Enough of That . . . Or Is It?

I finished Dana Goldstein's book The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession and while there's certainly fascinating stuff in there (the reason, in the1800's, politicians embraced females invading a traditionally male job was because they would work on the cheap) and the book lays out, in a comprehensive and unbiased manner, the history of teachers and unions, education and desegregation, the various attempts to use testing and teacher evaluation to improve schools, the political and moral panic that often resulted in teachers being persecuted for reasons other than incompetence, the charter school movement, Teach for America, the Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and all sorts of other things that I knew only passing information about, but for the layperson the interesting part of the book is the epilogue, where she makes some recommendations based on all her research, and these are logical and worth taking a look at; but for those of you who don't feel like it, which I totally understand (you could be reading a Don Winslow book) here is a short summary:

1) teacher pay matters and while teachers aren't paid poorly in America, they aren't paid nearly as much as in countries with very successful education systems,  such as Finland, South Korea, and Japan-- if teaching jobs aren't coveted, and if teachers aren't as respected as doctors and engineers, then you won't be able to attract excellent candidates;

2) we need to focus on using good teachers as models and creating communities of excellent practice, rather than creating systems of evaluation purely to ferret out the bad teachers-- as these systems always fail because of the insane amounts of paperwork and data they create;

3) tests need to return to their rightful role as diagnostic tools, not as methods to achieve high stakes funding-- which resulted in teaching to the test, gaming the system, and all sorts of illustrations of Campbell's Law;

4) the principal matters as much as the teachers-- exceptional leadership improves the bottom third of teachers and the top third of teachers-- not excess evaluation paperwork;

5) star teachers were not necessarily the best students--so simply hiring people with higher math SAT scores isn't necessarily going to improve American education-- research shows you're better off hiring someone with excellent communication skills, who adeptly uses a large vocabulary, and can explain things well-- even if they once struggled to learn them in the past (and I agree with this, because I was a horrible and disorganized student, and so I know how to contend with this in class);

6) teachers benefit from watching each other work-- but there's usually no time for this (although since I started teaching Serial, a number of my colleagues have observed my class, and it's great-- they're not administrators filling out paperwork while I teach-- so there's no pressure-- and I can ask them for suggestions during the lesson or afterwards);

7) end outdated union protections-- there needs to be a faster way to fire incompetent veteran teachers, and a streamlined way for the teacher to appeal being fired (because teacher appointments and terminations have certainly succumbed to political whims in the past);

8) we are not as homogenous as Finland and there are limitations to our educational system, which is very decentralized, so it's near impossible to use top-down reform to improve our schools-- there's no federal body to check how schools are implementing federal standards, and federal funding is fairly minimal (compared to state and town funding) and we have schools in America with incredibly different study bodies and educational problems, so every school might need a slightly different plan to improve;

and finally, if you want to hear something more condensed on these issues, which features an interview with Dana Goldstein, then listen to this week's episode of Freakonomics: "Is America's Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?"

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