Our most recent exchange resulted from Jal Mehta’s Times April 12 op ed piece, Teachers — Will We Ever Learn? that we had both read. Mike quoted from Mehta’s piece on his Startinganedschool Blog:
Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.
By these criteria, American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance.
It is not surprising, then, that researchers find wide variation in teaching skills across classrooms; in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.
I sent this comment to Mike:
“I had already read the Jal Mehta piece and was considering writing a lengthy response on my Blog, but as happens often these lengthy responses never get written and I find myself instead playing with the kids.
“Jal has a not unreasonable idea, but he’s wrong. As they say he’s comparing apples and oranges, for lawyer, doctor, and engineering preparation can not be compared to teacher training. Why? Because the ones, the lawyers, doctors, and engineers are not ultimately dealing with the whole person, or the whole student, only the part that is going to receive what they know, be it the givens of law, medicine, and engineering. Teachers, on the other hand, are confronted with the whole kid, with all his bumps and blemishes, with his qualities, and talents, with his inadequacies, with his interests and bad and good habits and on and on… For there will always be much more to the kid than the teacher can possibly be aware of in advance. No teacher preparation, no matter how admirable as at MATCH, can possibly foresee more than a fraction of what the student will confront. In fact, the teacher, especially the new ones, and the honest ones, will be the first to tell you that there was no way they could have been prepared for what they find before them in the classroom. That’s why they wing it, some anyway, probably the most successful ones. They have to. That’s probably the only way. The others, too many of them, and probably not up to winging it, adopt a defensive posture and just try to get through the day and then the semester without attracting too much attention, neither from the administration nor from the kids themselves. They go along.”
Following that Mike replied in an email to me:
Hi Philip, I always like getting your emails.
Well, I agree that teachers deal with a whole kid. And that there will always be times where the new teacher is winging it. And that many newbies just try to get thru the day.
The question is whether there are common things to expect, and whether ALL those must inherently be “winged.” Right?
I don’t think so. I think we have pretty good evidence to the contrary, with our program that you helped fund. And I think we’ll build an even better evidence base over time.
There are a number of very predictable situations that teachers will face, and if prepared for those, the details of understanding each kid as unique are not critical.
These exchanges, of course, never end. They just stop. But before this one stopped I replied just this morning to Mike:
“OK, Mike, I’ll give you the middle ground, admit if not accept that there is a middle ground, things that we may expect teachers to encounter and for which we can prepare them, and I’m sure in the best schools of preparation that’s what goes on. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be plenty of the unexpected, that for which even MATCH can not prepare its teachers. Isn’t it more like the training of the “special forces,” where, as you point out in regard to teaching there are also some “predictable situations” for which training is possible, but ultimately what the graduates will encounter in the field will often be the unexpected, that for which they haven’t been trained. Furthermore, and as in the case of your young teachers, the best of them, when they meet the unexpected, will know somehow know what to do in the field. That is, they will successfully wing it. But the enemy will still be out there, always beyond our efforts to contain him or her in our planning. And although I’m not pleased with the comparison, the whole kid to the enemy, that kid will always confound our efforts to “learn” him or teach him, just as the enemy will confound and frustrate our best efforts to eliminate him. (My comparison gets worse!)
“However, I still think that Mehta is wrong to compare teacher training to the training for the law or medicine. To use another figure, our constant battle to educate our young is much more like our no less constant battle to understand and predict the weather, or the fluctuations of the world’s currency markets. Like these the education of our young is not yet, except in part as you point out, within our grasp, even with the help of the latest and biggest super computer.
“The conclusion, and one that is generally accepted, we just don’t do a very good job of educating our young, and so far we are still far from reaching a solution to the problem. W-hy? For me there are still too many variables, too many unknowns.
“Now I confess that I’ve just recently re-read Charles Murray’s 2009 book, Real Education, or Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, and I did have this a bit on my mind when I read the Mehta piece. In case you’ve forgotten (or maybe don’t want to remember, as probably all true believers in the public schools—those whom Murray calls good people, but romantics.) Murray’s simple truths — 1. Ability varies, 2. Half of the children are below average, 3. Too many are going to college, and 4. Our country’s future depends much more on how we educate the academically gifted than, and I add this myself, on our, say, solving the problem of our failing inner city public schools, that which the “no excuses” schools have set out to do.
“Murray says it’s just not true that all children can learn all that we would teach them. And it’s just not true that any more than a minority of our young will ever (“ever” meaning a reasonable amount of time) be able to continue their education in a demanding 4 year liberal arts program in college and be successful. Although of course they’re all able to do something, and be successful. We just haven’t provided them with the opportunities for doing this something, rather subjecting all of them to the same inappropriate college model. And for this reason our teachers are faced with a stacked deck, one stacked against their well meaning efforts to do the impossible and reach all their students. And Mehta’s mistake was to make us think that the law, medicine, and engineering teaching models can be applied to the public schools. They can’t.
It’s fun to read you, too.”