Friday, June 15, 2007

An expert defends teachers!

Diane Ravitch is an education expert. That means that she is critical of American public schools, and she's one of those people who immediately puts this blogger into a defensive mood. But recently, after checking out Joanne Jacobs's site, I found that Ravitch wrote this piece after attending one of those conferences of "the elite" that considered what could be done about the dismal state of American education. Naturally, much of the discussion focused on those darned American teachers. Here is some of what Diane Ravitch had to say after that conference:

After sitting through another day of discussion in which the teacher was identified as the chief cause of our nation's education woes, I felt that something was amiss. It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers — about 40% who enter the profession will leave within their first five years, frustrated by their students' lack of effort, their administrators' heavy hand, unpleasant physical conditions in their workplace, or their own inability to cope with the demands of the classroom.

I have not met all three million of our nation's teachers, but every one that I have met is hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students. All of them talk about parental lack of support for children, about a popular culture that ridicules education and educators, and about the frustrations of trying to awaken a love of learning in children who care more about popular culture, their clothing, and their social life than mastering the wonders of science, history, and mathematics.

This is a tangled skein of causation, to be sure, but I have a radical idea. Next time there is a conference about the state of American education — or the problems found in each and every school district — why don't we take a hard look at why so many of our students are slackers? Why don't we look at the popular culture and its effects on students' readiness to apply themselves to learning? Why don't we investigate the influence of the role models of "success" that surround our children in the press? Why don't we ask how often our children see models of success who are doctors, nurses, educators, scientists, engineers, and others who enable our society to function and who contribute to our common good?

It's time to stop beating up on teachers and ask why so many of our children arrive in school with poor attitudes toward learning. If the students aren't willing to work hard, if they aren't hungry to succeed, then even the best teachers in the world — laden with merit pay, bonuses, and other perks — are not going to make them learn.

Every article and book about successful education systems in other nations say that their students are "hungry" for education, "hungry" for the learning that will propel them and their families to a better life. Our children — with too few exceptions — don't have that hunger. It's not the fault of their teachers.

We will continue to misdiagnose our educational needs until we focus on the role of students and their families. If they don't give a hoot about education, if the students are unwilling to pay attention in class and do their homework after school, if they arrive in school with a closed and empty mind, don't blame their teachers.
Diane Ravitch just became my all-time favorite expert!

15 Comments:

Blogger Law and Order Teacher said...

While I enjoyed your post and found myself shouting Amen! several times, let's not forget that we, as in any other profession, have people who are not good at their jobs. If we adopt the union stance that all teachers deserve the utmost in protection to keep their jobs we will continue to be ridiculed. We have to be open to change and accountability. Having said that, the teachers I know with rare exception, are dedicated and hard-working. We labor in a nearly no-win atmosphere with little resources to reach a lot of kids who don't care, backed by parents who care even less. The fact that most kids leave our classrooms better educated and better off than when they arrived, given the system, is a frickin' miracle and a testament to the dedicated teachers who bring it about. I am proud of my profession.

6/15/2007 8:23 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

L&AT, it's getting hard for me to comment. I agreed with everything that Diane Ravitch said, and now I agree with everything you are saying. Well put!

6/16/2007 3:08 AM  
Blogger Mrs. Bluebird said...

Wow! And this from an "expert"? I couldn't agree more.

6/17/2007 6:29 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

And we aren't just talking about ANY expert here. We're talking about someone who has written eight books on education, a former Assistant Secretary of Education, and a key promoter of establishing state and national academic standards. Wonders never cease!

6/17/2007 9:17 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers — about 40% who enter the profession will leave within their first five years"

I'm just hoping those are the ineffective ones.

And I do believe part of what will make students interested in school, is school. Lots of countries have pop culture, and celebrities. However, I do think there needs to be systemic changes rather than teachers to simply "try harder".

Sorry, very tired today.

6/18/2007 12:13 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

You might find this blog post by Dr. Ravitch interesting: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2007/04/why_history_matters_1.html

6/18/2007 12:33 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Wow! I'm liking Diane Ravitch more and more. Thanks, Michael!

6/18/2007 12:49 PM  
Blogger Sailorman said...

After sitting through another day of discussion in which the teacher was identified as the chief cause of our nation's education woes, I felt that something was amiss. It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers — about 40% who enter the profession will leave within their first five years, frustrated by their students' lack of effort, their administrators' heavy hand, unpleasant physical conditions in their workplace, or their own inability to cope with the demands of the classroom.

