“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – George Elliot
No, Educational Fatalism Is NOT Classroom Crankiness
It sounds as though I am striking a decidedly cynical tone when I admit I am becoming more fatalistic as I age. This byproduct of constant middle-age self-examination is not offered as a young curmudgeon’s riposte to the many disappointments of one’s early forties, but instead is a sweeping recognition of my own frailty and limitations to command the world to conform to my own private wishes and whims.
Nothing instills humility (and frustration and joy and agony and ecstasy) more than parenthood. Click To Tweet
Nothing instills humility (and frustration and joy and agony and ecstasy) more than parenthood. But lately, teaching is a close second. Here’s why: consider all the influences that shape the contours of failure and success in the classroom. How many of them, really, does an everyday classroom teacher control?
Not much, if we are being perfectly honest—and yes, somewhat fatalistically.
Teachers can’t force parents to read to their children. Teachers can’t force parents to impart the value of learning and education to their children at a young age. Teachers can’t shield students from violence in the home, the celebration of drug usage or recreational sexuality in our culture, or ensure that young people are exposed to unconditional love, an ethic of hard work, or dispel the poisonous lies our society perpetuates regarding consumerism, the cult of celebrity, or our unending fetishization of youth. Teachers can’t cook balanced meals, hug a child first thing in the morning or the last thing before going to bed. Teachers can’t nurse dreams for decades or monitor the daily usage of a child’s electronic device away from the classroom.
The sad reality is most of students’ successes and failures—just how much, exactly, is a pointed source of contention among researchers and academics—are decided by variables beyond our control.
This is why a decade and a half of teacher-centered education reforms were not exactly misguided, but not exactly the panacea reformers had been hoping for either. The mantra “fix the teacher, fix the system” was public policy snake oil from the outset. If there is an educational Promised Land, teachers are not the collective Moses the public wants us to be.
Yet this much is true: among the variables that educational institutions can control, the most important single influence on classroom success and failure is the quality (or lack thereof) of the teacher doing the instruction. And it is here that an American tragedy seems to unfold without end: in a society where impoverished students already face shamefully high hurdles, the students who need the most excellent teachers are the least likely to have them. At-risk students of all colors and background are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers, teachers who are on the cusp of leaving the profession, or teachers who are the least likely to be recognized for their teaching excellence.
The Peculiar Insanity of Modern American Education
This fact is absolute, utter, undeniable insanity.
A law firm does not give its most important client cases to a law clerk or a first-year attorney. A hospital does not hand off a complex brain surgery to a young doctor doing his/her residency. College seminar classes for seniors are rarely taught by neophyte professors. Blockbuster news stories are covered by veteran reporters, not the 23-year-old newspaper intern. The chairman of the Federal Reserve is not a loan officer from the local bank.
You get the picture.
So, it begs the question, who should teach our students with the highest hurdles? Who should teach the students who grow up in “high poverty,” a skyrocketing number now approaching 31% of all children. These students are often raised by a single parent working multiple jobs, often in neighborhoods where violence, drugs, gangs are omnipresent and positive role models are largely absent. These are the students whose lives are touched by malnutrition, mass incarceration, and social pathologies unimaginable to the average American youngster.
But it is only in the peculiar world of American education that the most difficult teaching situations are not given to the most capable teachers. And the reason is simple. We refuse to admit—as a matter of policy and pay, and for some people, principle—that there really are exceptional teachers who rise above the rest of us. There are, in fact, fellow educators among us who embody not just the best of the profession, but the highest and most adulatory traits of our humanity. I know because some of these people are my friends. I know because I have been taught by them. I know because I have studied them and their practices.
And yet, even broaching the subject of teacher excellence, differentiated teacher pay, and assessing the effectiveness of individual teachers is a taboo minefield so dangerous it has become a non-starter for most members of our profession.
We avoid the conversation because it makes us uncomfortable. But we are not the ones who suffer.
Teachers hate this conversation because it usually invites more administrator oversight and artificial fealty to a testing regimen that is already ruinous to the joy of the profession itself.
Unions hate the conversation because they often persist in the fictitious notion that, for the most part, every teacher is excellent and thus pay disparity it unjustified.
Administrators hate it because it adds a new dimension to their job that can quickly kill teacher morale or lead to them being accused of playing favorites.
But what if there was a way to avoid all of these problems?
A 21st Century New Deal-Marshall Plan-Apollo Mission
All of this begs a simple question: what could be done to incentivize our best teachers to educate our most needy students? How can it be done so as not to alienate teachers from their unions, their administrators, or their fellow teachers?
Experienced teachers with years or decades of experience have the testimony of hundreds and thousands of former students who reveal the efficacy of their teaching. In the long-run, the best teachers don’t affect tests, they improve lives and teachers who do it the best are usually well known. They are well known in their school, in their district, and even the broader community in which they live. But because there is rarely any financial incentive for our best teachers to teach our most challenging populations, the reward for their excellence takes on non-pecuniary forms—like teaching advanced classes, or at school sites with higher socio-economic status where discipline problems are absent or minor. The good news is identifying the most effective and impactful teachers does not require mandates, rubrics, and robust public policy changes. Here’s why: the wonderful thing about the teaching profession is that most teachers deserve the reputation they have, for better or for worse.
Imagine a world where principals in impoverished communities were given additional funds to entice the best teachers to teach at their schools. In no way would this take away the pay from other teachers nor would it institute a Byzantine system of teacher assessments. Our best teachers could be offered these stipends in one-year increments so as not to disincentivize the need for these teachers to continue their excellence in new environments. If these teachers decide to go back to their previous schools then, at the very least, the students have had one year of education from a true master of the craft.
Of course, there are problems. Poaching our best educators and matching them with more needy populations would certainly be disruptive to the sites where these excellent teachers current work. Moreover, our best students certainly deserve teachers that can successfully propel them to great heights.
Something For Everyone To Love
But here is the best news of all. The political optics of this policy would be palatable to liberals and conservatives alike. Liberals should welcome additional monies for public education as well as more focus on underserved student populations. Conservatives would welcome policy that rewards teacher merit and as long as the money was distributed to states in the form of traditional block grants so states were empowered to design their own version of this policy, Republicans would probably welcome it. It would also be administered locally and decisions about which teachers to recruit would be made at the site level.
A win for everyone.
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