The July 29, New Yorker magazine promotes Atal Gawande’s moving article, Slow Ideas, with the tag “Annals of Medicine.” I would argue that, although Gawande is a physician and medical researcher, his piece this week is not so much about medicine as it is about teaching. For me, a former teacher, it speaks to the essence of what I know school teachers do.
Gawande is a surgeon and director of a joint center for health-system innovation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health. He is also a wonderful writer. His topic this week is how to ensure that important health innovations can be spread widely in the non-industrialized world, where equipment including electricity may be lacking in health clinics, but where simple procedures for cleanliness and hydration can prevent the death of children in childbirth and even prevent death during epidemics of cholera. In example after example, Gawande demonstrates that medical innovation cannot be taught effectively through technology or flashy posters or videos or incentives or punishments. People learn, according to Gawande’s research through “concerted, person-by-person effort” to change norms. Gawande’s group is changing the culture in birth centers in poor villages in India by assigning personal mentors to work with midwives and nurses.
Another article this morning is the perfect foil for Gawande’s piece. This is John Merrow’s opinion piece today about Michelle Rhee and her tenure as chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools. Merrow was once a fan of Michelle Rhee, whom he covered extensively for the PBS Newshour. Subsequently a cheating scandal is said to have happened during Rhee’s tenure in Washington, DC, although the allegation has never been fully investigated despite Merrow’s efforts to demand an investigation. And it is becoming clearer, as Rhee’s strategies continue to be practiced in the DC Schools, that the “Rhee miracle” was really an illusion: test score continue to fall; the dropout rate is the highest in the nation; and a test score gap by income level continues to widen as the city gentrifies.
Michelle Rhee brought flash-in-the-pan, technocratic school reform to our nation’s capital. She motivated teachers and principals with incentives: staff got bonuses in schools where test scores rose rapidly, but in schools where scores remained low, teachers and principals were fired outright.
Gawande’s wonderful article portrays teaching embedded in human relationship, in caring, and in friendship. People can be helped to grow when others work with them as guides and mentors. Gawande suggests that employing people to work with and support others is an important kind of career. This message should thrill our own society’s over 3 million school teachers whose job is just what Dr. Gawande prescribes. Sadly instead, today our society’s tendency is to blame the teachers who struggle with overwhelming odds rather than figuring out how to support them so that they can create stable, supportive relationships with the children they serve.