Monday, January 22, 2007

Teacher Quality and Heroic teachers

Writing in the New York Times, Tom Moore, a 10th grade history teacher in the Bronx, laments Hilary Swank’s portrayal of a courageous and committed teacher in the movie Freedom Writers ("Classroom Distinctions," January 19, 2007). Freedom Writers is the true story of a freshman English teacher who uses writing to reach a group of students living in poverty-stricken, gang-infested neighborhoods. Freedom Writers is merely one of the more recent entries in a long history of films portraying idealistic, inspirational teachers who manage engage troubled, unmotivated students (e.g., Blackboard Jungle, To Sir with Love, Conrack, Dangerous Minds). Over the week-end, I saw another film in this genre, the History Boys, which portrays a group of working class boys whose love of learning (and entry to exclusive Oxford University) is nurtured by caring, quirky, and intellectually challenging teachers.

Quoting from Tom Moore’s thoughtful Op-ed piece, “the great misconception of these films is not that actual schools are more chaotic and decrepit — many schools in poor neighborhoods are clean and orderly yet still don’t have enough teachers or money for supplies. No, the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.” The myth of the heroic teacher who, against all odds, reaches her or his students resonates in the popular imagination and recent public policy. The notion of teacher quality embodied in No Child Left Behind presumes that quality teachers are virtually the only factor in student achievement. If teachers are smart enough, tough enough, demanding enough, caring enough, work hard enough, even the most disadvantaged children will learn.

I work with future teachers every day and I believe that the bright, caring, and committed students with whom I work will make a difference in the lives of their students. But students in poor, urban communities do not need heroes who will save them from their communities and culture. The myth of the heroic teacher insults students, their families, and the communities from which they must be “saved.” More to the point, in the end, teachers, no matter how bright, hard working, or demanding will be insufficient to overcome the effects of crippling poverty, under-resourced schools, or pervasive racism. Educational policies that rely solely on better teachers cannot succeed.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Why can't all students have respect?

Recently, I was asked to participate in a review of the English language arts program in a Boston-area school district. What made this particularly interesting was the fact that the school district was Weston, Massachusetts which Wikipedia lists as one of America’s “100 richest places.” I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the rich so I was a bit uneasy about spending two days in what I imagined would be schools overpopulated by rich, over privileged, white kids.

What I saw in the Weston Schools generally confirmed my expectations. I observed smart, articulate teachers and bright, talented (and overwhelmingly white) students working in wonderful facilities. But it wasn’t the beautiful physical spaces and rich teaching resources that impressed me most during my two days in the Weston Public Schools. What really struck me was the level of respect teachers had for their students. When Weston students talked, teachers listened, even if the talk was somewhat off-task. Teachers engaged their students in thoughtful discussions and challenging work. There weren’t a lot of silly rules here, either. If a student wanted to go to the bathroom or get a drink, for example, they merely signed out.

I once heard a sermon by a Unitarian minister in which he argued that “respect begets respect.” This is how it was in Weston. Weston’s school administrators treated teachers as thoughtful professionals who they expected would draw on their expertise and experience to plan lessons and work with students. Teachers, in turn, treated their students as the bright, interesting people they are. The students – at least in my presence – treated the teachers and each other with similar respect. And, of course, the beautiful facilities evidenced the respect the Weston community has for its children and their teachers.

The beautiful, well-cared-for facilities, well-equipped classrooms, and small class sizes in Weston contrast sharply with the dreary, under-resourced urban schools I often visit. And, if “respect” is a dominant motif in rich, suburban schools like Weston, “disrespect” frequently dominates the experience of students and teachers in many urban schools. Tedious, scripted curricula, rigid behavioral policies, poorly maintained facilities and under-resourced classrooms found in many urban schools suggest a fundamental lack of respect for students and teachers working in these schools.

My experience in Weston is a dramatic illustration of the “savage inequalities” that Jonathon Kozol has documented. But I don’t begrudge the Weston students and staff their wonderful facilities, extensive learning resources, and humane working conditions. They deserve them. I just wish students in Boston, Cleveland, New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles had the same advantages. The students and teachers in these communities deserve them, too.