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What We've Done to Teachers
An argument to let teachers teach.
I have been reading Alexandra Robbins’s The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession, and it is quite honestly making my soul ache. I’m going to write about it in an upcoming Chicago Tribune column once I finish the book, so I don’t want to spoil that, but it is a despairing picture of the structural, societal, cultural, and economic forces that have made this important profession a nearly impossible one.
It pains me because I have a deep appreciation of teaching and teachers, an appreciation that stems from having the good fortune to grow up in a community with great schools and excellent teachers.
I even dedicated my book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities to my grade school teachers at Greenbriar School in Northbrook, IL because I’ve long believed that they played a crucial role in putting me on a successful trajectory through life. I have many vivid memories of actual leaning experiences during my grade school years, and very limited ones after that, at least until I hit graduate school.
My Substack avatar is a crop from a picture taken when I was in third grade, the moment I learned how writing works in Mrs. Goldman’s class when she tasked us with writing instructions for a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, and then made us try to make the sandwiches following our own instructions to the letter.
That’s me dipping my hand in the peanut butter jar because I forgot to say that you should use a knife. There’s a bit more to this origin story at an old Inside Higher Ed blog post of mine that was the jumping off point for the concerted effort to turn my thoughts about how we teach writing into what would ultimately become Why They Can’t Write.
What we’ve done to teachers can and has filled lots of books in addition to Robbins’s The Teachers, and a full discussion of the forces at work requires far more time and space to parse than I have in this newsletter, but one of the things I told myself about writing in this space is that I would use it as a place to work through ideas, rather than pretend I’ve figured everything out before I hit publish.
So here goes.
The Myth of Education as the Great Equalizer
For generations the idea that education can make-up for systemic problems like poverty and the legacy of white supremacy has been a bipartisan article of faith, but given the evidence of the last 40 plus years of attempts at education “reform,” I can’t imagine anyone continuing to believe this.
Karl Alexander’s landmark study looking at a cohort of over 700 students of Baltimore city schools over 25 years published in The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood shows that starting a life in poverty is a virtual guarantee of a future in poverty. The inspiring tales of individuals pulling themselves up by the bootstraps to overcome the odds obscures the fact that millions of kids don’t even have access to bootstraps.
As just one relatively small illustration, rather than any particular educational practice, research has shown that if your goal is to improve student test scores (more on the problem of that in a moment), the best thing you can do is make sure students aren’t hungry.
Knowing this, you could imagine a world where federal dollars are put to work helping states make sure their students are fed, and for a period during the pandemic, that was actually the case, but that’s over now because we can’t “afford” it.
Education is a great thing. I’m a firm believer in its power, but it isn’t magical, and the idea that if we could just get those teachers doing the right things, every student is going to “succeed,” and no child is going to be left behind as we all race to the top is straight up nuts.
To see how systemic racism has become a kind of poison in the populace that harms everyone except the wealthiest who can buy access to anything they need, I recommend Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
Competition Is Bad for Public Goods
Actually, I’ll be honest, I don’t think the idea that education is “the great equalizer” has necessarily been a bipartisan article of faith. I think many democrats, including Barack Obama, adopted the rhetoric as a way to generate support for increasing resources for schools. I’ll even grant that the belief was sincere, or seen as a necessary compromise in a world where attacking deep problems like poverty did not seem possible.
Relatively speaking - relative to the money that usually goes to these things, rather than to something like the budget for national defense - Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative put a lot of money towards ostensibly improving educational outcomes, over four billion dollars.
Unfortunately, it was spent almost entirely on a vision for improving education that put teachers through the wringer of so-called “accountability” without any hope of providing the resources that are actually needed.
I think there’s probably also a sincere group on the conservative side who - despite significant evidence to the contrary (healthcare, anyone?) - maintain a belief that competition and privatization is a route to success in all endeavors, and if we can align incentives just right, miracles will happen.
But miracles don’t happen, and the idea that a competition will lift up everyone when the prizes they’re competing for are scarce is another fantasy.
I will never forget the email exchange I had with a staffer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (the charitable arm of Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan) about my take on an announcement that they funding a partnership between The College Board (purveyors of the SAT and AP exams) and Khan Academy (the online tutoring platform), in order to provide low-income kids access to SAT prep.
