From our national testing law, No Child Left Behind, through programs like School Improvement Grants coming from Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, federal policy is designed these days to blame and scapegoat school teachers. The assumption under today’s policies is that if we rate and rank teachers by students’ scores, they will work harder and smarter and do more with less to make up for the fact that across many states we are spending less on public education than we did five or six years ago. And we are spending not nearly enough in the communities where children are segregated in poverty.
Our national obsession with blaming teachers is likely also wound up with the fact that we have all watched a lot of teachers work. As we sat in their classrooms, it all looked pretty easy. When one listens to Emanuel Ax play the piano, it is also easy to imagine being a concert pianist because he makes it look pretty easy. This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss features a commentary from one of today’s best writers about teaching, Mike Rose, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and author of some of my favorite books on education, Lives on the Boundary, Possible Lives (stories of great teachers), Why School?, and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.
Rose shows us why being a teacher is not so easy. This morning he assigns himself the task of defining teaching. Is it a profession “like law or medicine, requiring a substantial amount of education before an individual can become a practitioner” or a craft that is learned principally on the job? Rose concludes that it is both: “Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others.” “Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity. You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly….” “So teaching Hamlet or The Bluest Eye, the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces in our culture.” I urge you to read Rose’s engaging, thoughtful article and then think about some of the teachers you know who do this difficult work every day.
Then I suggest you follow up by reading a short commentary by Helen Ladd, Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Appreciating the complex work Rose describes, Ladd worries about the diminishing number of experienced teachers in classrooms across the United States: “In the late 1980s, most of the nation’s teachers had considerable experience—only 17 percent had taught for five or fewer years. By 2008, however, about 28 percent had less than five years of experience. The proportions of novices in the classroom are particularly high in schools in underprivileged areas. Some observers applaud the rapid ‘greening’ of the teaching force because they think that experienced teachers are not needed. But this view is short-sighted…” “Wonderful as it it is for bright, college graduates to bring new energy and skills to the classroom,” writes Ladd, “schools pay a high price for too much teacher turnover.”