"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The "Teachers Are Built" Non-School of Thought

Last updated 2:30 pm:

Reminds me of the charter school I used to go to, High Tech High. It’s this odd school which is concerned all about image and making things look good. It’s big thing is “project based learning”, however I literally learned NOTHING the whole time I was there, I even forgot how to do some basic skills. If you disagree with them, all staff have this creepy yet cheesy pre formulated response that will involve the word “integrity”. Not all staff are bad, but simply stripped of individual philosophy. --Jacobito14 (student responding to KIPP story here)

The New York Times Magazine has a fondness for giving great swaths of paper and ink to the reform schoolers' mission to turn K12 education over to the corporations, and this week's 8,000 word piece by Spencer Foundation fellow, Elizabeth Green (former ed reporter for the right-wing New York Sun), does not disappoint in that regard. The operative metaphor of the piece, "Building a Better Teacher," follows from the ed deformer's core conceit that teachers are like mousetraps, devices that can be designed, re-designed, torn down and tinkered with to produce a more efficient way to capture and confine, er, educate.

And if you don't like the mouse trap metaphor, how about tinker toys or bricks or computer components, all of which may be assembled by curious tinkerers like charter schooler, Doug Lemov, whose quest to fabricate the best teaching tactics by the nation's champion test score producers is matched by another mission to turn his ultimate "taxonomy" for test score production into the bible for teacher training. Lemov's new bible would be composed of 49 commandments that are to be committed to memory and practiced until perfected. That, for Lemov, would be teacher training aplenty.

It is just too bad that author, Green, did not learn something about education before she landed her $75,000 grant to learn how to write about it. If she had, she would not have spent so many of her 8,000 words oohing and aahing about commonplace practices in teaching like "wait time" and "calling on non-volunteers," which she seems to think were first documented by Doug Lemov. And even though Doug has come up with 49 commandments, Green pretends that educational thinkers over the centuries have been in search of "one essential trait for good teaching:"
But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,” Gates said. “I’m personally very curious.”
There is enough misleading and dissembling in this one paragraph to make another 8,000 word article in response, but it is the awe-inspiring and cloud-splitting whine of Bill Gates that makes Green's exercise in determined stupidity memorable. Because Bill Gates is not aware of a clear view of good teaching, then one must not exist. Yes, it is that simple for Elizabeth Green. But there is, alas, plenty more propaganda for your crap detector where this paragraph comes from, with Green providing the Oligarchs' gloss on the history of education and teacher training in America, along with the smearing of the work by teacher educators and theoreticians from John Dewey to Deborah Ball.

But the real payoff comes near the end of this 8,000 words of pedagogical pablum mixed with corporate talking points:
Lemov and Ball focus on different problems, yet in another way they are compatriots in the same vanguard, arguing that great teachers are not born but made. . . . A more typical education expert is Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University, who favors policies like rewarding teachers whose students perform well and removing those who don’t but looks skeptically upon teacher training. He has an understandable reason: While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?
Here, then, was Green's real opportunity to apply some journalistic integrity to educate, rather than obfuscate and mislead. She could, in fact, have pointed to a couple of research studies on the effects of professional teacher preparation that might have provided Rockoff some sorely needed fill knowledge for his canyon of ignorance. She might have cited, at least, Darling-Hammond & Bransford's Preparing teachers for a changing world, or even James Stronge's Qualities of effective teachers. But, then, these titles are surely not on Green's required reading list of materials on how to win a place among the edupreneurs racing to build a simpler and cheaper teacher for the poor, one without the unnecessary knowledge of child development, educational philosophy and history, curriculum theory and practice, methods courses, special populations, and yes, even classroom management theory and practice. For the poor and brown, 49 Commandments will serve just fine.

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