Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Threat of Influence

Intrigued by a tweet, I clicked over to this article on "The Most Influential Educator in America." The list of nominees is not, in itself, controversial--although clearly, some people are confusing the word "influential" with "beneficial." Apparently, a person can't be influential if you think she's wrong.

What I found interesting was the dialogue below the article, in "comments." Someone disses Wendy Kopp because, the person says, she's created a business model that imagines teaching as a stepping stone to other careers. How dare she! So, again, apparently evil isn't influential.

But is it evil?

First of all, do we really think it's a bad thing to inject more people into the American bloodstream who actually know what it means to be a teacher in a classroom? What it takes? How HARD it is? Don't you think that breaking our version of the "thin blue line" would help the cause of teachers in policy arguments, both in Congress and in the news? Don't you think the old, "you get off work at 3:00 and have summers off, so shut up" argument would diminish if more peope, in more walks of life, really understood the world of the classroom teacher?

But that's a minor quibble. The more interesting point, I think, is that we seem to refuse to acknowledge that difficult choices must be made--that we can't eat our cake of publication and have it, too. Roads are diverging in the wood, and we, being one traveler, can't take them all.

Here's what I mean: We know that, by and large, we're recruiting teachers from the bottom quarter of college graduating classes. We know that many teachers leave the profession within the first five years of practice. I think we can assume that, by and large, the ones who leave are the ones who have other job options available. Maybe that means they're "smarter" or better educated--who knows? But a lot of people leave. We know that teacher effectiveness is a significant determining factor in student success (even though older studies seemed to suggest otherwise). And we know that professional development, as it's traditionally done, isn't really increasing teacher effectiveness. So what are we supposed to do?

A) We could increase teacher pay to attract better candidates into teaching as a life-long career. But there are a hundred reasons why that isn't happening and isn't likely to happen any time soon, except in isolated cases. See: unions, pensions, the larger economy, and people's bizarre contempt of teachers.
B) We could invest heavily in intensive, long-term, work-embedded professional development to increase the effectiveness of our current cadre of teachers. That would be lovely, but I don't see it happening anywhere, probably because schools are starved for money, the unions often balk at mandating things like PD, and no one can ever agree on what information or skills, exactly, lead to increased effectiveness. Not that we don't know--we all know--we just all know differently.
C) We could re-cast teaching in community-service terms more than in lifelong-job terms, to attract quality candidates who are willing to do the job for a little while before moving on to other careers. That's the TFA model.

Is there a choice D? I can't think of one. Either improve the people you've got, replace the people you've got with "better" people, or augment what you've got with "better" people on a temporary basis. I guess choice D would be "do nothing."

If you have a choice D in mind, let me know!

Anyway, the point is, things can't get better AND remain the same, unless you think things are as good as they could possibly be, right now. And nobody thinks that. And yet, we get angry at people who are trying to change things. We say, "just leave teachers alone," which is absurd. What we're doing right now may well be intrusive, over-regulatory, and ineffective, but that doesn't mean we should just walk away and let each individual teacher do whatever the hell she wants, in isolation from the rest of the school, like in the good old days.

First of all, the "good old days," if they were really all that good, had a completely different teacher corps than we do today. They had what amounted to a captive population of well-educated women, most of whom who couldn't find other jobs, except for nursing and secretarial work. Think about the women who are currently lawyers, investment bankers, doctors, and business executives--smart, driven, amazing women--and assume that if we were back in the early 1960s, a large subset of them would be classroom teachers. And then tell me nothing has changed.

So, again: change who's in the classroom, somehow, or deal with who you've got.

What about Finland and Singapore? Everyone is crowing, these days, about how they don't regulate their teachers to death, or mandate a curriculum, or test their students every ten seconds. All true. But in those countries, they can "leave the teachers alone" because they've invested HEAVILY in them before they reach the classroom. So they have a pretty good idea what they're going to do once they get there. In our country, on the other hand, a principal can't have any clue what his teachers may or may not know, think, or be able to do as educational practitioners. They've all come from different schools, different pre-service programs, maybe even different states, all with different requirements, training mandates, curricula, and philosophies. So good luck being an "instructional leader" in your school.

Change it, one way or another, or figure out how to deal with what you've got and get better results.

There are a lot of people out there who have tried to do the latter and have found it impossible. So they've tried to find ways to change the paradigm. Some of them are succeeding. Either the new models they create will be effective, in which case we can make them spread, or they'll prove ineffective, in which case we'll cross another idea off the list and try something else. But at least we'll have learned something. At least we'll have tried.

I call that influential.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Should we kill the liberal arts major?"


Unless you're talking about one particular liberal arts major who's done something horrible and deserving of death. In which case: Maybe. But if you're talking about the major in general, concpetual terms, then No.

This question is the basis for an article in Salon. It includes many, many face-slappable moments. Or, at the very least, moments where you want to hit your own head against a wall.

Here is a short list:

Is the recent college grad with the psychology major now working as a babysitter because she majored in psychology? Or is it, perhaps, becuase, as she says, she was a lousy student? Or is it, perhaps, because we're in a lousy economy with high unemployment?

Are young people majoring in the humanities unemployable because they can't "do anything with their major?" Meaning they should have majored in something more do-with-able? And if that's true, then what, exactly, is that more-do-with-able major?

The liberal arts are supposed to teach you how to read and write and speak and think. Last time I checked, those skills were all highly transferable into a number of jobs. You ought to be able to "do" a lot with those skills, even if your major was not narrowly defined as a jobs-training program. And there are PLENTY of people currently employed who do a lousy job of all of those things, so it seems to me we should be doing MORE on the liberal arts, not less.

So no, there aren't all that many job openings for "poet." But a decent career counselor at a college should be able to steer an English major into almost any job he wants. Virtually every employer out there is despearately seeking people who can process information and communicate clearly.

Of course, if you insist on defining the liberal arts super-narrowly, then yes, perhaps they are "useless." If you think the actual educational content of being an English major is limited to knowing and being able to share facts about particular pieces of old literature, then your skills may not be very transferable. If you think the actual purpose of learning history is limited to knowing and sharing facts about particular times and places, without any transferability of themes and concepts to our own world, then yes, you're not much use to anyone outside of academia. But who ever said those things were the points of those fields of study?

Well, maybe some lousy professors did. I'll grant you that. We have far too many people teaching their subject from deep within the chamber of expertise, where things only matter for their own, pure, Platonic essence-y sake. We don't do a good job of connecting the benefits of being a well-rounded and thoughtful person, and the skills acquired through deep reading, writing, and discussion, with the outside world of work. So shame on us.

But if the problem is too-narrowly-focused teachers and courses, then come on, guys--let's fix that bathwater of focus; don't toss out the baby of, you know, our entire history and body of knowlege.

Also, just by the way, if we really are going to start talkong about college as nothing more than a jobs-training program, then good luck trying to suck $100,000+ out of families for the privilege of attending.

Training may make you an employee, but education makes you a person.