Can You Build a Teacher Bigger, Faster, Stronger?
Elizabeth Green's book Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) avoids most of the politics that Dana Goldstein covers in The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession and instead focuses on the quest to find out what good teaching is and what characteristics a good teacher possesses; along the way she dispels some myths-- one is that teachers are "natural born" . . . it would be convenient if this were so, because then it would be simply a matter of firing the worst ten percent of teachers (which is a LOT of people-- there are 3.7 million teachers in America . . . it is by far the largest number of white collar workers in any one profession, as a comparison, there are 180,000 architects and 1.3 million engineers) and replacing them with folks that are "born to teach" and then all our test scores would rise, but though there have been plenty of attempts, there are no particular characteristics or personality traits or intellectual capacities that make a good teacher-- as long as you are smart enough, it's something you learn . . . then there are the folks that just think if there were enough accountability and testing, we could figure out where the problems are-- but these sort of data collection set-ups don't actually help teachers improve and generally collpse under their own weight, and on the other side of the coin are the autonomy people, who believe that good teaching results from teachers being completely on their own, free of testing and data . . . but there's no indication that this is the case either; Green goes to Japan, a country that test far better than us in math, and she finds that they use a system very different than ours, where teachers have a lighter class load, but much more time to collaborate and observe colleagues, and then study and criticize their lessons in an intense fashion-- and, ironically, the Japanese learned this system from the United States-- we invented it, but we never implemented it (the book closely observes math teaching and an easy way to spot the difference is that American classes progress in an "I, We, You" fashion-- the teacher demonstrates, the kids work together, and then they try it alone, while Japan works in a "You, Y'all, We" manner, where the kids work on a single problem-- carefully crafted by a team of teachers-- and they work alone and struggle at first, then discuss possible methods with each other, and then have a teacher directed discussion on how they might go about solving the problem) and Green comes to the conclusion that though we've tried some noble experiments (the "zero tolerance" charter schools in impoverished areas and plenty of collaborative programs in certain schools) that we have no national infrastructure for this sort of thing, no shared curriculum and vocabulary in disciplines, and a general incoherence because of state, national, and district mandates (which may or may not conflict with each other) and that more observation (especially by people outside of one's discipline-- which is what is happening now in schools everywhere around the country) is not particularly helpful unless the teacher is a complete trainwreck-- and most teachers are not (in fact, teachers which are rated ineffective one year, have a very good chance of being rated effective the next, so there's a lot of subjectivity in these ratings) and so they need very specific feedback and lesson ideas for their subject area, not more administrative data, but-- as Michael Roth points out in this review of the book, American teachers clock far more hours in the classroom than teachers from other countries (especially successful countries) and so there is no time to collaborate or watch other teachers lessons or team plan, and -- because of the particular American obsession with business and productivity-- I can't imagine our course or student loads ever diminishing, so in a sense, we will remain islands unto ourselves (I am very lucky that a lot of collaboration goes on informally in my department, but it's pretty random and essentially determined by what English teachers you have lunch with . . . which is no way to improve national test scores in reading and math) but you never know, the book is worth reading just for the math ideas alone, which might help you to help your kid with his math homework.