Thursday, January 19, 2006

Will teaching be a lost art?

Opinion from the Baltimore Sun, January 17, 2006, by Walt Gardner

The test is everything. Prepare for the test. Tie teachers salaries to test scores. Give whole schools bonuses for raising test scores. Look here for a dismal example of what can happen when the test is everything. Walt Gardner has some serious warnings as well. (Emphasis and comments are mine.)

With Teacher Man by Frank McCourt a nonfiction best-seller, the moment is right to question the way we are preparing teachers for the more than 53 million children in the nation's public schools. The answer to the inquiry has more than mere pedagogical appeal because it will ultimately help nurture the values that we cherish as Americans.

What Mr. McCourt's memoirs of his years teaching English in New York City's high schools make clear is that inspired instruction is more an art form than a scientific endeavor. Mr. McCourt was at his memorable best when he jettisoned lesson plans tied to the mandated curriculum and relied instead on his inner talent to reach seemingly unreachable students.

This special connection between teacher and student - part magic, part mystery - places Mr. McCourt in the same company as Pat Conroy and Jonathan Kozol.

Mr. Conroy's days teaching poor children on a remote island off the coast of South Carolina were captured in The Water is Wide, later made into Conrack, a movie starring Jon Voight.

Mr. Kozol's career teaching in the impoverished Roxbury section of Boston formed the basis for Death at an Early Age, which received the 1968 National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion.

It's a telling commentary that both Mr. Conroy and Mr. Kozol were fired for their unconventional teaching practices, despite their success in the classroom with children who had been written off as hopeless.

These are largely the same children that today's federal No Child Left Behind law is supposed to help.

Yet despite cases of teachers - famous and obscure - who leave behind an indelible imprint on their charges by following their inner compasses, we persist in the fiction that teaching has a unique pedagogy that can be inculcated. The nation's 1,300 schools of education continue to imbue teacher candidates with principles of effective instruction in the comforting delusion that by doing so, novices will become "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind.

The experts are so certain of their evidence that they have persuaded increasing numbers of school districts to require the use of daily scripted lesson plans. This disturbing trend calls into question whether schools need teachers in the first place.

If the approach achieves what supporters claim, then why not hire any adult who is capable of reading and following directions spelled out in minute details? (Why not? Could this be what they have in mind? Hmmm...) Districts could significantly reduce their payroll costs and get the same results that they maintain signify educational quality.

All of which leads to the most important point: Teachers are considered to be the single most influential factor in student learning.

But if teachers are also viewed essentially as automatons who are interchangeable because they are all expected to rely on the same techniques, then we may be able to put a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom according to the letter but not the spirit of the law. They may boost the standardized test scores that have become the sine qua non in today's accountability movement, but they won't be the teachers we remember. They won't be the teachers who teach us how to think, to dream and to create. They won't be the ones who change our lives in ways that are not quantifiable on tests.

They certainly won't be the next Frank McCourt, Pat Conroy or Jonathan Kozol.

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