Op-ed column: Saving education by hiring ‘better teachers’ a pipe dream

Nobody suggests we cure our health care woes by replacing doctors and nurses with better ones. But m

Nobody suggests we cure our health care woes by replacing doctors and nurses with better ones. But many policymakers tout restaffing schools with better teachers as the key to healing public education.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is one of them.

Like most carpenters and dentists, I’ve known a few people in my profession who are bad at it. I oppose the reflex union response to keep them in their jobs unconditionally. Most teachers, though, are competent. That’s not to say that many of us are excellent, but that’s the nature of excellence — it’s rare. Any scheme to rescue public education by staffing schools with “excellent” teachers is a pipe dream. Most teachers will never be excellent.

Of course, neither will most plumbers or congressmen, and we’re only looking for 435 congressmen out of the whole population.

Secretary Duncan heaps lavish praise on good teachers as unsung heroes. He lauds those who “toil late into the night on lesson plans,” pay for their classroom supplies, and “wake up worrying when one of their students seems headed for trouble.”

Like many professionals, my workday doesn’t end when I go home. Beyond that, I think paying for my classroom supplies is like expecting an auto worker to furnish his own steel. And while my students’ troubles touch me as they would any decent human being, they’re not usually why I wake up at night.

Secretary Duncan observes that “great teachers change the course of a student’s life.” I hope there’s a shadow of me in some of my students’ memories. I remember several of my teachers fondly. But great people of all sorts change other people’s lives. Teachers are just more likely to have the opportunity.

Romantic notion

And while we sometimes “light a lifelong curiosity, teaching students to solve problems like a scientist, write like a novelist, listen like a poet, [and] see like an artist,” Mr. Edison’s maxim about genius applies to education: Learning is far more perspiration than it is inspiration. Yes, I enjoy seeing the glimmer in my students’ eyes, but most don’t grow up to be scientists or poets. The secretary’s lofty, romanticized notion of learning is shared by too many Americans and is one reason American students aren’t learning as much as they should.

The secretary asserts that “the single biggest influence on student growth is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom.” That’s probably true, provided you don’t count the students he’s standing in front of and all the years, good and bad, outside the classroom that made them who they are.

Secretary Duncan also contends that most teachers are “not adequately prepared for the realities of managing a classroom.” Here he has a point. Ed school programs are typically awash in theory and run by people who, like the secretary himself, lack any classroom experience.

He reserves his harshest criticism for reformers’ favorite bogeyman, the 20th century “factory model” of public education. He complains, for example, that students still “study five subjects a day in timed periods.” Except that the five subjects he’s talking about are English, math, science, social studies and a foreign language or some other elective. It’s unclear which ones he’d like schools to eliminate.

As for eliminating schedules, reformers haven’t yet discovered how to materialize an adolescent in two places at once. They do agree that students need longer “block” classes to learn effectively, except when they’re agreeing that students can’t be expected to concentrate on anything for very long.

The secretary charges that teachers are treated like interchangeable widgets on an educational assembly line. His solution is to pay us according to the quality of our work instead of our experience and academic degree.

Quality immeasurable

Teachers, like other civil servants, are paid according to fixed scales to eliminate favoritism and corruption in hiring and salaries. Besides, thanks to the unreliability of modern standardized testing, there’s no practical way to objectively measure the quality of my work.

But even if you could, and taxpayers were willing to pay me more, most teachers I know are already doing the best job they can with the students they have. Nor will higher salaries lure some untapped flood of excellent, prospective teachers. There’s simply a limited number of people willing to spend their workdays dealing with hundreds of other people’s children.

If I’m incompetent, I should be dismissed. But firing a few of us and paying a few of us more won’t save the country.

The secretary sees another drawback to being a widget. He says that instead of being treated like skilled professionals, we’re “supervised and directed by everyone from the state legislature down to the school principal.”

I don’t feel like a widget. And I recognize I’m subordinate to my principal, as well as to the laws my legislature enacts. But if Mr. Duncan means that too many people who don’t know how to teach keep telling me how to do my job, I’ll agree.

As long as he adds the secretary of education to his list.

Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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