About Teachers

Aren’t you glad I’m not writing about science today? I have to say, I am. I guess that’s my journalist self talking. Lots of subjects fascinate me, but it doesn’t take too much to make me want to move on.

So let’s talk about teachers. Lots of people agree that American education is in a state of crisis, but it’s hard to get agreement on why. One of my very good friends, an elementary school teacher, is in despair about her job (which, at some level, she still loves, and which I feel sure she is very good at). She feels vehemently that the culture has changed, that family breakdown and media infatuation and loss of respect for authority all combine to make learning practically impossible. I can’t argue with her–I’m not there in the classroom every day. She tells me for heaven sakes not to blame the teachers.

I don’t blame them, but I keep reading articles like this one in the latest Atlantic. In “What Makes a Great Teacher” Amanda Ripley reports on the research done by Teach for America on the success and failure of teachers. According to Ripley, some teachers succeed no matter how bad the school is. As measured by test scores, their students advance more than a year’s worth, year after year. Meanwhile other teachers, in the same schools, fail to advance their students’ knowledge year after year. Granted that test scores aren’t everything, aren’t they something?

Teach with America, which has a very systematic way of hiring (and lots of candidates to choose from), has been slushing their data to find out what kind of people make outstanding teachers. They think they’ve learned some things and that their success rate is going up as they look for the right kind of people to hire.

The bigger point, though, is that some teachers are better than other teachers. Consistently. By measurable criteria. In all schools, not just the “good” ones.

That’s not to say the culture doesn’t make a difference. It does, of course. But lacking any great ideas on how to bend the culture, how about taking seriously the job of hiring and retaining great teachers, and getting rid of the really bad ones? Yes, it could be cruel and capricious. We’d want to do everything possible to make that not so. Ultimately, though, we have to ask the question: who are these schools for?

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