Sunday, March 24, 2013
Teaching and the Measure of Greatness
Rhee claims that she can attest to the power of great teachers because, on an apocryphal occasion when she visited a school, she talked to some teenagers who told her that their teacher for their first period class was wonderful. After... I guess it was roughly an hour-long visit to the school, after that class ended, she saw them walking out of the building after their first class. "Where do you think you're going," she asked. "Our first teacher is great, our second teacher isn't, so we're outta here," they replied.
Rhee argued that these kids weren't lazy - you might see them cutting class and think, "What a bunch of ne'er-do-wells who won't amount to anything", but Rhee assures us that they were sufficiently motivated to get to their first class so... I guess the rest is on the teachers.
But I couldn't help but wonder, why didn't Rhee ask the obvious follow-up questions? "What's great about your first period teacher?" Or, "What don't you like about your second period teacher." She simply assumed that the teacher for the first period class was a gifted, extraordinary educator, and the teacher for the second period class was not.
Back when I was in high school, if you were to hear a similar group of kids talk about how a teacher was "great", a follow-up question, "What makes him great," might result in the answer, "All we do is watch movies." Or, "We just talk the whole time." Or, "She lets us hang out in the back of the room and talk with our friends." I don't recall ever encountering a student who displayed the casual attitude toward attendance that Rhee describes indicating that a teacher is "great" because you work hard, learn a lot, have high expectations, no excuses accepted.... In my experience, that's going to inspire a different descriptor, "His class is hard."
In Rhee's anecdotes she seems to believe that kids will go to school for what kids of my era described as "hard" classes, and go home instead of staying for the classes they then described as "great". I don't think it's that kids have changed - I think the problem is that Rhee asked the wrong questions, and as a result drew the wrong conclusions.
I don't want to diminish Rhee's accomplishments with the D.C. schools, but at this point I continue to see her successes as largely administrative. For example, creating a new, efficient system for the distribution of textbooks. Yet she has refused to take any responsibility for the cheating scandals inspired by her high-stakes testing, for the accounting irregularities that had money magically disappearing and reappearing in the school budget, or for the successful lawsuit brought by teachers she defamed. In her view, is that living up to a standard of "No excuses" - ignore your mistakes so that you never have to talk about them, and you can't be accused of making excuses for yourself?
If so, alas, she continues to personify what is wrong with educational administration in this country - administrators, well-intentioned though they may be, engage in what amounts to wholesale experimentation on kids and who, after leaving or being forced out, blame everything that continues to be wrong on the size of the job they faced, or their successor.
The story of education reform goes pretty much like this: Every ten years we embrace educational reform. We throw a lot of money into the reform ideals. They fail. Lather, rinse, repeat. Rhee and the high-stakes test seem to be yet another entry in that recurring story line. The problem as I see it is that the high-stakes testing, the diminishment of teaching as a profession, and the wholesale effort to privatize schools, break teacher's unions, lower teacher pay and reduce their benefits is likely to have a profound, long-term negative impact on schools. Why be part of the problem?