The one about "Skillful Teaching," "Bad Teachers," and Real Solutions...

A recent Michigan Radio "Next Idea" piece featured the well-respected Dean of the University of Michigan's College of Education, Deborah Ball, and her thoughts on improving teacher education ( The essay starts out nicely, then takes an abrupt turn into very troubling territory:

"Teaching matters. We know that it can make the difference between a child learning to read by third grade, being confident in math, and developing the mindset necessary for success. Yet skillful teaching is not commonplace, and it’s hurting our society."

Let me start by saying that I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Ball's work. Her research on "math knowledge for teaching" is one of the most innovative insights into teacher knowledge that I've come across in the literature, and her reputation in education and research circles is impeccable. She has also taken a leadership role in education reform in our state, and while I have not always agreed with all of the recommendations her work on these efforts has produced, I'm also realistic enough to understand that these sorts of initiatives are difficult operations to manage; a bit like teaching an elephant to dance--you can do it, but its going to take a long time, be very difficult to pull off, and a lot of people are going to get hurt.

That said, I have to say that I'm disappointed in Dean Ball's rhetoric here--she seems to be adopting the reformers' talking point that if we can just "improve the quality of the teaching force," all the problems in education would be solved. I don't know what teachers she is observing, but the teachers I see in the schools today are the best and brightest I've ever seen--and are doing heroic work in spite of the most difficult conditions we've ever faced as a profession: meager resources; dwindling budgetary support; a narrowing of the curriculum leading to cuts to music, art and PE; withering attacks from Rhee, Kopp, Gates and Duncan and friends; an obsession with standardized testing; and much more.

Now, I'm certainly not saying that improvements to teacher education should not be pursued--as reflective teachers and teacher educators, that's what we do--we are constantly on the look-out for ways to improve our practice and strategies that will positively impact student learning.

But its not a lack of "skillful teaching" that is "hurting our society." Its a stunning disregard for addressing the real problems in public education in our state:

Focusing on alleged issues of teacher quality only serves to distract us from dealing with the real problems facing our students, teacher, schools and communities. The "problem" isn't a lack of "skillful teaching"--its a lack of public awareness on where we should really be focusing our attention, energies, activism and resources. And the "solution" will not be found by placing the blame on teachers.

Teachers aren't the problem--they are the solution.