Any number of people, and not only parents but people with know how, education writers and researchers, proponents of school reform, all sorts of people, including for a long time (although not any more) myself, are convinced that the single most important variable in the equation to improve the public schools (private schools too, but here the need is much less) is the teacher, ——for the better the teacher(s), the better the school. It may be as simple as that.
This widespread opinion ought not to surprise us. That the excellence, or lack of excellence, of any vocation, profession or other endeavor, be it on theater boards during a ballet performance, in a classroom during a lesson, or elsewhere, stems primarily from the excellence of the principal players, be they dancers, teachers or other well versed practitioners of an art.
Now those who are working to improve the schools must most certainly know and understand this, that the teacher is at, or is, the vital center of the school.
But rather than working together to improve the performance and quality of our teachers, the teachers themselves and their unions, as well as those others, the reformers of the public schools, have instead aligned themselves into opposing camps, devoting much of their time and effort to destroying the battle field positions of their opponents, rather than simply coming together and cooperating in a joint effort to improve our schools, and to do so by improving the quality of the teaching.
Those on the one side, the teachers and most especially their union representatives, are all about supporting and protecting their own jobs, in particular with constant lobbying efforts to improve the conditions, circumstances, and atmosphere of the schools, and along with this raising teacher salaries and job benefits.
Those on the other side, the reformers, would have the latter, teacher salaries and job benefits, depend on student performance, and in particular on student test results. For according to the reformers student learning, at least as measured by written tests, not the teacher’s welfare important as that is, should be what school is most about.
And in fact these reformers would hold teachers no less accountable for their students’ success, or failure, than professional ball players, surgeons, cabinet makers, and others, are held accountable for the measured success, or lack thereof, of their own performances while on the job.
Now I would say that both positions are not unreasonable. For both, increasing teacher salaries etc., as well as holding the teacher accountable for the result of his or her efforts in the classroom, make perfect sense as strategies to improve the schools. And it shouldn’t surprise us that both positions have their legions of dedicated defenders.
Then why am I not in the present circumstances hopeful that our public schools will improve as the result of the efforts of both teachers and reformers, those of the unions protecting their teachers and the status quo, and those of the reformers making teachers, and their students accountable. After all they would both improve the teaching, which does seem to be the heart of the school.
I’m not hopeful for a number of reasons, most of all because students learning (and being tested is only one, and maybe not the most significant part of their learning) and not teachers teaching should be the heart of the school. And in all these efforts it’s not, in spite of the increased importance the reformers and the No Child Left Behind Law give to testing, that which is only one, and not the most important measure of what has, or has not been learned.
But first let me make a couple of observations. I assume, for example, not unreasonably I hope, that the main goal of our public schools is, rightly or wrongly, to get kids ready for college. I assume also that the teachers who do this best, who could probably today meet accountability standards, share for the most part a number of characteristics including:
average or better than average ACT or SAT Composite and English scores;
successful attendance and graduation from a selective four year college;
passage on first attempt of proficiency tests in their subject matters;
at least four years of teaching experience;
I assume also that at the present time, those entering the teaching profession, especially those coming from the schools of education, do not, in too many cases, possess these and other similar qualifications. For all too often I read such as the following:
“In summary, we have found that rigorous research indicates that verbal ability and content knowledge are the most important attributes of highly qualified teachers… there is little evidence that education school course work leads to improved student achievement [in these areas]. Furthermore, today’s certification system discourages some of the most talented candidates from entering the profession [therefore] allowing too many poorly qualified individuals to teach.” (from the Secretary of Education’s first (2002) annual report on teacher quality)
Now a major problem, if not the major problem with our schools may not be what the teachers and the reformers are talking about but the fact that too many poorly qualified individuals are now teaching in our public schools. But this observation is, of course, a kind of third rail, and no one, at least among teachers and school reformers, is talking much about it.
We need to look afresh at the fact that too many kids are not learning in school. And at the real problem which may not so much be the teacher as that we may be asking too much of the teacher. For good, let alone great teaching may not be within the grasp of everyone who has chosen that career. And we should stop acting as if it were.
Perhaps many of our teachers, perhaps a majority of them are never going to be fully up to the task placed upon them. Perhaps all the unions’ protective steps in their behalf, as well as the initiatives of the reformers in their regard are not going to substantially change this situation.
Teaching is not so much a job as an art, or should be, and should be treated as such. We are wrong to treat teaching as a job that with a lot of help anyone can learn to perform adequately. The failure of our schools is telling us, screaming at us that this is not so. For we can no more make good and great teachers than good and great musicians, chess players, and dancers.
And to add immeasurably to the difficulty, if not impossibility of what we are trying to do we have the situation that our best and brightest young people, those who more than satisfy the criteria listed above, are not choosing a career in public school teaching. If they did we would certainly have more good and great teachers than we have now, although still probably not nearly enough.
What are we to do? First and foremost we have to restructure the role of the teacher in the children’s learning. The picture, and for most of us the memory we have of school, is of a teacher in a classroom full of kids of more or less the same age. This picture of school has to change for at the present time this kind of school is no longer working effectively for everyone.
This idea of school may have worked well enough at the time of the one room school house, and also during the 100 years or more when our public school classrooms were staffed by many of the “best and brightest” of our women, to whom during this time other more lucrative careers were not open.
Now, however, there are clearly not enough supermen and superwomen to meet the extraordinarily challenging demands of the innercity classrooms of some 20 to 30 kids, each with widely varying needs and interests. We must come up with other ways for children, and especially for the disadvantaged children of our inner city schools, to learn. We must come up with a new idea of school.
And for this to happen the present teachers and teacher unions will need to work with the reformers, and they will need to agree that the present model does not work, and that additional reform initiatives similar to those of the past will not be enough. A radical restructuring will be necessary.
I believe that there are any number of ways that kids can learn more efficiently and more effectively than they are at the present time. There are any number of programs that could show us the way. But we will have to stop asking more of the teachers than they can possibly do, and begin to do more of the things that do work for kids.
At present too many are teaching without themselves being fluent in the matter being taught, be it science, mathematics, history or literature, those subjects at the core of the college preparatory curriculum. The kids see it, that the teacher doesn’t “speak the language” he would have them learn, and are bored and turned off. We could change this.
It’s no secret that those activities where students seem to learn the most, and are the most turned on, are activities (and subjects) that are led by people who are themselves highly qualified, “fluent” as it were —ball coaches, band leaders, theater arts and dance directors, and, although less often, speakers of other languages. Who ever complains that the kids involved in these activities are not learning?
There is so much to say about all of this. But to bring all of this to a conclusion of sorts let me just observe that as long as mathematicians, scientists, historians, writers et al. are not, as is mostly the case now, in the schools and teaching, we must come up with some other way (than by means of a “substitute teacher” who is not himself mathematician, scientist, historian, or writer) of passing these important skills and knowledge on to our kids.