Bungle in the Jungle

In Who’s Teaching Your Children?, veteran teachers Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles set out to tell the inside story of American teaching and to issue a call to action for a better alternative. Like Sinclair, they largely succeed in issuing a powerful indictment, but get lost in the solutions.

As the authors make clear, teachers endure a largely miserable professional life, beginning even before they enter the classroom. Prospective teachers must undergo a costly regimen of classes in order to be licensed, classes that contribute little to student learning. Once in the schools, newly-minted teachers face an appalling sink-or-swim atmosphere. They are isolated from their peers and discouraged from visiting the classrooms of other teachers, not rewarded for special skills, expertise, or accomplishments, and given frequently useless opportunities for professional development and growth. Teachers are under pressure to watered-down academic standards, and they face a lack of respect for the profession overall.

“How many people would willingly study for and enter a career if they knew beforehand that their first day on the job would be very much like their last 30 or 40 years later?” Troen and Boles ask. Given that talented young people are drawn to jobs where initiative, skills, and performance are rewarded at least as much as seniority and hierarchy, the prevailing system virtually guarantees that the best and brightest will not choose to become teachers.

As 30-year veterans of the system, Troen and Boles avoid a ham- handed critique of teachers unions. They applaud the historic gains unions secured and cheer recent initiatives by local unions to embrace some educational reforms. Yet they point out that “the cold hard fact remains that little has changed in the vast majority of American schools.” But if their analysis of the problems of the teaching profession is spot on, their solution is less than convincing. The authors offer their own grand reform idea: “The Millennium School” (modestly characterized as “a total approach to solving the fundamental problems of elementary education”). It is an appealing model although so far just that– a model.

Their ideal Millennium School is a small one where teachers have collaborative opportunities woven into the fabric of the school day. For instance, educators would work in teams rather than toil in isolation. New teachers would have plenty of mentoring from their more experienced colleagues, and would teach part-time in an internship model.

The Millennium School concept shares a couple of problems with other attractive education reforms. First, what may work at a boutique level may be impractical as a broader reform. Change is hard to pull off in one school, let alone district or state-wide. (Troen and Boles wrestle with this dilemma partly by proposing intermediate ways to infuse existing schools with some of the characteristics of Millennium Schools.) Moreover, there is a chicken-and-egg problem. We need Millennium Schools to attract more good teachers, but plenty of good teachers are a prerequisite for having many successful Millennium Schools. Troen and Boles look to teachers with National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification to serve as mentor and lead teachers. The trouble is there is no empirical evidence that these teachers are in fact more effective than teachers without NBPTS certification. There is considerable evidence that those teachers are unlikely to be found in the poorest schools.

The authors fall into the same trap they chastise others for: proposing singular solutions to multifaceted problems. For instance, they are critical of charter schools–independent public schools started by teachers, parents, and community organizations. These schools are freed up from most rules and regulations but held accountable for meeting the terms of their public charter. It’s true, as Troen and Boles contend, that many charter schools haven’t succeeded. (Though several recent studies not cited in the book indicate disadvantaged students do at least as well or better in charter schools than in conventional school settings.) Yet ironically, it is in charter schools that the authors’ ideas for giving teachers more authority and decision-making responsibility are being used. The point is not that charter schools are necessarily better or worse than traditional public schools. It’s that we need a public school system that is more pluralistic in how it approaches problems, empowering those responsible for its success, and demanding real accountability for results. That, after all, is how other professions improve.

Troen and Boles help the education reform dialogue by asking the right questions. But as any progressive educator these days ought to know, there is often more than one right answer.

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