Michelle Rhee has become the new darling of right wing conservatives because of her crusade against incompetent teachers. She has also gained support from liberals such as Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Ms. Rhee believes we can educate children for excellence by:
Identifying excellent teachers
Paying excellent teachers
Getting rid of incompetent teachers.
It is difficult for any sane person to disagree with her goals. I have taught 12,000 teachers in America over the past fifty years. In so doing, it is clear Ms. Rhee is correct in stating some teachers are excellent and there are also “excellent teachers.” How does she know which are the incompetent and which are the excellent ones? The answer is simple: scores on tests. This is the central issue which has allowed people like Rhee to gain support of both right and left wing individuals.
Let me examine her ideas by exploring several points:
1. The sum total of data in the world doubles every four years. Few, if any books used in science classes this year contain the latest information concerning the universe. But, we test children and those who repeat back incorrect answers –based on the most recent knowledge– receive high grades and are deemed successful by Ms .Rhee.
2. Ms. Rhee believes the end goal of learning English in school is something termed, “reading comprehension.” Of course, most parents and lovers of literature believe developing a love of reading significant literary works IS the basis of exploring English. Most believe being able to express oneself in cogent terms or to be able to be intellectually and emotionally impacted by reading is why we read books. But, those goals are NOT tested.
3. Anyone who is interested in the minds of youth wants them to engage in critical and creative thinking not only for their own lives, but for the economic, social and political development of our society. Those qualities are NOT tested.
4. I am the author of a high school text in American history. Anyone who has written a textbook understands demands of publishers and school boards guarantee those books are boring to read. Just about every history textbook currently in class contains several historical mistakes. For those who love history, we want youth to engage in history in order to develop their critical thinking capacities, NOT to pass a test on which they feedback what they were taught.
Now, as to teachers, let me explore a few points:
1. At present there are fewer than 1000 males playing major league baseball, fewer than 2,000 playing professional football, fewer than 700 playing in the NBA. If you added in those playing on college and high school teams, the estimate might go as high as 75,000. In other words, out of 150,000,000 males in our society, at tops 75,000 can be considered “excellent.”
2. Similar figures would emerge from identifying outstanding lawyers, judges, doctors, artists, writers, political leaders, scientists, etc…
3. In other words, we can expect from the 3,000,000 teachers about 100,000 -tops– will be deemed “outstanding.” REALITY is that most teachers will be “average” and about 10% can be classified as “incompetent.”
In order to have “quality teachers,” one needs a teaching force that is assisted by (a) an outstanding curriculum that has meaning for students and motivates learning, (b) leadership that assists ongoing learning on the part of teachers, (c) an environment that motivates learning, and (d) teaching methods that assist the average teacher to become more adept at teaching and stimulating learning.
The real issue that should consume considerable effort is how does one create a curriculum for 21st century schools and how does one impart that curriculum?
One can double teacher salaries, but the law of “outstanding” means there will only be a handful in any successful school.