Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Keeping Teachers, Getting Rid of Teachers, Fixing Schools, and more ...

"Fixing schools" and improving public education is an inevitably complex topic on which everyone has an opinion and a comment. The value of the entire conversation, of course, is a bit dubious in that it begs the question of whether schools actually need to be fixed. That said, there are plenty of ideas out there. In the past couple years, we have been offered various tomes about improving the education system, and the majority of them center on creating better teachers. Joanne Jacobs recently spotlighted a somewhat questionable review of these works. The review in question from Jonathon Zimmerman for the New York Review of Books asked, rather cynically, "Why Is American Teaching So Bad?"

Dana Goldstein in The Teacher Wars, her impressive new history of teachers in the United States ... makes clear, Americans have simultaneously lauded teachers’ moral virtue and deplored their lack of adequate knowledge and skills. But debate over teaching has shifted sharply over the past two decades, when public education became much more narrowly academic in focus and purpose

What is the matter with teacher preparation and how can we make it better? Elizabeth Green takes on both questions in her eloquent new book, Building a Better Teacher, which manages to be depressing and hopeful at the same time. Like Dana Goldstein, Green was a Spencer Fellow at the Columbia Journalism School; if nothing else, the current educational crisis has produced a new group of skilled and knowledgeable reporters on education. Green’s thesis is simple: most teachers are never actually taught how to teach. After encountering a very thin introduction to the theory and practice of teaching at education schools, they’re sent into classrooms to learn on the job.

Of course, our best teachers can and do make a difference in the lives of our least privileged children; you can see Keizer doing that, in small ways, in Getting Schooled, his fine book. Yet every piece of credible social science confirms that, notwithstanding such efforts, schools cannot overcome the crippling effects of poverty. Telling teachers that they can represents yet another insult to their intelligence, all in the guise of bucking them up. Ditto for the perennial promotions of digital technologies, which promise to “revolutionize” teaching very soon. Similar claims greeted film projectors, radio, and television in their own times; in 1922, for example, Thomas Edison predicted that motion pictures would replace textbooks within a few short years.

In looking at the title of his review, it may appear that Zimmerman has bought into the myths of "failing public schools." He certainly offers some reasonably commentary and criticism, and he obviously thinks these recent bits of reporting on some successful schools may offer the key to "fixing public schools." Overall, Zimmerman's reporting on these recent education books offers some valuable food for thought, if not an actual solution. That said, the discussion of public education must go on, and scrutiny of teaching, sadly, will be the primary, and often only, focus. That said, there are still voices out there offering caveats to the "teacher question." As freelance education writer Nick Morrison posits in Forbes, "The Problem Isn't Getting Rid of Teachers, It's Keeping Them."

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