I can't help but note that this is not exactly a logical paean to the teaching (or debating) profession.

Cause and effect, people. The fact that 40% of teachers leave in their first year says NOTHING AT ALL (no, not even a little) about the quality of the teachers who remain. Snarkier commenters might note that the reverse might well be true. Surrounded by folks who think this type of paragraph actually contains a relevant point and logical conclusion, perhaps the top 40% are leaving in frustration.

We see that teachers are
"hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students. "
This might be a prerequisite for good teaching (it's not clear that it is; some of my best teachers were relatively lazy and not earnest.) But it's not proof of it.

All of them talk about parental lack of support for children, about a popular culture that ridicules education and educators, and about the frustrations of trying to awaken a love of learning in children who care more about popular culture, their clothing, and their social life than mastering the wonders of science, history, and mathematics.
Wow! You mean to tell me that the people who she talks to don't think that they are the cause of the problem??? Maybe they're not the problem. I doubt they're all of it, for sure. I certainly agree that society contributes a lot. But in the rest of the world, surely we all realize that this is common. Nobody thinks she is part of the problem.



I know, I know, I'm being logical again. It pisses the shit out of some folks. And I'm sorry it does.

however, when I see a group of people simultaneously claiming to be smart/educated/etc, and in the same post making sweeping statements that toss cause and effect out the window...

Well, it's just too good an opportunity to pass up.

6/18/2007 1:54 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Sailorman, I think you're patting yourself on the back a lot more than you deserve for your logic. You pull your statement about teachers being part of the problem right out of left field. Ravitch's statement that you quote is only indirectly related to that. She's not saying whether she thinks teachers are part of the problem or not, and that certainly wasn't her point when she points out what teachers have told her. She is saying that the teachers she's met are trying very hard, and she's acknowledging that the problems they complain about are very real. One of the things that makes Ravitch's opinion so noteworthy is that she has not been a big supporter of teachers in the past. In fact, she has been very critical of many of the teaching methods that have been used, and she certainly isn't recanting those views here.

You also imply that the people who are leaving teaching in the first few years might be the best teachers. Good logic? With all due respect to those who have left the profession, I don't care who it is or what profession it is, it is far more likely that someone who is good at something will continue with it than someone who is bad at it.

And finally, if some of your "best" teachers were lazy, it makes it a lot easier to understand your attitude toward teachers.

6/18/2007 6:01 PM  
Blogger sailorman said...

Perhaps we merely disagree about the correct interpretation of what Ravich said. Here's the parts I am referring to:
It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers — about 40% who enter the profession will leave within their first five years....

I don't see how that first sentence is anything other than a poorly stated (and unsupported) factual assertion.

Teachers work hard. In fact, even many of the bad ones work hard; most of the good ones do.

But is hard work really the answer? A goals-based approach suggests that the "hard work" aspect and the "earnest" aspect are, at the end, sort of beside the point, unless they are a crucial aspect of student success.

Take DI, for example. Does a teacher using DI "work less" than someone else? Maybe. Do they need to be as creative; as earnest; as committed? Probably not; one of the goals of DI is to have it function for less experienced teachers.

You also imply that the people who are leaving teaching in the first few years might be the best teachers. Good logic? With all due respect to those who have left the profession, I don't care who it is or what profession it is, it is far more likely that someone who is good at something will continue with it than someone who is bad at it.
That is why I deliberately used the words "might well be true." My statement is accurate as it stands.

Your counterargument, though, isn't all that accurate. You suggest that "it is far more likely that someone who is good at something will continue with it than someone who is bad at it."

You neglect to mention things such as personal bias (believing you're "good at" something, when you are objectively poor at it;) opportunity cost of switching; finances; etc. You also fail to mention social pressures.

Your argument amounts to this:
"People stay in their profession with greater frequency if they are, objectively, good at their profession."

here's a great counterexample: Women in the legal field leave the profession, or fail to become partners, at a much higher rate than men. Are they "less qualified?" (No.)

I'm not saying I'm right; I doubt that my suggestion would be proven correct. I'm sure that bad teachers leave, as well as good teachers (though I do maintain that retention is linked to "dedication" or "investment" or "lack of other options" more than to "objective teaching quality." I was (as I said) deliberately being sarcastic.


And finally, if some of your "best" teachers were lazy, it makes it a lot easier to understand your attitude toward teachers.

Oh, please. My statements about teachers and teaching are either correct or not. My attitude towards teachers and teaching is entirely unrelated to whether or not my statements are correct.

