The 'Great Teacher' Trap

The theme of the recent Education Writers Association (EWA) event at the Carnegie Corporation (which I mentioned in my post on Saturday) was ?the promise and pitfalls of improving the teaching profession.?? The event coincides with Carnegie's new initiative, called ?the Talent Strategy,? which is, as Carnegie's Michele Cahill and Talia Milgrom-Elcott put it,? about ?making sure that every student has a great teacher.??

Who would object?

In fact, as the two Carnegie researchers noted in?a Boston Globe essay about the initiative, if there is a consensus on anything in education these days it is the importance of teachers to the educational enterprise. ?So,? they ask,?why haven't we done it yet??? Meaning, why haven't we fixed the system that is producing so many mediocre teachers?

Cahill and Milgrom-Elcott, who have impressive credentials, including stints with the Bloomberg education reform administration (Cahill masterminded the city's small schools program), argue?that the reason we still have so many mediocre teachers in too many of our classrooms is not money.??They artfully stay away from the role of the unions, which some would argue is the elephant in the teacher quality room, and rightly focus their attentions ? i.e. the talent strategy ? on substance: ramping up the quality of teacher training, giving prospective teachers more ?hands-on experience,? and holding schools of education ?accountable for proving that the students their graduates teach are actually learning.?? Another big part of the strategy is getting school systems to tighten up their applicant standards. ?The top-performing systems outside the United States recruit 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of graduates," they write.? "[T]he comparable United States figure is 23 percent.??

All of this seems eminently reasonable. Even Carnegie's recommendations to include teacher effectiveness metrics in decisions about promotion and firing ? and Cahill and Milgrom-Elcott say ?we must be much more deliberate about whom we grant tenure to? ? hit at the major problems with our teacher quality pool.?

I was mightily impressed by the caliber of the EWA conference participants -- but also?unaware of ?the underlying drama,? as teacher Jose Vilson put it, before the conference started, about?an ?utter lack of teacher representation? on the panels. ?Interesting point. Apparently, writes Vilson, when the teachers who were invited to the event looked at the agenda ? which included panels on education schools, recruiting and hiring, and professional development ???we saw just another meeting where the teacher voice would get restricted to that of object and not subject. We would get to ask questions but not provide answers.?

I thought the three panels had some pretty fine talent on them ? including Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, Dan Goldhaber of the Center on Education Data & Research, Ted Preston of Achievement Network, and Judy Zimny from ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), among others ??and the teachers in the audience?came out of their corner swinging, making up for their poor panel representation.? But Vilson does have a point.? We don't hear a lot from teachers in these policy disputes. We get earfuls from their union reps, however, which suggests to me that perhaps the?teachers' complaints were misdirected: they need to rethink their relationships to their labor organizations.? (I once chaired a task force on student academic performance in my school district and the teachers refused to participate because they considered most of the issues ?contractual.?)?

But it was a great verbal free-for-all, a reminder, as one?teacher-turned-journalist pointed out, "how similar teachers and journalists are."? (One of the journalists, however,?put an end to the complaints about teacher pay when he mentioned how little journalists make.) Several other teachers posted accounts of the event ? see here, here, and here.? History teacher Steve Lazar, an outspoken participant at the conference (from the audience, of course) has a great blog, Outside the Cave, and gives frequent advice to journalists on stories they should be covering. ?And after the?conference,?he offered these suggestions to journalists for followup stories: "Why would anyone want to be a teacher?... Parental Views of Good Teaching?.? Accountability for Administrators? The Testing Industry."

Not bad.?

And one more: retention. ?Lazar says that 50 percent of all NYC teachers leave the profession within six years.? ?While Michelle Cahill and Talia Milgrom-Elcott at the Carnegie Corporation, McKinsey, Teach for America, and other high profile voices, focus on recruiting more highly educated candidates to the teaching profession, those of us in the trenches realize we do not have a recruitment problem; what we have is a retention problem.?

I agree.? We have a serious problem recruiting good teachers ? and an equally serious problem trying to keep them.

