President Obama recently invited four teachers to lunch at the White House, which means more teachers have now eaten salmon in the Blue Room than were involved in drafting No Child Left Behind and the Common Core. He wanted to know how he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who joined them, could “support teachers in high-need schools,” why his guests had chosen to work with “needy populations,” and what could be done to ensure that “students who need the strongest teachers receive them.”
Why had the president invited only teachers from urban districts? Yes, a lot of children attend urban schools, and those schools do have serious problems that need addressing. But education reformers have been addressing those problems for more than four decades. Setting aside their notable lack of success, and the fact that many of their well-intentioned, bright ideas have made things worse, they’ve chronically made the mistake of imagining that city schools’ problems are all schools’ problems, and that consequently the cure for one is the cure for all.
Some common threads and issues characterize and trouble schools and students everywhere. But even for those commonalities, applying the same remedies doesn’t work in a nation as vast as ours. Hartford, Connecticut, is a radically different place from Hartford, Vermont, a small town on the same Connecticut River just two hours distant.
I can’t tell you how many 1990s workshops I endured where a traveling expert, fresh from researching urban schools, spent hours impressing upon my rural colleagues and me the absolute necessity of breaking our middle schools down into “houses” comprising no more than 500 students.
We had 40 eighth-graders at the time. That didn’t stop the repeated, pointless sermons, the resulting committees and initiatives, and the gross waste of time, effort and money spent on inappropriate action.
Reformers likewise noticed that many urban minority students were placed in lower ability groups. Their remedy was to ban ability grouping and place all students together in the same academic classes, regardless of effort, preparation or intelligence, a practice they soon imposed on all schools, regardless of size or ethnic composition. This false pillar of modern reform has impeded teaching and learning for two generations.
Multiply that waste and error from coast to coast, and you’ll understand why I’m concerned that the president invited only teachers from urban schools.
I don’t entirely disagree with what his guests told him. They asked for more say over what happens in their classrooms. Instead teachers are increasingly constrained by the Common Core, burgeoning federal and state regulations, and supervisory edicts from ever farther away.
They complained about excessive testing and regulations requiring that teachers be judged by those tests’ results, “data” that have proven chronically unreliable and that reflect factors in students’ lives and minds over which teachers have no control. None of that, of course, should have been news to the president or Duncan, since they’re the masterminds who’ve exponentially extended the reach of the federal education bureaucracy and instituted the testing and evaluation regimes his guests were talking about.
I definitely don’t agree with the teachers’ assertion that “there’s nothing wrong with the kids.” While many American children of all cultures and colors are decent and hardworking, there’s plenty wrong with lots of kids. Many come from homes that are apathetic, even hostile toward learning, teachers and school. Many lack everything from decent food to a decent night’s sleep. Many lack initiative and self-discipline, or any discipline, a point to consider in light of the administration’s campaign to punish schools that discipline too many minority students in the very classrooms where the president hopes to improve the academic climate and retain good teachers.
The president’s guests also told him that only a handful of teachers can’t or won’t get better and that “bad teachers” aren’t schools’ primary problem. They may be underestimating the handful, but overall bad teachers aren’t the reason for America’s academic malaise any more than bad pediatricians are responsible for childhood obesity.
Teachers aren’t significantly better or worse than when I was a student. But the luncheon conversation reflected a change in how teachers are judged, where “bad teachers” are the ones who “don’t care about kids.”
I enjoy spending my days with my students. Many of my colleagues feel the same. But I’ve met some lovely, compassionate teachers who aren’t, and never will be, good at teaching. I’ve also had teachers who couldn’t have cared less about me as an individual but who taught me all there was to know about trigonometry and 18th-century novels.
I don’t mean we should tolerate teachers who mistreat children, and it’s certainly more pleasant to deal with nice people, but caring isn’t the chief criterion by which we should judge a teacher.
I still find learning a satisfying endeavor. I try to help my students feel the same way. But acquiring knowledge and skill is an endeavor. It’s often hard, exhausting and not instantly gratifying. Until we and our students reckon with that truth, they won’t learn much.
Whether my teachers cared about me didn’t matter nearly as much as whether I cared about learning what they had to teach.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.MORE IN Commentary
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