When I became an English teacher nearly 14 years ago, I expected a cut in pay. I expected students who would not turn in their homework and piles of papers to grade every weekend. Those were the challenges I was prepared for.
What I didn’t expect was to be vilified as the reason American schools are “failing.” Somehow it has come to this — teachers are the reason students are “failing,” meaning they cannot pass standardized tests. If we could get rid of all the bad teachers, we would have great schools.
There is a certain logic that could lead a person to this conclusion. After all, if a teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s education (which is widely believed and credited), then a failure of a child’s education must be the result of that teacher, right? We identify it, put a face on it (that bad teacher we had in sixth grade) and — voila — the problem is labeled. Good.
Or is it? If our schools are really that bad across the country, there must be a lot of bad teachers. And that is where we run into the nexus of the problem. For there to be that much bad of anything, there is a systemic failure. It is the system — and its underlying assumptions about learning — that need examination.
Linda Darling Hammond, a well-respected educator and academic who has studied teacher evaluation, says there is a difference between teacher quality (what any one teacher brings to the classroom in terms of skills and content knowledge) and teaching quality, which is much larger.
Teaching quality takes into account not just the teacher but the factors that affect the quality of teaching such as additional school duties, paperwork, administrative support, school environment and class and student load. In other words, teaching quality is dependent upon a system.
Still in the 19th Century
The American school system, then, is where we should seek improvement. We currently school our children under a system designed in the late 19th century using a factory model. By the time most students reach seventh grade, they spend six to seven hours a day being “assembled” one hour at a time.
Add an English part; then it’s on to the math class for an equation addition. While elementary schools are not divided into content hours that so closely resemble an assembly line, and are structured so that there could be a more integrated approach to learning, the truth is there is still reading time, math time, and daily oral language time.
As our corporations have transformed into more flexible and synthesized operations that encourage collaborative thinking, we are educating the workers of tomorrow in an antiquated, hierarchical system that segregates content and thinking.
U.S. education needs have changed
When our current system was designed, a large concern for public schools was to assimilate immigrants from Europe into our society so they would not challenge our country’s institutions and would become American citizens. We were training them for the factories in which society wanted to employ them. Public schools, by law, take all students.
Today, our schools are filled with immigrants from many more and more diverse ethnicities — children who saw parents murdered in Somalia, the Hmong and Karen people of Asia, Mexicans, Eritreans and Ethiopians.
Forty-five different languages at home
At my high school, more than 45 languages other than English are spoken in students’ homes. African Americans, whose ancestors were not even allowed in the same public schools with my parents, resist such assimilation as was designed into the original system. Yet, we expect all of these students, regardless of the length of time in America, to speak Standard American English.
We have mainstreamed students with mild to profound learning disabilities. These populations have enriched our schools, but today’s students are far from the homogenous group for which the current system was designed. And we are educating them not for factories, but for jobs that demand they think.
Testing the wrong things
Yet, we label schools as failures when we cannot move them through the system like widgets on a conveyor belt. When they snag on an algebraic concept or don’t interpret a piece of literature “correctly” on a state reading test, we label them “at-risk” or in an “achievement gap.”
The assumption that any standardized test can effectively measure learning in such a variety of students is flawed. Any teacher can tell you that there are myriad ways that students demonstrate learning — ways that are more relevant to life than a bubble test.
In fact, the current focus on testing is destructive. It has jettisoned us back to the drill and test, empty-vessel approach to education of 50 years ago that has further ostracized and dishonored our most “at-risk” students while confining everyone’s learning. (For those of you who don’t remember that long ago, the guiding philosophy of schools in the first half of the Twentieth Century was that students were empty vessels into which teachers poured knowledge.)
Compounding the problem are consultants who, for a handsome sum, will offer training in the latest fad that leaves teachers not knowing how they are supposed to be teaching or to what standards from year to year.
Good teachers have to fight
Good teachers — the kinds of teachers who light fires in students’ minds and challenge them to think — find themselves at odds with such a system. Ironically, Japan and China, whose test scores we envy as a country, are now moving to the more collaborative, constructivist model we are abandoning. They have come to realize that the rigid, standardized education that has put them at the top of the testing heap does not foster the kind of critical thinking that creates a Google or an iPad.
If we want to win this race, as our president has chosen to see it, then we need to follow the lead of corporate innovators and hire good talent (teachers), provide the tools and support the talent needs to do their job and then respect their work. When this state and country recognize that Google, not U.S. Steel, is the model for 21st Century schools, we may be able to make a dent in that achievement gap. Until then, teaching quality will be limited by the system in which teachers must operate.
This post first appeared on the site of Minnesota2020, a “Progressive, non-partisan think tank.”