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At the Chalk Face: Lessons To Be Learned from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher

Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher contributes explicitly and implicitly to two key school reform debates. Although I’m not fully convinced by her main argument, she makes a great case that we can build a better teacher. The implicit issue is whether a concerted effort to improve teacher quality could drive reforms in high-poverty schools that serve all comers.

I have long admired the work of Deborah Ball and other academics studying ways to better educate teachers. After reading Green, my respect for them only grew. I am now even more dismayed by the anti-intellectualism that has pervaded so much of the test-driven reform movement.

The main, and perhaps only, indisputable success of data-driven reformers is that they have improved performance on math tests, including the reliable NAEP. If funded comparably, I suspect the professional development efforts of the academic TKOT (This Kind of Teaching) movement would have produced gains as great as or greater than those produced by the test and punish crowd.

The bigger issue, I believe, is whether improved teacher education and professional development could produce comparable gains in reading, and subjects that require reading, especially in high-challenge, secondary schools. I suspect that improving instruction in those classes would be far more difficult. I’m certainly skeptical of the hypothesis that the key to improving nonselective, inner city schools can be found within the four walls of their classrooms.

But, who cares?

We need more great teachers. Any school improvement strategy needs improved instruction. Teaching is the point of the spear, regarding of the other supports we need in fighting educational underperformance. An argument over the relative benefits of improving teacher quality, as opposed to other approaches, can be like a debate over the breaking of the small or big side of eggs. The TKOT approach has real potential to do good, with no potential to do harm.

Here is my only criticism, such as it is, of the academic teaching improvement effort. If we could turn the clock back twenty years to standards based reform, that would be a huge victory. But, this is the 21st century. Even then, the “half life” of scientific knowledge was only two or three years. Given the explosion of knowledge, the idea of listing and covering a set of standards, much less a common curriculum, seems to be hopelessly obsolete.

The only way that Common Core and common assessments make sense would be as a tool for measuring and improving instruction, and no stakes would need be attached to those tests. Until reformers acknowledge the harm done by test and punish reforms, however, I will remain suspicious of Common Core, or whatever standards replace it. As Anthony Cody explains, Common Core could be a road into the Amazon; it could be the means for bringing more privatization and competition-driven entrepreneurs, intent on despoiling our rain forest – I mean our democratically controlled schools.

Secondly, I’m not convinced that standards and the pursuit of common methods of instruction are even that valuable. To explain, I draw upon a Lee Shulman’s metaphor and, in doing so I must warn against misinterpreting his figure of speech. The scientific study of medicine seeks to understand the best ways of combatting pathologies. In the educational version of the metaphor, the knowledge which hasn’t been taught and learned is the pathology to be attacked. The amount of unlearned knowledge to be challenged dwarfs the number of medical pathologies (Please note, Shulman is not in any way disparaging students or persons who lack knowledge.)

Given the vast amount of knowledge to be learned, why would we worry if it is taught and learned differently? On the contrary, should we not invite all types of persons, with all types of personalities from all types of teaching styles, who teach in all types of ways into the team effort of schooling?

The leaders of the entrepreneurial teacher-driven “movement” are just as sincere as the academic leaders seeking to scale up their reforms. They should be welcome, also. But, I feel less charitable towards their record. While none of them were quoted in Green’s book as attacking neighborhood school teachers or our unions, they know that their movement has been used as the smiling face fronting for a scorched earth campaign against us. While Green’s book cites no claim that high-performing charters serve the “same” kids as we do in neighborhood schools, Lemov et. al know that that slander has been repeatedly launched against us.

Clearly, entrepreneurial reformers are smart people. But, their rejection of education research and history verges on knownothingism. Had they simply sought to use their own methods to improve their own schools, I would have no complaints. Of course, their charter schools “cream” the most motivated students and families from neighborhood schools, making it harder for us to fight the legacy of even more intense concentrations of extreme poverty and traumatized children in neighborhood schools. But, were it not for their allies in the test and punish school of reform, these high-performing charters would have likely have done as much good for their kids as the increased segregation did harm for our kids.

I also regret a lost opportunity. As Green explains, charter parents were perhaps the strongest advocates of the No Excuses approach to discipline. In my experience, few parents have a dog in the fight over pedagogy or precisely how order is to be maintained in the classroom. They, like teachers, are horrified by the rampant chaos and violence in high-poverty schools. In my experience, families and educators would have been just as supportive of more humane methods of creating respectful learning cultures. Had reformers not judged us so quickly and harshly, we could have come together in a team effort to teach students how to be students.

My fundamental complaint with the entrepreneurial movement, and the corporate reformers who co-opted it, is that they have an impoverished view of learning. It isn’t just their behaviorism. The problem isn’t just their competitiveness and their devotion to bubble-in accountability. The problem is their desire to impose their personal, I’d say quirky, opinions on others. The charter school leaders in Building a Better Teacher mandated compliance in their own schools, as was their right. My complaint is the aid and support they gave to the overall corporate reform movement which is driving the clash of ideas out of the nation’s schools.

Different people learn differently. For instance, if John King, an entrepreneurial reformer mentioned by Green, sought to build his own schools for kids who learned in a way that fit his schools, that’s fine. The problem (which was not relevant for this book) is that King is now treating New York’s schools as his own.

And, that brings us back to the reason why we should also strive to build a better teacher, but we should not assume it is the only path to school improvement. We should debate how much bang for the buck we should expect from improved teacher quality as opposed to, say, full-service community schools. But we need both methods, as we need other policies that we have not envisioned.

This is the last in a series. Previous posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...