It is convenient to blame teachers for America's education woes because it lets everyone else off the hook. Tragically, this has become the vogue opinion in the mainstream media, and I'm calling bullshit. Jonathan Alter's latest column in Newsweek pushed me over the edge. Here's the implicit argument:
Why do kids drop out? Not the stultifying test prep, overcrowded rooms, chronic absenteeism, or lack of personal connection to a counselor. It's bad teachers.
Why are America's test scores lagging compared to other countries around the world? Not deep-seated cycles of drugs/violence/ignorance in many neighborhoods or an antiquated school calendar with a ridiculous summer vacuum. It's complacent, unionized teachers.
What's the solution? Scrap the unions, clean house, and let the market sort it out.
Alter writes with certainty, "the key to fixing education is better teaching, and the key to better teaching is figuring out who can teach and who can't."
This spirit of exceptionalism is dangerous. According to Alter, you're either born with the teaching gene or not. You may have spent years earning a teaching degree, but that's worthless because, as Alter bizarrely claims, "most teachers' colleges teach the wrong stuff."
So who are among the special, birthrighted good teachers, benighted with secret understandings unavailable in higher ed institutions whose sole job is to prepare teachers?
Wendy Kopp, influential founder and leader of Teach For America, offered living examples of her vision for what teachers need to do in her recent commencement speech at Washington University. She cited Colleen Dunn, a rookie teacher working with struggling first-graders in St. Louis:
At the end of the school year, after nine months of days that began for Colleen at 4:30 in the morning and ended with her falling asleep over grading papers, lesson planning, writing parent newsletters, her students had made two years of progress in reading and math. The students who had started out so far behind were ready to enter second grade ahead of average second graders.
Judging from Colleen's example, the achievement gap doesn't need to exist...
Kopp's speech advances the argument for a paradigm of superteacher messiahs, one Alter appears to embrace. Surely, every example of an individual superteacher is above reproach and deserving of great praise.
But if Colleen is the model, working from 4:30 a.m. until a daily collapse, who's out? Forget single parents, who know more about facing challenges than just about anyone. Forget most that don't have the access to accrue the eye-catching resumes of Teach For America applicants. Forget people who choose balance over being a workaholic. The hero-martyr superteacher, cast in the mold of Hollywood friendly Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds, is not replicable or realistic.
I agree with Alter that there are some complacent, ineffective teachers out there who should be fired. I also agree with Kopp that Colleen sounds like a superb teacher. However, this obsessive focus on cleaning house and demanding superhuman performance misses a larger point. (Time Magazine drew similarly raised blood pressure when they featured DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee on their cover in December 2008, scowling and holding a broom. The headline spotlighted her gutsy "battle against bad teachers.")
Most teachers in America are smart and dedicated enough to help their students achieve. They're not the unaccountable fiends holding kids back, as Alter portrays them with his broad brush. Poverty, deficiency of support services, disjointed curricula, overemphasis on testing, and overcrowded classes do far more to impede student achievement.
If you are reading this with the slightest inclination to agree with anything I've written, Alter has already prepared for and discounted us. He'd refer to you and me as parts of
"the Blob, the collection of educrats and politicians who claim to support reform but remain fiercely committed to the status quo."
BS. I want kids to learn and I want bad teachers to go. I welcome reform and genuine accountability in my classroom, but to do that right it needs to come from more than a single, reductive standardized test.
We need those with the biggest microphones to stop scapegoating teachers and their right to have a collective voice, and to start stepping into living classrooms to see what's really happening on the ground. Then they can tell the real story.
Dan Brown is a teacher in Southeast Washington, DC and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.