Let there be better teachers ..

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John Dewey

What are the problems of education ? Are they complex, calling for thought to be given to a number of factors, or are they, as current fashion would have it, so simple that they can be reduced to a single factor ?

From the White House down, and most certainly including City Hall in New York and its brand-new Chancellor of Education, there is now a simple mantra: let there be better teachers and all will be well, in the schools, in the country, in the world. Ninotchka had similar ideas (“The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”), but let that pass.

Michelle Rhee, until recently the Chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, was perhaps the most vocal and the most active proponent of this doctrine. She came into office, she fired teachers, she got tremendous acclaim from politicians (including the current incumbent at the White House), and, voilà, the District schools are, well, in turmoil politically but, insofar as anyone can tell, academically no better than before.

No matter. Rhee may be gone, but her ideas still carry in the halls of power. Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System) describes Rhee’s program:

As a member of Teach for American, Rhee taught for three years in a Baltimore elementary school managed by Education Alternatives Inc., a for-profit organization that received a contract as part of an experiment in privatization. According to Rhee, during her second and third years of teaching, the proportion of her students who read on grade level leapt from 13 percent to 90 percent (critics were doubtful since the Baltimore records could not be located). From her experience, she concluded that effective teachers could overcome poverty and other disadvantages….”Those kids, where they lived didn’t change. Their parents didn’t change. Their diets didn’t change. The violence in the community didn’t change. The only thing that changed for those 70 kids was the adults who were in front of them every single day teaching them.”

So here we have it: the teacher is the thing, nothing else matters. Nothing. And, to judge from Rhee’s administration in D.C., let these teachers be few, young, inexpensive, and, above all, “good.” How do we know when a teacher is “good,” or as it is sometimes put, “effective” ? Not a problem. Just administer tests to students, and those teachers whose students do best on the test are the best teachers. And how do we know whether the tests are any good ? Not a problem. Tests are good if their results can be quantified.

Well, a beginning — and only a beginning — of appreciating the problems with the Rhee doctrine is to look at how these attempts at measuring student and teacher performance have worked. As Diane Ravitch has shown in her book, the testing of student achievement by standardized, bureaucratized instruments has been almost uniformly unreliable. She cites the “law” promulgated by the social scientist Donald Campbell: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it intended to monitor.”

If the prevailing standardized tests for student achievement have proven unreliable, the attempts to measure “teacher effectiveness” by such measures have been a complete failure. The New York Times has published an unusually good accounting on December 26. Despite very considerable number-crunching by statisticians, nobody has been able to find coherence in these ostensible measures of teaching quality. Even after overlooking such obvious absurdities as grading teachers who weren’t teaching for the period in question and failing to grade those who were, these reports undermine their own premise when they indicate that a “good” teacher one year is, almost as often as not, a bad one the next and then back again.

There is no rhyme or reason in this kind of quantitative “accountability” of the teaching profession. For anyone who has given thought to the complexity of the teaching enterprise, the reason is obvious: the problems of education are far more complex and far more profound than are dreamt of in the philosophies of Ms. Rhee’s Teach for America (a three-year program), or Ms. Black’s Hearst Publishing (executive suite).

John Dewey, the great American philosopher of education, published a little booklet in 1902: “The Child and the Curriculum,” calling attention to two of the complex factors that need to be considered in any discussion of education. Let me run down a few:

1. The child. Obviously, every child differs from all the others, as every snow flake differs from all its peers. But there are some regularities in this variance that the school must accommodate. It is a truism of the social science research that children from lower economic strata, as a group, come to first grade with far less (formal) verbal equipment than their peers from the more advantaged classes. To say, as Ms. Rhee does, that the heterogeneity of the students doesn’t matter is to say that the moon is made of green cheese. To everyone else, it would appear that the school must take careful account of heterogeneity and that, for that reason, class size — and the time a teacher can spend with an individual child — is too obvious a factor to sweep under the rug.

2. The neighborhood. Variable neighborhoods are obvious to all serious observers. Educational planners cannot ignore them.

3. The curriculum. The current fad of emphasizing only language comprehension and mathematics, at the expense of a great world of other topics, rules out the necessary and continuing debate about what it is that our children need to experience in the school. There really should not be final answers about what is and what is not important to the curriculum. We need to learn from evolving research — both into the state of scientific knowledge and the state of children’s needs — how the curriculum is to evolve.

I had planned to make this posting one in which I say everything that I can I think of on the topic of education. But I will not go that route; I can see too well all the obvious reasons that would make such an effort both shallow and futile. Instead I will close by recalling two mathematics teachers with whom I studied at City College between 1948 and 1949:

A. Mr. Zeig, instructor in Plane and Spherical Trigonometry, using the 1936 text by Rietz, Reilly, and Woods, which is before me as I write. It was a class of tremendous energy, with a teacher better organized than anyone I have met before or after. Every week, without fail, there was a test. Everyone, I believe, kept up with the material, everyone did well. I certainly did. I got an A. I memorized the trigonometric functions, I could perform all the required operations, and I mastered all this to its very maximum, as far as the class was concerned.

B. Professor Bergman, Professor of Calculus. The text by Sherwood and Taylor, dated 1942, is also before me now. I remember Professor Bergman standing in front of the class, scratching his head, trying to write a proof on the board, muttering: “I am not sure I’m quick-witted enough to get this right here….” I felt bewildered, as did, I suspect, much of the class. I worked very very hard in the class, but I did not have the neat structure — a test every week, etc. — that Mr. Zeig had provided in trigonometry. Moreover, much of calculus, I knew then and I know now, was beyond me. I managed to get a B for the course, which in those days was considered an achievement.

Who was the “better,” the “more effective” teacher ? By Ms. Rhee’s lights, it undoubtedly was Mr. Zeig who performed better: more of his students, no doubt, would pass a Rhee-devised test. But it was Professor Bergman’s difficult calculus that I remember, and it is Professor Bergman, from my perspective today, who has contributed far more to my education. Of course it is not an entirely fair comparison because Mr. Zeig’s trigonometry may be an inherently less profound subject. Still, Mr. Zeig made no attempt to convey to us whatever profundity that, surely, could have been found, even in trigonometry.

Final tally: I give Professor Bergman an A as a teacher. I will not grade Mr. Zeig ….

2 thoughts on “Let there be better teachers ..”

  1. Hey Werner. I read that article on using test results to rate teachers in yesterday’s NY Times and sent a terse letter to the editor. I got an email back saying they were considering it for publication.
    Michael Shumi

  2. The New York Times article, “Hurdles Emerge in Rising Effort to Rate
    Teachers” (Monday, December 27, 2010)
    is a false debate that does not address the real reason why teacher rating by exam scores is deeply flawed. It has nothing to do with the algorithm used in
    correlating test scores. It is well documented that the
    foremost factor in what determines student performance on
    state exams is demographic. The focus of the research should have been
    on identifying and supporting students and populations of students who
    are not performing well on state exams, not on rating the teachers who
    work within those populations. Assuming that research identifying
    struggling populations of students would have been a much simpler
    task, perhaps then some of the $3.6 million used so far to conduct the
    teacher rating research could have been used in stead to support those
    who needed it most.
    Michael Shumiatcher

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