But here's my concern:? Only once during the daylong discussion (maybe twice) did anyone address the question of what teachers teach and why what they teach is important to educational outcomes. ?(This is different than the question of ?subject mastery,? which was discussed, along with the almighty STEM. It is also a different question than?one about ?the damage?done by the misguided emphasis on math and ELA, which came up a few times.) I tried to get at this with a question to one of the panels about whether teachers are being taught anything about curriculum ? as opposed to pedagogy ? and whether, in fact, in the future teachers should be expected to be curriculum experts or have an appreciation for the value of content knowledge to educational outcomes.

In my district, our teachers are currently engaged in a time-consuming curriculum-mapping project? that is supposed to, eventually, give us a K?12 curriculum in the core subjects. ?But do the teachers know what they're doing? And should they be the ones writing the curriculum?? It is fine to desire Great Teachers; it is not fine, to paraphrase Martin Luther King,?to hand over our children's minds to?the?Not So Great ones.

I did not put all that in my?query to the professional development panel, but, unfortunately, because I dropped Paolo Freire and E.D. Hirsch into the question (and cited David Steiner's Education Next study of ed school syllabi), the main point was lost is in the ideological flames and the question went unanswered.?

Fortunately, Judy Zimny from ACSD, did talk about the ?backbone? of the educational enterprise, which she said was ?knowledge,? and she stressed the fundamental duty teachers have to appreciate the importance of that knowledge. She avoided the term ?curriculum,? though, which probably has something to do with the organization's name change. (?Why is everyone?so afraid to talk about curriculum?? one editor confided to me later.)? The failure to address the question of curriculum matters in teacher training doesn't mean that teachers don't care about content; in fact, the good ones ? the Great Ones ? have extensive reading lists and meticulous lesson plans and, in their own ways, do the requisite drill-and-kill exercises (without calling them that, of course). ?Steve Lazar, who teaches the underprivileged in a Bronx high school, sent me a syllabus for his Advanced Reading and Writing in Government & Economics course and it's impressive: books for discussion include The Leviathan (Hobbes), The Wretched of the Earth (Fanon), Reflections on the Revolution in France (Burke), and Second Treatise on Civil Government (Locke).? Impressive. And, he says, his students are going to good colleges.

The problem, however, as even Lazar must know, is that not many teachers have read these works and so might not understand that such books could be important to learning. ?More importantly -- and this is where we wade into the deep end of the backbone question ? most teachers are simply not the best judges of what children should know.? At one level, of course, we?have a policy question: as society (whether local or national) we the citizens have to decide what we want our children to know. At another level, however, it would behoove us, once we make those decisions, to have our science, literature, history, art, and math experts (and let's please just decide that such people do exist) tell us what we should know at various stages of our learning life. ?That, my friends, is a curriculum -- the Voldemort of education. And just because we have our spats over evolution and our ideological fires in Texas, is no reason we shouldn't answer the question which the panel avoided: should teachers be taught something about the significance of curriculum before they start writing it?? ?

Here's my quick theory about our avoidance problem:? it comes from our fixation on the importance of teachers, which has led us to an obsessive belief in teacher autonomy, which in turn has lead to an excessive obeisance to teacher buy-in. All of which, with all due respect to the many wonderful teachers out there, has lead to a rather fast trip down the slope to the valley of fractured knowledge.?And all of that is also why, to answer Cahill and Talia Milgrom-Elcott's question, ?we haven't done it yet.? ???

Rick Hess raises a related question in his recent ?Common Core vs. Charter Schooling?!!? essay.? Will the common core folks take away the autonomy of charter schools?? And who's writing the common core?? What if it's not as good as what the Great Charters ? and the Great Teachers ? think it should be? Will they be forced to teach it?? Good questions, but let's not be frightened by the difficulty of writing good curriculum. Or, as Cahill and Talia Milgrom-Elcott, say, ?we must keep the quest for a perfect system from becoming the enemy of a good one.? We need great teachers. But we also need them to teach great content.?

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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