Looking for solutions to our country’s problems we go on making the same mistakes, in particular making the same incorrect assumptions as to how things might be changed for the better.
In the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Essay Steven Brill does exactly this sort of thing in what he has to say about education, assuming as he does that in order to improve our schools it will be enough to improve the quality of our teachers, not “super teachers,” just better teachers.
He may be correct that there are not now enough good teachers out there (are there enough good anything?), but he is wrong to assume that any number of good teachers would be enough to turn things around in our failing, or near failing public schools.
He does correctly recognize that the Charter public schools, in spite of some extraordinary successes, such as we find in the so-named No Excuses Schools — KIPP, Achievement First, Cristo Rey, MATCH and others, — are not by themselves enough to turn things around for all.
At present there are just 5000 Charters, vs. over 100,000 traditional schools, or 1 in 20, and there are just 72,000 charter school teachers vs 3.3 million, or about 1 in 50.
Charter Schools, Brill does say, in the long struggle to improve American schools, will lead us to the right place only if we can figure out at the same time a realistic way to motivate and enable the tens, hundreds of thousands of less-than-extraordinary rank and file teachers who are out there.
Now does anyone think that that’s about to happen? I don’t think so. That will never happen no matter what we do. Even doubling teacher salaries will not make the “less-than-extraordinary” extraordinary. This is not the way we change things for the better, nor is it the way people are.
Important changes for the better, if not in our schools, in the education of our children (these are not the same thing) will only come about if students, not just teachers, become motivated, interested, accountable, all of which adjectives do not at present describe hundreds of thousands of the several million students attending our public schools.
Instead of talking about good and bad teachers, we ought to be talking about the motivated, too few, and unmotivated, too many, students themselves.
KIPP’s Dave Levin and the “Saturday Essay’s” Steven Brill both recognize that the heavy teacher load in the charter schools is not sustainable in the long run, and that the many excellent teachers will in large numbers leave after only a few years, this being also true for those doing Teach for America, wanting understandably to have a life of their own.
But the principal mistaken assumption that both Brill and Levin make is that teachers do have the power to change the schools, to grow the achievement of their kids, that through long days, long evenings, often weekends and vacations on the job, that they can make a significant difference in what and how kids learn.
A difference, perhaps, but not significant, and nothing at all compared with what the kids can/could do for themselves. In fact, our major change or reform efforts ought to be directed at the kids, at raising their interest and motivation levels to the point where they start to learn not for us but for themselves.
A good teacher may very well direct all his or her efforts at raising the student’s own desire to learn. But, and this is the critical point, even the good teacher (not to mention the good parent) may not be anywhere near enough to bring this about.
So the mistake is to assume that solutions to our failing public schools can be imposed on the schools, and on the children, from without. Brill’s answer to improve the schools by improving the teachers is not enough for it’s just not true that it takes first of all a good teacher for children to learn, or that with a bad teacher children won’t learn.
A student’s real learning is most often a world apart from both teacher and classroom.
We make a similar mistake in regard to our thinking about health care. Here also we look to impose good health solutions on people, —more health insurance, for example, more access to the latest and costliest drugs and medical technology, more visits to doctors and such. No more than for students’ learning can this, good health, be imposed by our efforts from without.
For just as children will not learn until they hold themselves accountable, responsible for their own learning, people will not experience good health until they themselves become the principal actor in the process, until they take on the principal responsibility for caring for themselves.
Good health does not follow so much from the actions of doctors, from hospital stays, no matter how important these might be in particular, in emergency situations, but from people’s own actions, their own choices, respecting how they will live, what they will eat, how they will exercise their minds and bodies etc.
And as I believe I’ve said many times in earlier Blogs both health care and education ought to start with the consumers of both and with their choices.
I happened earlier today to read Todd Clever’s words when speaking of his United States rugby team. He says:
“The biggest thing in rugby is that everybody plays offense and defense. It’s a team sport with no timeouts, and when things get tough, you have to work it out on the field. It’s not about the coaches. It’s about the players.”
I would say that the biggest thing in education is that the students themselves both learn and teach. That learning has to go on all the time. That there are no timeouts. And that when things get tough the students have to work things out for themselves, wherever they may be.
For just as rugby is about the players, not about the coaches, so education is not about the teachers. Education is about the students.