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 (http://michiganradio.org/post/we-will-pay-our-lack-respect-teachers). 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.

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Comments: 7
  • #1

    Karin Litzcke (Monday, 06 April 2015 12:34)

    As long as teachers allow themselves to continue to be triply-indentured to progressivism, however, they will continue to be manipulated into being the problem. If they can escape progressivism, teachers can be one of three keys to ending poverty, as Dr. John McWhorter points out in his keynote speech here: http://www.cato.org/events/can-we-end-poverty.
    Progressivism comes at teachers from the beginning of their training, and it comes from edschools (where it originated and which indeed exist only because of it), unions (which were formed originally as a way to control teachers), captive administration and politicians, and even bamboozled parents. The escape from progressivism begins with the understanding that teaching well is cheaper, not more expensive, than teaching according to John Dewey's outdated and elitist theories.

  • #2

    Mitch (Monday, 06 April 2015 13:53)

    Karin,
    In the interest of "discussion" I'm going to leave your comment here. Thanks for reading, if not quite understanding.

  • #3

    Karin Litzcke (Monday, 06 April 2015 14:52)

    I appreciate you doing so, and I'm absolutely game for discussion, with or without quotation marks. The impression that I don't understand may come from the fact that I didn't directly disagree - which is because I don't. Blaming teachers is indeed a no-win strategy, as is expecting them to improve with the conditioning and control mechanisms to which they are presently subjected. The only places in the US where I can see teachers evading becoming political footballs between the progressivists and the reformers is in the two states that have Education Savings Accounts: Arizona and Florida.
    There (for some kids), the parents have the money; it goes directly to teachers, bypassing all the organizations that exist to siphon it into their own pockets, whatever the ideology of those organizations.
    For teachers, it's unequivocally better when the money travels UP the supply chain, rather than DOWN.
    And the more attention is focussed on things like overall system funding and overall sociopolitical issues, the more the money is going to be hoarded at the top of the supply chain where it serves everything except giving teachers the simple satisfaction of going home every day knowing that they did good work.

  • #4

    Martha Toth (Sunday, 12 March 2017 15:48)

    To me, the most important part of your piece is "reflective teachers." Reflection — including learning from one another — may be the most effective professional development strategy. American teachers are so consumed with DOING, both in terms of student contact time and administrative requirements, that they haven't enough time to reflect properly on what they do, how, why, and how well it has worked. They cannot be true professionals without this time, which should absolutely be part of their normal work schedules.
    That said, I have seen the difference up close in the effectiveness of excellent training. My go-to example is the ES teacher with a master's in the teaching of reading: she was hands-down better at it than those who got on-line degrees in something vaguely education related.
    As for the comments above, the only engagement from me is to note Florida and Arizona being held up as models. Oh. My. God. My sisters in those states would beg to differ.

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    I have not generally concurred with the greater part of the suggestions her work on these endeavors has created, I'm additionally sufficiently reasonable to comprehend that these sorts of activities are troublesome operations to deal with; somewhat like educating an elephant to move - you can do it, yet it will take quite a while, be exceptionally hard to pull off, and many individuals will get hurt.

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