And this goes back to the point of my original response. Too many teachers are illogical. If you aren't capable of separating my attitude from my assertions, how on earth am I to believe you're capable of distinguishing between "good" and "bad" teaching? Teaching is hard; logic is simple in comparison.

6/19/2007 6:03 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I wouldn't take Diane Ravitch to task for not supporting her statement on the 40% of teachers leaving the profession; it's an article, not a research piece. It's rather the assumption that those are the lower performers that bothers me. A null hypothesis would suggest that the 40% is evenly distributed across skill potentials.

I'd add that there's an undertone suggesting that's a high attrition rate. I don't know whether other professions have greater or lesser turnover rates.

"every one that I have met is hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students"

Presumably she knows this because teachers they say they are hardworking, earnest and deeply committed.

"All of them talk about "

Informal survey research.

"why don't we take a hard look at why so many of our students are slackers?"

Absolutely! Please do! Just make it a real investigation, with real recommendations rather than an excuse.

"Why don't we ask how often our children see models of success who are doctors, nurses, educators, scientists, engineers, and others who enable our society to function and who contribute to our common good"

Wow, talk about an opportunity to be snarky ;). Anyway, though, most of the popular prime-time entertainment on tv is filled with tv shows with doctors and lawyers, and even a few scientists (CSI) and police.

I really think Diane Ravitch mischaracterizes the criticism somewhat. I think few parents look at the education system and conclude the teachers are incompetent. More conclude education is handled badly in general. Saying "stop beating up on teachers" is essentially just presenting the most sympathetic victim.

6/19/2007 7:59 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I'm guessing you didn't read Ravitch's entire opinion piece, and if that's the case, you might slightly misunderstand it. Ravitch isn't talking about parents blaming teachers; she's talking about people who make and influence policy. She wrote this after attending a conference of "leaders of industry, commerce, and government." In the paragraph before the blockquote I used, she said this:

"When the time comes to talk about solutions, the conversation and the remedies always seem to focus on teachers. The line goes like this: Our students are not learning because our teachers are not smart enough, are lazy, don't care, get paid regardless of their effectiveness, and so on." That is what she is responding to.

Sailorman, attitude does matter. At least it does to me. It determines whether I'm actually having a discussion with someone who has somewhat of an open mind, or if we are just trying to score points. I've had some great discussions with people I've disagreed with on this blog, but that's because we've been somewhat open to each other's points of view. The comments you've made sound like they're coming from someone with a strong hostility toward teachers. They haven't struck me as having come from someone with an open mind. I've been wrong before (I thought the same thing about Crypticlife when we first started going at it, but I've found that not to be the case), and I could be wrong about you.

I know there are people who disagree with me on a lot of things, and I'm not surprised that people disagree with what Ravitch had to say, but the harshness of your first comment seemed inappropriate to me. It sounded like it came from an all-out teacher-hater. And if that's the case, nothing I say is going to change your mind.

6/19/2007 10:03 AM  
Blogger sailorman said...

Sailorman, attitude does matter. At least it does to me. It determines whether I'm actually having a discussion with someone who has somewhat of an open mind, or if we are just trying to score points.
Fair enough question. I'm not an all out teacher-hater (my mother and grandmother were teachers; so were some of my best role models in life.)

Neither am I an all out teacher-lover. There are outstanding teachers, good teachers, poor teachers, and awful teachers. As with any profession, IMO the truly outstanding ones are relatively rare. And as with any profession where the pay is ungodly low, IMO a lot of the top candidates who could (or would) be teachers are not actually teachers. I believe this slants the overall teacher quality downwards relative to other professions. Finally, I confess that I view the teaching industry in general as being fairly protectionist w/r/t the "poor" and "awful" teachers. This is by no means limited to the education industry, but it's still true.

So in a nutshell: I am generally skeptical, but fully able to be convinced by facts. Whether that disqualifies me from further discussion is your call.

6/19/2007 12:13 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6/19/2007 1:33 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Okay, Sailorman, fair enough! Like I said, I've been wrong before, and I'll be wrong again. I actually do agree with you about being protectionist, and that is one of the things that I would like to see changed.

There is no question that, overall in our society, money talks. If a person's major concern is making money, and they go into teaching, you're right--they probably wouldn't be very good at anything, and we do have some of them. But money is not as important a concern for some people as it is for others, and I think the teaching profession has a relatively large number of those people in it.

Well, at least we've found one thing we can agree on.

6/20/2007 5:38 AM  

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