I wrote about my skepticism that this would offer much help given that only 4% of colleges and universities admit fewer than 25% of their applicants, while 80% of four-year institutions admit more than 50% of their applicants. An SAT score as a dispositive factor in future college admissions applies to a relatively small percentage of students.
Rather than funneling resources to the schools the vast majority of people attend, they were convinced a good use of the CZI funding was to help more students compete for the limited number of slots at elite institutions. At my Inside Higher Ed blog, I said that I thought this was a lousy idea and a waste of money.
The staffer wanted me to know how sincere their commitment to helping young people was, and I believed every word of it, but this is the problem. The sorts of people who head up these initiatives overwhelmingly come from elite schools and have internalized the notion that making access to these institutions more “equitable” is a path to prosperity for all. The staffer could not see the obvious flaw, that access to these elite institutions and the opportunities they provide is a zero-sum game.
To help students, we need to eliminate the barriers to having the experiences that will help them thrive in the world, not give some kids ladders to try to climb the walls to reach the citadel of elite higher ed.
There was another CZI program that is a perfect example of the right mindset when it comes to helping students, screening students for vision problems and then providing them with glasses.
Rather than making students compete, feeding them and making sure they can see the page or the board seems to be a superior use of resources.
For a deep exploration of multiple phases of attempts at school reform, including the testing and accountability movement that begat these counterproductive measures, I recommend education historian Larry Cuban’s Confessions of a School Reformer. Cuban is a believer in the possibilities of reform without being an ideologue - something I probably can’t claim for myself - and gives a fair and thorough hearing to all sides of the debate.
Get me Some of that Sweet Government Money
If the sincere believers in the power of competition to improve schooling and the Democrats who see education as the great equalizer were the only two factions in the debate, it’s possible that the overwhelming evidence that the test and punish approach has failed would’ve led to a change in tack, but there’s another part of the Republican Party whose priority is to simply open the public purse for the benefit of corporate profit, results be damned.
For several generations it has been a primary goal of groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Thomas C. Fordham institute to use the language of “reform” in order to pry open the public coffers for the benefit of private enterprise. Recently, they’ve been joined by more radical groups as embodied by Christopher Rufo, he of the bogus attacks on critical race theory and his disgusting smear that grade school teachers are “groomers.” That faction truly wants to destroy public schools and replace them with Christianist academies.
If you think I exaggerate, consider the fact that the state senate in Texas just this week passed a law to require the 10 Commandments be posted in every classroom.
What’s interesting is that these radicals are now going too far for the corporate reform crowd which is worried that the destruction of schools will be so thorough, there won’t be a trough from which to drink.
If you want to understand the forces that are actively and purposefully working to undermine the autonomy of teachers and the very operations of public schools, I recommend A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School by Jack Schneider, a professor of education history and Jennifer Berkshire, an education journalist.
One thing for certain is that students and teachers will bear the brunt of the damage from these battles.
If you’re interested in more info, you can check out and interview I did with Berkshire at my now dormant education Substack.
The Deprofessionalization of Teaching
In my view, what all of this has added up to is a sustained deprofessionalization of the work of teachers. If reform was not going to attack the problem at the roots by giving students the resources necessary to thrive, the only place to turn was teachers who have been subjected to one top-down initiative after another, year after year, each of which creates new demands on their time and chips away at their professional autonomy.
Teachers and students have been subject to what Harvard professor Daniel Koretz calls “the testing charade” in which tremendous amounts of time and energy is put into achieving scores on tests that are then used to evaluate the achievement of students and the effectiveness of teachers, even though the tests themselves have no correlation to those things.
As tests became more important inside the system, some key elements of schooling that make school stimulating and worthwhile were drained from the day: music, art, recess, even subjects like history and science in states where those subjects were not explicitly tested.
Teaching is not the product of a series of discrete steps repeated over and over until you reach maximum effectiveness. A classroom is a dynamic, organic space. How to reach and engage students requires an array of different approaches, and finding the best approach is the domain of a trusted professional: a teacher.
After 14 years away from the classroom, in Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher, Garret Keizer returns to the school in rural Vernon where he had previously worked for many years. In the interim, he finds that his profession has been swallowed by standardized testing and the demands of technology that is supposed to make his job easier, but seems to primarily be an obstacle. In a way, this is the cry for help that Alexandra Robbins takes up years later in The Teachers, as Keizer recognizes that the individual sacrifices of teachers cannot make up for a society that is insufficiently invested in providing opportunities to all.
