A recent op-ed piece in the NYTimes by Jal Mehta, professor of education at Harvard, asks if we can ever "fix the teaching profession". The answer, the author argues, is yes, but not by following either pole of the current debate: neither the Michelle Rhee model of laying blame squarely on the teachers, nor the Diane Ravitch model of blaming corporate profiteers and social ills. Instead, what we need is a mixture of accountability and recognition that social ills drive inequity in schools. By properly training teachers, we can overcome things like poverty and academic unpreparedness by getting teachers into the classroom who know how to overcome such difficulties. A rigorous exam, for example, would make sure only the best and brightest enter the profession:
A rigorous board exam for teachers could significantly elevate the quality of candidates, raise and make more consistent teacher skill level, improve student outcomes, and strengthen the public’s regard for teachers and teaching.
Unfortunately, this is all bullshit. And it comes from one of the greatest myths in education, the idea that student performance in general has very much to do with the teacher.
While it is true that a teacher can make a big difference, this is only marginally true, and when compared with similar demographics of students. To understand this, you must first look at how education actually happens in the classroom. In any school there is a great variation in student preparedness, i.e. their emotional, cognitive and behavioral readiness for learning. At the elementary level, you see this as a spectrum within the classroom. But as children enter middle and high school, you see it both within the classroom as well as across subjects, with some same-age students taking low-level classes, and others taking high level classes. At both ends of the spectrum, you have special education and gifted programs taking the very top and bottom students.
What's interesting is that at almost every level, the "preparedness" of the student is entirely dependent on the home from which they come to school each day. Aside from genetic anomalies (special ed or gifted), students are basically products of their environment and will perform as such. Families with high levels of societal capital with produce children with high levels of preparedness, and families with low levels of societal capital will produce children with low levels of preparedness. You see this across schools and districts, the measurements of societal capital correlating directly with student performance.
At the macro level, generalities are easy to predict, as the data sets are large. For example, income correlates in general with societal capital, and so neighborhoods on hills have high test scores, while neighborhoods near industrial zones have low test scores. Yet when the data sets are smaller, generalities are harder to make, and evidence becomes less clear, even if larger trends still hold when small data sets are included in wider arrays. For example, at one school, there might only be 10-20 kids whose parents both have graduate degrees. It is therefore difficult to make any generalizations about the highly educated school population at that school. But if we combine what we know about students with highly educated parents, we can make rather strong predictions about the preparedness of such children.
This is not a new phenomenon; it is a basic reality of human development. What is odd, however, is the idea in education that a student's preparedness can somehow be markedly changed by a single, highly trained teacher. This isn't, after all, how we actually approach the problem in schools. We don't give kids Calculus when they haven't mastered Algebra I. Education 101 tells us about the "zone of proximal development", a basic psychological principal that one's knowledge must necessarily grow by degrees, not giant leaps. New knowledge must be applied to old knowledge for it to be meaningful.
And yet this is exactly what is being asked of teachers of disadvantaged students, who by definition are lacking in academic preparedness. Remember, of course, that there will be highly prepared students in poor schools, but less of them. Their dilemma, of course, is that they must suffer through an education in which so many of their peers are so disadvantaged. In a way, it would be like forcing Michael Jordan to play on a team where few know how to dribble the ball. Charter schools have been able to gain great moral favor by promising to provide just these sorts of students an "out", their poor parents no longer being constrained by the relationship between their income and real estate values. (Of course, going to a "good" public school is as easy as being able to afford an apartment in a nicer part of town).
This larger theme of social inequality, disadvantage and the reality of property markets is a tough sell. What is it, after all, that one is selling? How do you solve a problem as complicated as all that? Next thing you now we'll be talking about more redistribution and that means more taxes and moral arguments. So much easier it is to simply emphasize the technical aspects of the problem and go after the low-hanging fruit, especially when examples of lazy teachers, intransigent unions, and arbitrary seeming tenure-ships can score big political points.
The problem is that accountability doesn't seem to be working. Sure, we're only ten years into NCLB, and we still haven't been able to break the unions, end tenure, develop top-tier education bar exams, tie employment to student performance, or fully roll out charter alternatives to public schools. Maybe by 2022 we'll have done so.
But it isn't going to work, for the simple reason that performance has little to do with the teacher. In the end, if you still have classes of 25-30 unprepared kids and one teacher, you are not going to be able to meet their needs. At the end of the day, the reason the students are unprepared is that their home lives have been, are, or will be shitty. The reasons are too many to list, but they are created from inequality. Single-parenthood, incarceration, menial-wage work, mental and physical health crises - all at various levels of severity and impact, feeding on each other to lower societal capital - will forever be conspiring to devour the child's preparedness. A system designed around a teacher overcoming these problems, alone in the classroom is destined to fail. And if our current course is any indication, it is will bring everything else around down with it.
You might be able to find a few rare teachers who can do some amazing things, but they will be the exception, and in the process of finding them - if current reforms are any indication - you will have severely damaged what could have been a much more humane, nurturing, creative profession. Ending tenure will create a climate of fear and remove a promise of job security that compensates so greatly in a profession that requires so much sacrifice. Designing accountability around tests principally designed to improve scores of the least prepared, ironically, will reduce education across the board to a numbers game. It will promote a pedagogy that might increase scores in the short term, but will create a fog of lifelessness in the classroom that in the long term will drive the disadvantaged student to feel even more trapped and cornered by a less and less flexible institution in which he can only succeed by repressing his natural impulses. Those that can buckle under to authority will do so and those who cannot or will not will be sent down a punitive road leading to further discipline and eventual expulsion or other exit.
