have survived the first few purgatory like years that weed out people in teaching for the wrong reasons or those who do not possess the necessary skills know there are no shortcuts and there are no easy years.
Those promoting B and B talk miss many key points. Chief among them is the fact you can have all the degrees in the world and still suck. Drop a Harvard law grad or Wall Street CEO in some of the classes I’ve taught and the kids will sniff them out and eat them for breakfast. Educational success is not a guarantee of success in life. Especially not the life of a teacher. I’m proof of the opposite since I am still working despite my unimpressive academic record. A review of this might lead one to conclude I am unfit for every job. But there is no substitute for experience. I learned much from mine. Lessons I will not soon forget. Lessons that I use daily. One of those is that even smart people can be dumb and lazy. Nothing against smart folks joining up, just cautioning that they do so for the right reasons. That they understand there is no playbook or model for what happens every day. They better be child-centered and not self-centered or they won’t make it. Three years does not an expert make. And to think they’ll remedy everything might be short sighted.
So take for example Mr. Mortimer Zuckerman. A bright fella who says in part “America has to rethink how to attract, employ, retain, and reward outstanding teaching talent.” What Mr. Zuckerman forgets while he pounds away in one of his 4 houses or his 100+ ft yacht, is that teaching at Harvard and Yale and publishing magazines differs a great deal from teaching in a public school. Teaching is a human endeavor. What people say does in fact matter. Calling for more Best and Brightest hurts. A Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind continue to have unintended consequences. Throughout, one constant is that we are not all motivated to work harder and longer solely by money.
What else he does in the article does is tougher to discern. I’m surprised I even picked up on it given I am just a teacher. He starts with pointing out the “Educational Crisis”…then moves on to criticize tenure and I think the overall nature of our educational workforce lowering the crosshairs directly on teachers. (Allow me to return fire) Catch phrases like digital learning and concepts like having kids learn by watching DVDs of top teachers reveal that the view from the top is not what I see everyday. Will it work? Maybe with a small percentage of our kids who are self motivated. “In fact, the new methods could reduce the longer-term need for mass teaching manpower” Really? Over-reliance on technology is dangerous. It shouldn't replace teachers, it should empower them. As good as it sounds having a kid in California watch a teacher from North Carolina using technology ain’t exactly gonna work for a lot of kids, and it doesn’t work for teachers either. You can’t simply watch a good teacher and then repeat what they do. Authentic assessment is what many of us do every day. Intentional or not Zuckerman’s ideas further erode understanding of what good teaching really is and how valuable those people are. It is not teaching to the test, it is teaching the kid. There's no rubric for good teaching.
This simplistic approach to educational issues reveals the divide between those that teach and those that “know” about teaching. Among the most asinine of ideas are many coming from “reputable” educational researchers who hide behind mountains of data. Too many of whom inexcusably fail to even talk to teachers in any of what they do. The Best and Brightest should follow the same path to the profession as the rest of us, not get short tracked. I frown upon alternative licensure not because I am threatened by it but because it makes a mockery of the requirements and processes in place as part of preparation to become a teacher. Not the least of which is the professional semester or student teaching. Forgo it and you have no idea what the job is really like. Kinda like many writing on education reform.
Those who seek to break down some of these regulations and “judge” teachers objectively put all of us who care about quality teaching in peril. Would we do the same for doctors and pilots? They often blend anti-union and anti-tenure ideas and propose annual contracts. Remember the origins of tenure. Without tenure I might be less likely to take risks, take on a student teacher, share ideas, be innovative or take on some of our more challenged kids. You cannot on one hand stress the importance and impact a great teachers then totally discount everything they say. We do not choose our “clients” and we are subject to a slow erosion of our autonomy within our workplace But still many teachers endure.
Best and Brightest talk does much to demean those of us who labor every day to help kids learn. I know many great teachers whose SAT scores eliminated them from the most prestigious learning institutions. But they know their craft well and in front of kids they transform into the most brilliant professional you’ll ever see. These three simple words subtlety imply we who are teaching are not smart Sure I was just happy to get into college and I work with some of the folks who taught me when I was in High School. I can only imagine what they think of me and purposefully avoid asking what I was like in High School. But I do ask them how I can do better on occasion. I am not the best at much of anything and I am smart enough to know I am far from bright. Still I know a good teacher when I see one.
I’ll even admit I might be counted among the bad teachers by some measures. Some of what I say here may sound a bit "holier than thou" but it is only meant to awaken the common sense among us. I don't give much advise on investing or campaign strategy. But I’d advise people who don’t face 14 year olds each day listen none the less. Let’s not get hypnotized by the sheepskin shingle on someone’s wall and instead measure WHO people are as much as WHAT they are. Listen to the professionals in the job when they say things are bad ideas. Absolutely look for the best teachers we can but do not exclude those who can excel at the job because they didn't end up at an Ivy League. Let’s remember that these efforts here to identify and remove those who are not good teachers do much to impede and frustrate good teachers. As a result I have seen too many join those exiting on their way out the door. In part since they can no longer excel and enjoy the profession and teach the kids the as they once did. Ultimately this Best and Brightest approach might leave us worse off than we were are now. Making the job of those of us who are crazy enough to endure for the right reasons harder. Whatever the case it doesn’t help us teach the kids we’ve got much.