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My Review of Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher”

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Elizabeth Green recently published a book called Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone). It has been widely and favorably reviewed. I have known Elizabeth for about ten years, when she was covering education for the now defunct New York Sun. I like her, and I consider her a friend. Elizabeth is cofounder of Gotham Schools, which is now called Chalkbeat. It is a publication that covers education issues in New York City, Tennessee, Indiana, and Colorado. Chalkbeat is funded by a large number of foundations and individuals, many of whom are prominent in today’s charter school movement (the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and some board members of the hedge-funders’ Democrats for Education Reform).

 

Since I know Elizabeth, I have decided to review the book as a letter to her. Somewhat unconventional, but let’s see how it works out.

 

 

Dear Elizabeth,

 

Thank you for sending me galleys of your book. I am sorry to be so late in reviewing it, but better late than never. There were things about the book that I liked very much, and other things that I found puzzling. I will be as honest with you as you would expect me to be.

 

To begin with, you are certainly a skilled journalist. I like the way you effortlessly weave the stories of individuals into larger themes and use those stories to make a larger point. The book is very well-written, and you manage to inject liveliness and high interest into pedagogical issues, which is no small feat.

 

You begin the book by strongly asserting that good teachers are made, not born, and that it is a fallacy to believe that some people are just “natural” teachers, while others will never learn no matter how hard they try. Your goal, clearly, is to persuade the reader that anyone, armed with the right training and preparation, can become a good teacher. You had me convinced until you got into the lives of the people you highlight as heroes—like Deborah Loewenberg Ball and Magdalene Lampert—who do seem to have been born to teach, not products of a specific pedagogical training program.

 

The book seemed to me to be two different books. The first book tells the story of the search for a research-based approach to teaching teachers, drawing on the work of John Dewey, Nathaniel Gage, and Lee Shulman. I thought I knew where you were going. I thought you would visit not only Japan but also Finland, to learn how thoughtfully their teachers are prepared to teach. I liked this book, I was sure it would end up with recommendations for higher standards for entry into teaching, for practice-based internships, for mentors for new teachers, and other ideas that would send new teachers into the classroom with both knowledge and experience, as well as support for them in their early years as teachers.

 

But suddenly the second book emerges, and the second book says that the problems of teaching are being solved in charter schools run by entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial sector, in your telling, is doing what the researchers, academicians, and university-based scholars hope to accomplish, and the entrepreneurs are doing it without the benefit of any study of education. This line of thought threw me for a loop, because the teachers in the entrepreneurial sector enter teaching with little or no preparation (i.e., low standards or no standards), just the assurance that they are really smart because they graduated from an Ivy League college or some other top university. Somehow this smacks of class bias. Most of them are in Teach for America, which means they start teaching with only five weeks of training. I got confused. There is no profession that can be entered into with only five weeks of training.

 

You also have many pages about the “no excuses” charter schools, which you treat with ambivalence. On the one hand, as we are assured by people you quote, the children they enroll—black, Hispanic, and poor—need the tough-love discipline, the rules that can never be broken, the fear of suspension or exclusion or stigma. This boot-camp discipline, they say, makes it possible for the children to learn. On the other hand, you quote graduates who speak of the demoralization of students, who know that the school intends to crush their spirit, and who “hated school.”

 

What often appears to be an admiring portrait of the “no excuses” charter schools is tempered by this statement about Academy of the Pacific Rim:

 

“The first year, Doug Lemov and Stacey Boyd had started out with a class of fifty-five or so seventh-graders. But by the time that class made it to senior year, only eleven students remained. And three of them had only joined later on, in ninth grade.” (p. 203) Elizabeth, you recognize the problems and contradictions, but you render no judgment other than to include facts like these. A graduating class that contains only 8 of the 55 students who started is hardly a portrait of a model school or a beacon for American education.

 

I may have missed it, but I didn’t see data on teacher attrition at either “no excuses” charter schools or charter schools in general. From other sources, we know that teacher attrition is high; the teachers are inexperienced, and (as you point out) the hours are exceptionally long, set with the assumption that teachers do not have families or personal lives. We know that TFA corps members are typically gone after three or four years. How, under these circumstances, can entrepreneurial charters—with their high teacher churn—be seen as laboratories where excellent teaching is being developed and is, in fact, already happening? If it is happening, why do as many as 50% of the teachers leave some of the most successful charters every year?

 

What seems strangest about the book to me is its detachment from the real world of mandates and demands by federal and state authorities, punishments and rewards, school closings and political interference with teaching. Your account does not reflect the atmosphere of teacher-bashing, the hunt for “the bad teacher,” the demoralization that so many teachers express today. Nor does it dwell on the current obsession with test-based accountability that has made many teachers feel that they are disrespected and are not allowed to exercise any professional judgment. You set up a dichotomy between accountability and autonomy, but surely you know that the scales are heavily weighted by federal policy against any autonomy for teachers. A profession that lacks autonomy is not a profession.

 

Elizabeth, I hope you will not be offended by my candor. I found the book well-written and engaging. I was hoping that you would make a case for developing a stronger teaching profession, but that is not what the charter sector will produce; it relies on a constant turnover of low-wage teachers, and whatever they learn in the classroom will be lost when they move on to a different career. I appreciated your footnote at the bottom of p. 156, where you write that “Multiple studies of charter school performance have shown that the schools often perform just as poorly as the district-run schools they seek to outdo. And across the country, charter schools have been the victim of the same inefficiency and corruption challenges that plague neighborhood public schools.” That’s almost right. I don’t know of any public school superintendent or principal who has built a multi-million dollar mansion in Palm Beach like a certain charter entrepreneur in Pennsylvania or acquired a multi-million yacht like a certain charter entrepreneur in Florida. Absent regulation and oversight, there is even more corruption in the entrepreneurial charter sector than in the public schools.

 

In the end, I don’t think you demonstrate how to build a better teacher. You show that a lot of people are trying to do so. You show that there is a longing for a coherent system of standards, tests, and accountability, but behind that longing is the behaviorist belief that teachers should teach to the same standards, and students will do well on the tests. If that’s coherence, it’s pretty well played out. That’s what we have been trying to do since No Child Left Behind was passed, and after 13 years, it seems to be a dead end. I have no doubt that we need better teacher preparation at the university level (Finland requires five years of teacher education, and a master’s degree for every teacher). But even with a long period of preparation, I doubt that every teacher will adopt and implement the same methodology. What strikes me, as I reflect on your very provocative book, is the urgency of establishing professional norms that protect teachers against legislators, politicians, philanthropists, for-profit entrepreneurs, and non-educators who want to play school.

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