Saturday, October 16, 2010

Waiting for Super Teachers

Education is among America’s most urgent concerns now. For decades pressure has been building to reform the nation’s deplorable public schools, from kindergarten through the twelfth grade (K-12). In spite of the billions that have been poured into the system by the government and by wealthy entrepreneurs, there has been no noticeable improvement in the quality of K-12 education in the U.S. for the last four decades.

In 1971, for instance, the average score for 17-year-olds in reading test was 285; in 2008, it was 286. In 1973, 17-year-olds averaged 304 in math tests; in 2008, the average was 306. Forty years ago, the United States had the highest high school completion rate in the world. Today, it ranks 18th out of 24 industrialized nations. Among 30 developed countries, fifteen-year-old U.S. students rank 25th in math and 21st in science In just 10 years, there is expected to be more than 120 million high-paying, high-skill jobs in the U.S., but only 50 million Americans qualified for these positions.

In the global knowledge economy, an educated citizenry is the key to a nation’s success, its true source of power. All signs, however, suggest that America’s current generation will, for the first time in its history, be less educated than the previous generation. Wars and financial meltdowns do not threaten America’s national interest as much as a broken public school system that churns out large numbers of clueless adults unable to cope with the demands of the 21st century.

The recently-released educational documentary by Oscar-winning (An Inconvenient Truth) filmmaker Davis Guggenheim called “Waiting for Superman” highlights what plagues the system. The Superman in the title refers to a student’s childhood belief that the ghetto in which he lived might one day be rescued by the Man of Steel. The movie follows the wrenching stories of 5 students and their families as they face a terrifying future. Who will rescue them from the “dropout factories” in which so many are trapped? What can be done when one despairing student after another says, “I am going nowhere and I have no interest in living?” How can incompetent teachers be purged who inform students with sadistic glee that “I get paid whether you learn or not?”

On the opening night of this somber film (not your typical Hollywood action flick) in California’s Silicon Valley, I found the theatre packed with moviegoers trying to understand the seriousness of the issue and their responsibility to change the status quo.

In the movie, “Superman” comes in the form of charter schools. These schools use public money but are independent of district bureaucracy. They have the freedom to do whatever is necessary to improve the quality of education, including firing failing teachers, a near-impossibility in regular public schools. There are two intertwined “villains”: Teachers’ unions and tenure. The main function of the first seems to be to protect teachers at any cost, particularly the incompetent ones. The second often translates into lifelong employment for bad teachers with no accountability for non-performance.

The reality is more nuanced. Teachers’ unions have become easy scapegoats although there is no doubt that they are a major contributor to perpetuating an obsolete, tenure-based system. Achievement gains in charter schools are also not uniform. While there are many high-performing charter schools among the nearly 5,000 that have sprung up in all 50 states, there are also as that are no better than problem-ridden inner-city schools. Besides, of the 56 million children in the nation’s 133,000 elementary and secondary schools, charter schools account for only 3% of the K-12 population. It is not at all clear how they can scale their success to include a larger percentage of students. The movie shows in heartbreaking detail how getting admitted to a charter school for those who need it most – the poor and the disenfranchised – depends on, believe it or not, lotteries!

However, charter schools such as the “Knowledge is Power Program” (KIPP) have achieved two feats. First, they have proven that it is possible to teach students from all ethnic and economic backgrounds for high levels of scholarly success. Second, they have introduced innovation into a public school system whose classroom format - one person lecturing captive students - has not changed since Laura Ingalls of “The Little House on the Prairie” sat in one a century ago.

So how does one go about transforming America’s K-12 public education? Given the stakes, there is no shortage of ideas: student-centered system, rigorous accountability, online classes, Web technology, abolishing tenure and teachers’ unions, common core standards, 21st-century curricula, and so on.

While all these ideas have merit, the one constant in the calculus of school reform is teacher quality. Good teachers make good schools. They are the reason why students flourish. In unveiling his “Race to the Top” school reform agenda, President Barack Obama said as much, that the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income; it is the quality of their teacher.

Given this, ‘what makes a great teacher’ has become a dominant theme in the current education debate, particularly in the context of the Internet and the changing nature of how students acquire knowledge in the 21st century. Here are a few characteristics of life-changing teachers, in no particular order.

Good teachers are passionate about their students and subjects. They demand more and get more. They know how to use textbook facts (most of it available via Internet search anyway) – be it algebra or English or biology – to inspire independent and critical thinking. Every child starts out as an intellectual explorer. It is the rare teacher who can demonstrate that knowing why - an idea - is more important than learning what - a fact.

Good teachers know that learning occurs when they treat students not as empty vessels but as self-creators seeking expert help. Students are diamonds in the rough. As an award-winning teacher has observed, they have a certain need, an insight, a capacity, an unformed thought. If they are lucky enough to meet a teacher who can respond with a skill, a technique, a body of knowledge, a habit of mind, a sense of humor, learning grows by leaps and bounds.

Uncommon teachers keep the goals of teaching in mind. They ask themselves: what effect will we have on our students in ten or twenty years? A science teacher knows that only a small fraction of them may become scientists. An English teacher knows that only a few, if any, will become professors of literature. But they believe that science or art, if properly taught, will remain a source of pleasure in their lives. Uncommon teachers believe in the fundamental importance of what they teach, no matter what the current fads are and how uninterested some students may appear. They strive to earn their wings everyday, year after year.

Good teachers do not “teach to the test.” Testing is one tool among many to assess student progress but teaching only with the purpose of helping students pass tests is a folly, a delusional approach to education that degrades the profession. Good teachers (one reason why they are so rare) know that critical and independent thinking are traits that require infinite patience to nurture. They are able to strike a balance between the conflicting demands of short-term assessment and long-term creativity.

There is, of course, no best way to teach. If we study superstar teachers, we find that each is distinctive in her or his own way. What is common among them, however, is that they have an intuitive understanding of their students that, when combined with their passion for the subject, enable them to sow the seeds of wonder in them, the source of all insights and discoveries. Perhaps the most encouraging fact to emerge from recent studies is that committed teachers can evolve in their profession as they master the subtleties of their art. In other words, most great teachers are made, not born.

We do not need to wait for Superman to lift our public schools from mediocrity to excellence. All we need are super teachers.

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