Waiting for Clark Kent: How the Solution to Education Reform Is Right in Front of Us
Last Saturday, I picked up a copy of USA Today. (Please don't stop reading. USA Today. I know.) An article from the day before featured the Obama administration's response to finding of widespread cheating in DC public schools, specifically on standardized testing. The writer seemed to put much of the onus of this bad behavior on the teachers. The response? A manual to show how schools can prevent cheating. Huh? When I was about 10 years old, my mother caught me stealing from a local convenience store. To fix this potential problem, she didn't give me a book on how to buy things. She told me what I did was wrong, grounded me, and provided me the moral scaffolding to mold myself into someone who would know that stealing is wrong. With education on the brain (I finished my masters in education in 2008.), I finally watched Waiting for Superman, a documentary which purports to deeply analyze the broken state of public education in America. Watch a trailer for the film here. As the title suggests, though much work is done on a daily basis in an attempt to fix what is broadcast as an abysmal state of affairs in public education, we still seem to be hoping for a magic potion, a cure-all that will wipe away all the terrible problems with our schools and again produce happy, intelligent students. The problem is that every time the film's producers needed a villain to contrast with the low-income, mostly minority protagonists struggling to get their children a good education despite the odds, they targeted teachers. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (one of the two largest teachers unions in the country) is shown passionately speaking to mobs of cheering teachers and generally sounding like an asshole. Things would be so much better if it weren't for these darn, greedy teachers. The Post-Dispatch's own Bill McClellan wrote in his column last Sunday that switching the teachers at Vashon and Clayton wouldn't make a bit of difference. "Teachers are important," says McClellan, "but they are neither problem nor the solution." Au contraire, my mustachioed columnist. In fact, teacher effectiveness has long been a well-researched solution to almost every problem in education. Allow me to put this in perspective. What the research has shown recently in this country, concerning specifically teacher effectiveness, is that an effective teacher can outrun all other possibly negative factors bearing on a student's life. Educators define "effectiveness" very specifically, but don't let me lose you on that. (Read more about it here, if you like.) According to two different studies cited by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, "Research has shown that the single most influential school-based factor affecting student achievement is teacher quality." This is great news. But it's not the end of it. Teacher effectiveness is a more powerful factor than ALL other demographic factors COMBINED (e.g. race, income, family structure, etc.) To be fair, McClellan does push for some pretty common policy changes sorely needed at the state and federal levels, such as treating teaching as a profession. But this down home approach to a severely complicated matter is what pains me to no end. He holds up a former teacher because he never followed educational theories over the course of his 50 years of teaching. He just knew his subject well, and loved it. Wait, I thought we were supposed to treat teaching as a profession, where pay was based on professionalism and training? Enter the last bit of news, also from the Post-Disgrace. There is a bill in the state legislature that would essentially allow suburban school districts to dine on the wounded carcass of urban districts who've lost their accreditation, carving them up into chunks and distributing the spoils. How is this helpful? This does nothing to immediately address the issue. This creates a wonderful plan for the funeral, but NOTHING to plan for how to get the patient out of the hospital and walking around again. We need more effective, well-run teacher training programs. If we can teach the teachers how to teach, says the research, we can save the whole system. It doesn't matter that kids come to school with all the baggage from their lives. Good teachers can overcome it. It's proven. It's a fact. So let's stop talking about fixing our educational system by doing what we THINK will work based on our own anecdotal, personal evidence. Let's use what we KNOW works. I was never taught, during the two years of my masters program in education, how to run a classroom, for example. Command and "presence" in the classroom, and being able to multitask and navigate that environment is key to being an effective teacher. I had professors who knew their subject well, and loved it, and had been effective principals, but they couldn't teach a classroom full of masters-level adults to save their freakin' lives. We hire professors for all the wrong reasons who stand up in front of graduate classrooms to tell people how to teach, but turn around and execute all the bad behaviors they're telling their students not to do. Teach the teachers well who teach the student-teachers. The students will follow. The whole system will follow.