Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Joe Nocera won't admit that there are too many bad or mediocre teachers

Joe Nocera doesn't want to find out how much good teaching can do to overcome poverty. Of course he's right that good teaching can't solve all the problems of students. Joe Nocera is disingenuous to pretend that reformers believe such a thing. I see no humility in Joe Nocera's essay about the limits of the current education system, although Nocera recommends humility to school reformers. Let's face it, Joe: bad teaching is a problem. And improving education might be the best way to bring about improvement in our unequal society: smarter voters might bring smarter policies. But they would also notice that Joe's essay is an attempt to get readers to take their eye off the ball and to convince them that any criticism of teachers amounts to demonizing them "for the failures of poor students."

The Limits of School Reform

April 25, 2011

...Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. [Maura Larkins' comment: Note that Mr. Nocera contradicts this statement in the very next sentence.] “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said Klein when I spoke to him. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

That last sentence strikes me as the key to the reformers’ resistance: To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. Without question, school reform has already achieved some real, though moderate, progress.

What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.

Over the long term, fixing our schools is going to involve a lot more than, well, just fixing our schools. In the short term, however, the reform movement could use something else: a dose of humility about what it can accomplish — and what it can’t. 

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