Sunday, March 24, 2013

Teaching and the Measure of Greatness

The other day I saw a brief interview with Michelle Rhee, in which she defended her stance on the apocryphal sign she claims to have seen in a school, "Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do". If I believed the sign existed, I might point out that it's true. Rhee would be correct in arguing for nuance - teachers can't make up for everything that's missing at home, some parents and students are lazy, and teachers can only do so much, but problems outside of the school are not an excuse for not making the strongest effort possible to close the gap. But Rhee uses the sign (which, again, I'm not convinced that she actually saw) as a basis for a blunt attack on the teaching profession.

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?

1 comment:

  1. First, that bitch cray-cray.
    Next, yes, students describing a "good" teacher often = a teacher who exists to be friends with the students. In every school I've been at there has always been a teacher (and, not sure why, but it has always been a male teacher) who has existed to be the cool guy, the fun teacher, the friend! Are these guys good teachers? I don't know--they very well may be.
    I just don't know that most students are capable and mature enough to identify a "good" teacher. I can tell you that I had this 7th grade teacher who was a hellion...we had projects every month, a strict demerit system and tons of what I now know is kinestheic (sp?) learning. Hated her. It wasn't until I got into college that I realized she was an excellent teacher and I still remember units/lessons from that class (25+ years ago now). But when I was 13, I would have rated her horrible and instead singled out the "fun" science teacher (who in retrospect was kind of a creepster) who was our friend.
    Similarly, I have some problems with student evaluations at the college level. Sure, many students are mature enough to know how to rate a teacher but some aren't. When I taught at WCC, I got some excellent reviews but a few would always say that I had too many projects. Perhaps in 20 years, they will appreciate me as I do my 7th grade teacher :)