This brief article was prompted a recent Newseek column by Jonathan Alter (June 15) in which he urges President Obama to push his agenda for teacher effectiveness by funding those programs with “good track records at turning around poorly performing schools and training teachers better.” At the same time he urges Obama not to give into teachers unions and “educrats” who like to spread money around evenly across a wide range of programs, even if some of them show no distinguishing marks of being “successful.”
As far as Alter’s argument goes, I agree that there needs to be greater teacher accountability and greater emphasis on looking for effective models of education outside the current norms of public education. However, Alter, like many of his ilk, is short sighted when it comes to the complexity of the teaching-learning process. While he criticizes “the widget effect,” which suggests that all teachers are equally competent, he seems to assume a corresponding “widget effect” when it comes to students. Moreover, he makes the assumption that everyone knows what “good teaching” is and how to measure it: with the results of a standardized test. These are two assumptions I do not share and must challenge.
My oldest daughter teaches in an alternative school for students with behavioral and emotional problems. These are students who have been removed from their regular public schools because of disruptive and incorrigible behavior. Some days she can spend a better part of her teaching time simply trying to get her students to focus on their lessons. Fortunately, in her school there are a whole host of support services that can help her when a student gets out of hand. She is there to help students not only with math, English and so on, but with managing their lives. Her goal is that after a year they will be able to return to a regular classroom. Apparently, her school has a good track record on doing that. Even so my daughter has often said that if her effectiveness was judged on her students’ test scores, she would be out of a job.
However, one of the political reasons these students are sent to her school is that their test scores bring down the sending school’s average, thus depressing their overall “success” as a school. Her students, once they are in her school as “special ed” kids, aren’t factored into the overall average.
Another young teacher I know is not so lucky, because he teaches math in a Philadelphia public middle school. On a recent visit to the school he confided that nearly half of his students don’t live with their parents, but instead are in foster homes or with relatives because mom and dad are strung out on drugs, in jail, or participating in any number of self-destructive behaviors. As I watched him perform a simple lesson, I could see he was not only teaching them algebra, but also basic concepts like courtesy and respect. However, unlike my daughter, his school did not have all the support services, and thus he was on his own. At the end of the year the standardized tests will reveal him to be an “ineffective teacher” because most of his kids will score well below acceptable levels. While he would agree he has much to learn, in my book he is a hero for teaching on the front lines of difficult school, a place where many “successful” teachers dare never tread.
Having been a teacher myself for nearly 12 years, and having helped many others as a faculty developer, I have had my share of great teaching moments where students really got the subject material I taught them. Yet, I have also bombed. While, I always ask myself how I could have done better, I also recognize that often my “success” is determined by not only by my teaching methods and the academic preparation and motivation of my students, but also a whole host of factors outside the classroom such as family, health, finances, job, and so on. Not only that, each student learns in different ways, bringing in different experiences, and processing information in their own special way. Moreover, there are socio-political factors such as class, race, and social power that enter into the subject matter that is taught. My point is simply students are not uniform “widgets,” and success is far more elusive than most policymakers and columnists would care to admit.
If the Obama administration wants to raise the effectiveness of education, the focus cannot just be on teachers, nor on schools. The problems in education today, are much wider and broader than that. Columnists like Alter and many politicians want simple, sure fire solutions to problems like education. They want simple measures like standardized tests to determine “success” and ‘effectiveness.” However, the task is far more complex and therefore does not lend itself to “silver bullet” answers.
Instead of berating teachers and their unions, the policymakers need to draw on the expertise and passion of the many dedicated educators in our schools. By and large teachers go into their profession because of their love of their subject and of students. Yes, there are bad apples that need to be weeded out. However, by and large teachers offer a valuable service for which they are grossly underpaid, and vastly under-appreciated, no thanks to people like Jonathan Alter.