Education in Two Worlds: Dear Teacher, You Are Not the Most Important Thing in the Universe
The Arizona Republic has a very conservative Editorial Board for a very conservative newspaper in a very conservative state. So when they address the subject of teacher preparation, it’s no surprise that they parrot folk wisdom about schools and teachers.
In addressing Arne Duncan’s new guidelines on teachers colleges, the Editorial Board strikes its closing notes by perpetrating one of the more pernicious myths about teachers and schools.
Plenty of research has come to a common-sense conclusion: Nothing is more important to the success of a student than a highly qualified teacher. But we don’t have enough of them, nor will we as long as teacher colleges are not held accountable.
Now that’s a statement that packs a big load of deceit into just 43 words. First, it’s highly doubtful that the Arizona Republic Editorial Board has made itself familiar with “plenty of research” about education. Second, in their review of “plenty of research,” apparently their faith in the ability of test scores to hold teachers colleges “accountable” was never shaken?* But worst of all is the repeat of that tired wheeze that nothing is more important than a teacher.
What makes the All-Important-Teacher myth so pernicious is that teachers themselves occasionally and the general public usually take it as a compliment when in fact it is an attack on teacher tenure and professional autonomy.
The facts of the matter are that teachers are not the most important thing determining what a child gets out of school. What a child brings to school is much more important. Jim Coleman showed this in 1966 in Equality of Educational Opportunity, and though he softened his position slightly in 1972 when he accorded a bit more important to schooling that he had 6 years prior, out-of-school influences remained dominant in determining how much kids learned during their years in school. Parents, home and neighborhood conditions, physical health, language use and language complexity in the home, whether the student lives in a psychologically and physically healthy environment with access to competent medical care, access to books, games and activities that prepare the student for school, and even genetic endowment can greatly contribute to or restrict a child’s development. What walks in the door on Day #1 has more to do with what leaves on Day #2340 (180 X 13) than what transpires during the few hours of students' lives that they are in the classroom, attentive, and capable of absorbing what that teacher is talking about.
Teachers are wonderful human beings. For many children, teachers are the most caring and competent individual whom they will encounter during their lifetime. But teachers cannot undo the damage inflicted on youngsters by a society in which nearly half of all births are to unwed mothers and in which more than 20% of children live below the poverty level (income below $23,000 for a family of 4).
So, my fellow teachers, beware. Don’t fall for the false compliment that you are so important — so important that you should be fired if your students’ test scores are lagging behind, so important that your school’s graduation rate is a moral and a civil rights issue, so important that you should be replaced by an inexperienced liberal arts major on a two-year resume building junket.
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