So what would one propose as an alternative? We must start by radically changing our course. We must throw out the idea of the teacher as the solution and instead look at how we can go after the problem in a structural way. Special education is a great place to start. Landmark law in special education was rooted in the notion, often seen as enshrined in the 14th amendment, that all - including those with special needs - have the right to an equal education. Not only were they to be offered the same education as everyone else, but their special needs were explicitly required to be taken into account and remedied for. As recently as the Americans with Disabilities Act, students with special needs have been promised in the courts an education that takes into account their special needs. Within reason, such students are given aids, support materials, special teachers or special classes designed to supplement their education so as to ensure that they can be accommodated for.
This is what disadvantaged students need; their disadvantage must be accounted for. Currently, we do this in only the smallest of ways through income-predicated funding that provides for extra meals at school, and a small portion of special serves. In general, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you get some extra food. But extra food doesn't begin to make up for the level of under-preparedness that disadvantage creates. For some, it is surely important, but would you give a kid with severe disabilities a sandwich and expect him to be able to function fine in a regular classroom. What if half of the other kids in the class were in wheelchairs as well? What if some had autism, some had troubles with speech, some had problems toileting and some had a mental impairment? What kind of teacher would we expect to be able to provide a proper education to them?
Disadvantage in is this regard invisible. It is hard to see on the outside, but is no less real. When a child grows up without a father and learns from his friends that school is for chumps, he doesn't walk into a classroom with a sign declaring so around his neck. Instead, he might simply choose not to listen to the teacher, do as little as possible to get by, or - God forbid - only pretend to fill in the bubbles on his standardized state test. What happens when half the kids in his class are just like him? 67% of black kids grow up in single-parent families. What if they have other issues at home, such as physical, emotional or substance abuse, or if their parents simply don't know how to prepare them for school because they were never shown how themselves? Again, the list of issues associated with poverty and disadvantage is almost endless. But suffice it to say that in poor neighborhoods, classrooms are filled with them. Issues then become ever more concentrated as children age, until high school were the entire is usually spent with under-prepared, under-achieving peers who are frequently delinquent because they've simply lost all respect for the institution of education.
But what if we found a way to identify, track, and provide targeted support to these kids and their families? In special education, there is a specific model called Child Finder, which actively seeks out children whose special needs are affecting their school performance. A process is created in which a panel is formed to evaluate the needs of the child on a regular, ongoing basis. It is not simply left up to the teacher to do his or her best in the classroom, making phone calls home when possible. Specialists are called in, paperwork is initiated, goals are established and necessary accommodations are made. The child is not given everything under the sun. But what is offered is substantive and supposed to be reasonable.
To a degree, this has begun to go on, but in highly inappropriate and misguided ways. Owing to special education's history clinical history as targeting children with obvious physical disabilities, when a child presents negative behaviors that are severe enough, they are being classified as needing special education. But the model is limited. Merely being disadvantaged certainly doesn't qualify, and a special classification comes with a highly negative stigma.
What would need to happen is the creation of a new system of identification and classification that is as least restrictive as possible, but that still allows for appropriate interventions. Because the issues in disadvantage are much less clear than low-order physiological issues in special education, the program must be flexible and allow for students to move fluidly in and out. For instance, a student might be going through a rough period, and require only very temporary intervention. Others might face more severe problems and require multiple years of intervention. The intervention model would also need to be broad enough to incorporate a wide variety of emotional, cognitive and behavioral deficits.
What would the program look like? At the most basic level it would be a dramatic reduction in class size. This would primarily serve to facilitate a more differentiated, nurturing environment. Academically prepared students can handle much larger class sizes. Their developmental capacity allows them to be more independent, more able to follow directions, and be more self-directed in their learning. But under-prepared students need more help. In education, this would be called "scaffolding"; the process of supporting students as needed, with the ultimate goal of removing scaffolding as they reach new levels of proximal development. The differentiation would be effected both in delivery of curriculum, but also in provision of specialized services. The child's family would be brought in to his or her education in w much more forthright manner. Not only would there be time to do so, but there would be trained staff on hand to do the proper outreach and support required to meet the needs of the family.
As in special education, this support would range anywhere from the child being placed in a mainstream classroom, with ongoing special support by outside specialists, to small day classes. It would be entirely goal based, with mainstream teachers setting the pace for their academic subject standards, and the individual child's placement and level of services be rendered accordingly. For example, if a student is regularly scoring poorly in an area, or is becoming a discipline problem, special support services would be alerted, and the child would be targeted for interventions.
All of this would cost money, much more than we are spending now. But the difference is that we would be holding ourselves morally accountable for the reality of our society. Special education also costs money, but we don't call it "throwing money at a problem". Instead, we consider it our responsibility to fellow citizens. Tragically, while there will always be students born with special needs, there will also be children born to families that for whatever reason haven't been able to prepare them adequately for school. As a society, we have agreed to maintain an economic system that keeps large sectors of society impoverished. We have tacitly agreed upon a system of property that forces people to live in communities segregated by income and societal capital.
If we are truly honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that human development doesn't happen in a vacuum, and that families matter in the preparation of a child throughout his school years. Just as we decided decades ago not to ignore students with disabilities, today we must decide to stop pretending that teachers are the solution to social inequity, and to stop ignoring the problem of academic preparedness.
Students who come to school prepared don't need "good" teachers. Neither should students who come to school unprepared because of their disadvantage. What they need are special services that take their development seriously.