[Susan notes: Walt Gardner, as usual, hits the nail on the head. Take a look at the Gordon article , complete with its straw man dichotomies (and my comments). It is important to know what so-called progressives are saying. ]
Published in New Republic
Robert Gordon's insightful essay drives home a number of key policy issues related to teaching quality and student achievement ("Class Struggle," June 6&13). But, with one blustery swing at teacher recruitment and training, he strikes out. Gordon, in lauding shortcuts into teaching, such as Teach for America (TFA), totally ignores the fact that our politicians have done little to uniformly enforce standards and deepen preparation, especially for teachers who are recruited and hired for our most underperforming schools. In citing one study, Gordon misreads the research on Teach for America (where, as I have written elsewhere, the "student achievement of both TFA teachers and the control group was abysmal, students made few gains, and the novice control group teachers actually had less teacher preparation than their TFA counterparts"). Numerous other studies show that more extensive teacher education can lead to substantial gains in student achievement, but both Republican and Democratic policymakers have done little to guarantee that new teachers are well-prepared and adequately supported. Lesser-prepared teachers are far more likely to flee the profession, leaving their students facing a revolving door of untrained novices and little, if any, educational opportunity. Solving this issue will require university presidents investing at least as much in teacher education as they do in engineering and medicine; state and local school boards uniformly enforcing the teaching standards they establish; legislators and administrators increasing pay and improving working conditions in our hardest-to-staff schools; and, finally, school districts offering new teachers much more assistance in their first years on the job. This is what policymakers--both Democrats and Republicans--need to say and do about education.
Center for Teaching Quality
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Gordon views efforts to improve America's public schools through the prism of partisan politics. But, even if he is correct about the failure of progressives to develop an education vision of their own, he is unrealistic in his expectations that schools alone can eliminate the daunting achievement gap. Poor children go to class with huge deficits in socialization, motivation, and intellectual development that are beyond the ability of the best schools to remedy themselves. The changes in salaries and school culture that Gordon advocates have great intuitive appeal, but, ultimately, they are not enough, because teachers are not miracle-workers. They cannot be parent, police, and psychologist while trying to teach. Instead of looking at what takes place in school, Gordon needs to look at what takes place outside the classroom. Unless progressives develop programs that address the social and economic conditions that poor children return to at the end of the school day, the reforms he advocates will do little to improve overall educational quality.
Los Angeles, California
Gordon hit the nail on the head when he said that it has become more difficult to recruit great teachers, as educated women have moved into other, more lucrative fields. But it is not just better money that attracts smart women to fields other than teaching: It is better working conditions. American teachers suffer under lousy conditions. They have few breaks, cannot go to the bathroom except during those few breaks, are on call to settle violent disputes in the hallways between classes, and sometimes don't even have lunchtime to themselves. They are often vulnerable to assault by students, inside and around the school. They must deal with student and parent apathy and hostility. Theirs is often a thankless, seemingly hopeless task: to make literate, thinking, hardworking citizens out of bored, disaffected, angry young people.
To get these good teachers back into the schools, first we have to make schools physically safe for students and teachers. Then we have to restore some respect to the profession of teaching and to teachers themselves. (It must be admitted that the erosion of respect for teachers is at least partially due to the fact that so many unqualified people are working as teachers.) Third, the curriculum taught by these teachers must seem, and be, more relevant to students as they contemplate their futures as college students and workers. And, last but not least, we need changes in the working world so that a good education is actually a prerequisite to making a good, living wage. As it is, too many students see school as a holding pen that keeps them unfairly out of the workplace and forces them to fill their time with meaningless busy work. They are not entirely wrong.