Here’s another op-ed by UGA prof Peter Smagorinsky. Smagorinsky is professor of English education. The piece runs on the education page Monday, but here is a preview:
Imagine being in a work environment where, in order to make sure that poor performances are discouraged or punished, the rules are structured to ensure uniformity at a low, yet acceptable level. Then imagine being a smart, creative, dynamic person in such an environment. You have great ideas that might lead to new ways of doing things, but the rules are structured so that your job is to produce your widgets in the same manner as your least-inspiring colleagues. Would you stay, or would you go?
Attracting and retaining the sort of teachers envisioned by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan — the best and the brightest, the vibrant and the forward-thinking — seems highly unlikely in the sort of environment he is creating with his Race to the Top initiative. His plan is designed to drive bad teachers from the profession by making teaching and learning uniform and making teachers accountable to his low standards.
Let’s take some renowned teachers from history. Socrates, although at times rather a bully, used a method to interrogate and expose the weak thinking processes of students. His teaching was centered on producing better thinkers who could then help advance Athenian democracy. But Socrates in the Duncan era would not be engaging his students in thought. He would be preparing them to pass tests that evaluated their ability to answer questions about which Greek fighting ship was invented first, the trireme or the penteconter, and whether or not the trireme was a single-tier ship with two tiers of oars, or a double-tier ship with one tier of oars. (Correct answer: The trireme was a single-tier ship with two tiers of oars. Bonus points if you knew that there was only one man to an oar.)
Or let’s take another ancient teacher of note, Jesus. Whether you are a Christian or not, you might consider Jesus to be a pretty good teacher, or at least acknowledge that his lecture notes have survived for a pretty long time.
Imagine him giving the Sermon on the Mount, and then having stone tablets distributed to the assembled listeners in which they were required to answer questions about his speech. Paper had been invented by then, but this being school, they were a millennium behind in resources. Question #1: Blessed are the merciful, because (a) theirs is the kingdom of heaven; (b) they shall be comforted; (c) they shall inherit the earth; (d) they shall be filled. Actually, that was a trick question: The correct answer is that the merciful shall obtain mercy. See you in hell.
Fortunately for them, neither Socrates nor Jesus taught in a U.S. school, where the emphasis is on eliminating bad teachers instead of attracting and retaining good ones. I suspect that neither would last long as the test-administering functionary required by Duncan.
We will have a few bad teachers no matter what we do. But if we obsess on them, then we’ll lose sight of the fact that good teachers require something more than an environment meant to punish bad ones. Good teachers need to feel valued and respected. They need to have the latitude to exercise good judgment, to be different when they need to, to incorporate new ideas into their teaching, to view their work as a way to grow intellectually and in the process inspire their students toward the same vigorous and invigorating way of approaching life.
The straightjackets of minimum-competency national standards and the testing mandates that enforce them may well make such work virtually impossible to imagine or carry out.