The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder."...  ...Laurence J. Peter.

Commentary of the Day - January 31, 2010:  More Unsung Heroes.  Guest Commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

If I were to try to tell you that the quality of American health care has nothing to do with the competency of American physicians, you'd correctly tell me I had a screw loose.  You clearly can't have decent medical care without well-trained, competent doctors.  In the same way, without well-educated, competent teachers, you can't have decent schools.

That said, nobody is suggesting that we fix our problematic healthcare system by replacing our current corps of doctors and nurses with better ones.  But many policymakers and politicians do tout re-staffing our schools with better teachers as the key to reversing the decline in American student achievement.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is one of them.

Don't misunderstand.  Like most carpenters and dentists, I've known a few people in my profession who are bad at it.  And like journeymen in other fields, there's usually little I can do about getting rid of them, beyond opposing the reflex union response to keep them in their jobs unconditionally.

Most of us, though, are competent.  That's not to say that many of us are excellent, but neither are many carpenters or dentists.  That’s the "nature of excellence – it's rare.  Any scheme to rescue public education that rests on staffing schools with "excellent" teachers is a pipedream.  Most teachers will never be excellent.

Of course, neither will most plumbers or Congressmen.  And when it comes to Congressmen, we're only looking for 435 out of the whole country.

Secretary Duncan heaps lavish praise on “"good teachers" as “unsung heroes."  And that’s before he gets warmed up.  He continues on to laud "exemplary teachers" who "toil late into the night on lesson plans," pay for their own supplies, and "wake up worrying when one of their students seems headed for trouble."

Admittedly, it would be nice if more people realized that my workday, like many professionals' workdays, doesn't end when I go home.  Beyond that, I don't pay for classroom supplies.  I think it's kind of like expecting an auto worker to furnish his own steel.  I do the best I can with what my town provides.  And while my students' troubles touch me, as they would any decent human being, they're not usually why I wake up in the night.

Secretary Duncan observes that "people remember their favorite teachers" because "great teachers change the course of a student's life."  I hope there's a shadow of me in some of my students' memories.  I remember several of my teachers fondly, and at least one had what you might call a profound effect on me.  But great people of all sorts change other people's lives.  Teachers are just in a more likely position to have the opportunity than carpenters or dentists.

And while we sometimes "light a lifelong curiosity, teaching students to solve problems like a scientist, write like a novelist, listen like a poet, [and] see like an artist," Mr. Edison's maxim about genius applies to education, too.  Learning is far more perspiration than it is inspiration.  Yes, I like to see the glimmer in my students' eyes, but most of them aren't going to grow up to be scientists or poets.  The Secretary's lofty, romanticized notion of learning is shared by too many Americans, and is one of the reasons why American students aren't learning as much as they should.

The Secretary asserts that "the single biggest influence on student growth is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom."  That might be true, as long as you don't count the students he's standing in front of and all the days and years and good and bad outside the classroom that have made them who they are.

Secretary Duncan also contends that "most teachers" are "not adequately prepared for the realities of managing a classroom."  Here he has a point.  Ed school programs are typically awash in theory and run by people who, like the Secretary himself, lack any classroom experience.

He reserves his harshest criticism for [one of] reformers’ favorite bogey m[e]n – the twentieth century, "industrial age," "factory model" of public education.  For example, he complains that students still "study five subjects a day in timed periods."

Reformers always trot out the "factory model" whenever they talk about the schools they want to replace.  After all, what parents want to send their kids off to a factory everyday?  The fact is, though, that the five subjects he's talking about are English, math, science, social studies, and a foreign language or some other elective.  It's unclear which ones he'd like schools to eliminate.

Reformers also don't like scheduling specific times to study these things.  Unfortunately, they haven't yet figured out how to materialize adolescents in two places at once.  They do agree that students need longer "block" classes to learn effectively, except when they're agreeing that students can't be expected to concentrate on anything for very long.

Continuing his factory theme, the Secretary charges that teachers are treated like "interchangeable widgets" on an "educational assembly line."  He hopes to remedy this by paying us according to the quality of the work we do instead of according to our years of experience and academic degrees.

Teachers, like other civil servants, are paid according to fixed scales to eliminate favoritism and corruption in hiring and salaries.  Besides, thanks to a host of factors including the chronic unreliability of modern standardized testing, there's no practical way to objectively measure the quality of my work.  But even if you could, and even if taxpayers were willing to pay me more than they already do, most teachers I know are already doing the best job they can with the students they have.  Money isn't their big issue.  Nor will higher salaries be enough to lure some untapped flood of excellent, prospective teachers into the classroom.  There's simply a limited number of people who are willing to spend their workdays dealing with hundreds of other people's children.

If I'm incompetent, I should be dismissed.  But firing a few of us and paying a few of us more won't save the country.

The Secretary sees another drawback to being a "widget."  He says that instead of being treated like "skilled professionals," we're "supervised and directed by everyone from the state legislature down to the school principal."

I don’t feel like a widget.  And I recognize I'm subordinate to my principal, as well as to the laws my legislature enacts.  But if Mr. Duncan means that too many people who don't know how to teach keep telling me how to do my job, I'll agree.

As long as he adds the Secretary of Education to his list.

2010, Peter Berger..
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees with many of Poor Elijah's points; but, he does have some reservations.  First, the IP thinks that there is a way to compare teacher competence that is quite practical at least in the lower grades.  That can be done by looking at the relative gains that a class makes over the course of a term using standardized tests.  Even though the tests may not be perfect, the fact that one is comparing the same cohort of students as they progress from teacher to teacher controls for the backgrounds of the individual students in the cohort.  When this kind of comparison is made the truly incompetent teacher stands out like a sore thumb.  Second, while the IP would agree with Poor Elijah that most teachers are competent, he's not so sure that there are as many really great teachers in the mix than there were three or four decades ago.  The opening up of career opportunities for women has reduced the number of women who rank in the top quarter of their college classes who choose higher-paying careers than K-12 teaching.  Higher pay might make K-12 teaching more attractive to these highly-qualified individuals.  Finally, while Poor Elijah may find the supplies budget adequate enough at his school, the IP knows that there are many, many teachers across the country who dip into their own funds to provides supplies for their classes.

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