Keizer returns to a profession that has been ruined, but which scores and scores of dedicated people are trying to make work anyway.
Lucky kid that I was, I think of all of the ways my teachers at Greenbriar School were allowed the freedom to deal with what was in front of them, and what a difference that made.
One story comes to mind. In fourth grade, in Mrs. Thiel’s class, we had a problem with people calling each other “bad” names. Rather than cowing us into submission with lectures and punishment, Mrs. Thiel tasked us with solving the problem.
I was part of group that proposed a good old capitalist system to incentivize better behavior. We would sell name-calling “insurance” to individuals, so that if they were called a bad name, we, the insurers, would go after the perpetrator for restitution. Mrs. Thiel had set up a class economy to help us learn about money and finance and self-regulation, having mini-auctions at the end of each week for us to use class currency we had collected for good deeds or completing work on items like those cool race car erasers you could fix to the end of a pencil, mini football helmets, stickers and cards.
One week, the kids who had been called a bunch of names arrived at the auction laden with class bucks, and cleaned up on all the high ticket items.
We learned our lesson. The name calling slowed down considerably. The economic incentive having disrupted our escalating bad behavior, we also realized that it was actually just nice to not have to spend our time adjudicating stupid disputes. We managed to start calling each other by our preferred names.
Yes, these are 100% upper middle class white kid problems my teachers were dealing with, but the principle holds for all schools, all teachers. There is an expert in the room day-after-day, and the vast majority of teachers only want what’s best for their students. We have to start from that place. The teachers who need the most support should get it.
I don’t know how or why Mrs. Thiel had the insight to believe that what we decided would work, but she trusted us. I’m also pretty certain that if it hadn’t worked, she would have tried something else. In my experience of teaching in the considerably lower stakes of college (as compared to 4th grade), teaching is essentially an endless process of problem solving, trying to keep your eye on how much your students are learning while identifying and responding to all of the factors that are getting in the way.
Unfortunately, much of the last 40 years of schooling has been divorced from the idea that school is a place for students to learn.
This is not to say that we just leave teachers alone. In fact, I believe something of the opposite, as our public institutions are stronger when more stakeholders are more engaged and aware of what’s going on.
But we cannot ask teachers to do these very important jobs while making it impossible for them to do so.
My Chicago Tribune column this week is about Hannah Pittard’s forthcoming memoir, We Are Too Many, which is not out until a week from Tuesday, but which so knocked me out, I wanted to make sure I was among the first to publicly declare its greatness. Chicago folks can catch Pittard on May 9th at the 57th Coop Bookstore and May 11th at Exile in Bookville.
PEN America has been tracking book bans and unsurprising, they’re up over the last six months, with Florida as ground zero for these anti-democratic practices.
I’ll be honest, the more I read about authors experimenting with AI to write their stories for them, the less worried I am about the takeover of the machines. This article on Stephen Marche’s use of chatbot technology to produce the words for a new, audio-only release makes the whole thing sound kind of dumb, to me anyway.
For this week’s book-related humor from my friends at McSweeney’s, check out Anna Pook’s “TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY WELLNESS TRENDS THAT WERE ALSO HARDSHIPS JANE EYRE SUFFERED AT LOWOOD SCHOOL.”
Speaking of McSweeney’s, my old buddy Dave Eggers has released a deluxe edition of his new children’s book The Eyes and the Impossible that features a deluxe wood-cut cover, that looks very cool. The book also received a very positive notice in the New York Times.
All books linked here are part of The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago and another book-related charity still to be named.
Affiliate income is $91.20 for the year. I’ve been neglectful on maintaining my lists of recommendations at Bookshop.org because it’s just one of those things that I want to get to, but is too low on the priority list to rise to the top each week. I’m hoping with a little more subscription revenue - hint hint - I can hire some part time help to get the whole operation here running more smoothly.
1 The Wall by Marlen Haushoffer
2. Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
4. I Don’t Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges
5. Count Belisarius by Robert Graves
By Donald W. - Chicago, IL
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut was a competitor in the Tournament of Books a couple of years ago, and one of the books that I was not particularly interested in tackling, but…whoa. It’s really something, and I think it’s a good match for Donald.
Alrighty folks. Rough one to land this week for some reason, which is why it’s showing up a bit later in the day.
I’m imagining other folks have stories about teachers who changed their lives - hopefully in a good way! If you feel the urge to share in the comments, I’m not going to stop you.