The Need for Eccentricity in Education

Good teachers are eccentrics. This does not mean that they have quirky habits and mannerisms or that they stand out in any obvious way. This eccentricity is often quiet; it comes from diving into the subject in order to grasp its essence, then bringing it to the students in a form that they can understand. The teacher acts as a messenger and undergoes transformations. Now she sits absorbed in a book, oblivious to her surroundings; later she bursts into recitation, waking students up into a poem. The teacher’s mind keeps working and playing at odd moments of the day—during walks down the hall, lunch breaks, and the waits beside the photocopy machine.

Education reform doesn’t honor this eccentricity. Instead, it pushes teachers and students toward a norm that it then tries to lift. You can’t lift a norm. Norms are just that: normal, average, unlifelike, heavy. To make schools better, you have to honor education’s spark and wit. Teachers and students who do the best work do it in slightly unusual ways.

Many believe fervently in judging teachers by their students’ test scores. In their view, nothing could be fairer. Let teachers teach in the way they deem best, and judge them by their results. But what is the upshot of this? Teach for America has been working on a formula to identify, in advance, the teachers likeliest to bring test score increases. So far, their most robust findings are that prospective teachers with high college GPAs and demonstrated leadership skills (such as experience running a club) tend to bring about higher test scores in their students. This points to a dubious conclusion that we should give preference to prospective teachers who were presidents of clubs and got 4.0 GPAs.

Imagine the consequences. If you’re an introverted student who loves to dwell on a passage in a story or novel, or who enjoys proving a mathematical theorem in different ways, then you will be set on edge by a cadre of teachers who view education as a means to a material end—who emphasize getting the scores, getting the resume, getting elected president. Some of my most brilliant teachers had roundabout and zigzag lives; they probably did well in school, even spectacularly well, but their GPA was in many cases a side effect of what they did. They had some kind of spirit of leadership, but often it wasn’t overt; they might never have run any club.

Of course it’s fine to bring about test score gains, as long as that is not the primary goal—but it’s folly to identify and favor the personalities who can do so. There’s a fuzzy space where students who show good but not stellar test score gains may actually be learning more than those whose scores excel. Their long-term learning may be greater; their progress may be steady and strong. Their teachers may leave them with things that they remember years later. (This may also not be the case, but the possibility is there.)

Well, say the reformers, that’s why we have holistic teacher evaluations. They balance things out. The teacher is judged not only on the test scores, but also on her lesson planning, classroom atmosphere, and more.

Yes, this is so. But the “holistic” teacher evaluation rubrics favor the well-rounded teacher who has all the recognized components of good teaching. It does not favor the teacher with outstanding, overriding strengths—for instance, the teacher who has exceptional knowledge of her subject but is not especially involved in community events, or the teacher who gives memorable lessons but does not emphasize group activity. Oh, and woe on the absent-minded teacher. Rubrics such as Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching give the highest rating to teachers who set and achieve concrete goals for the lesson, who emphasize small group work, whose classrooms are highly organized, who collaborate frequently with colleagues, and who engage in approved professional development activities.

Test scores and teacher evaluations  can tell us a great deal. But we should be wary of a world in which everyone does everything just so. Education is full of bumps and gleams. Here’s to the teacher who wants students to do well but, even more than that, wants them to walk away with something. That means spending some days hitting the stone with the pick and getting nothing from it. It means bringing students stories and lessons from other times and mines, so that they will know that their work is not a waste. It means releasing oneself from petty pressures, letting oneself be with the work and nothing else. And it means—for teachers and students alike—not worrying too much about what others do and say, or what one’s instant rating might be.

Bad Teachers or Bad Curriculum?

In my first and second years of teaching in New York City, I took education courses along with many others in the Teaching Fellows Program, an alternative certification program that brings college graduates and professionals into high-need schools. Sometimes, during class, we would go around the room and compare situations. One day the professor asked us what sort of curriculum our schools had for our subject. English as a Second Language. One teacher after another responded, “no curriculum…. no curriculum… T.C. (the Teachers College Readers and Writers Workshops)… no curriculum… no curriculum.” One teacher had found an enormous curriculum guide in the storage room; apparently it had been abandoned.

What sense does it make to measure one teacher in school A against another in school B, when one school may have a curriculum and the other not? When policymakers talk about “ineffective” teachers, have they considered what the students are actually supposed to learn?

I think back on my experience as a student. I attended eight schools, public and private, in the United States and abroad, before entering college at age 17. It is no coincidence that my best teachers were in schools with strong curricula. My worst teachers (as I perceived them) were in junior high school, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. They read from the textbook in monotones. The textbook itself had little to offer, and they added nothing to it. I didn’t feel that I was learning anything; when I brought this up with the guidance counselor, he told me that junior high was a time for socializing and that I shouldn’t worry about learning things right now.

The following year, and for three more years after that, I lived away from home in order to attend a private day school in Boston. There I studied Latin, Greek, French, English, math, history, physics, and music; sang in choruses; contributed to the literary magazine; and thrived in general. My teachers were committed to their subjects and to us; they could light up a passage in a book with a subtle question. Some were rather dry (though not lacking in wit or wisdom), and I adored them as well. Why? You could afford to be dry when there was substance and beauty in the subject. My Latin teacher taught crisply and predictably, yet the subject carried its own stones, its own fire.

Curriculum is no panacea. Even with the best curriculum, there are teachers who teach it well and those who do not; there are those who understand it deeply and those who do not. Not all ways of teaching reach all students. Knowledge, discernment, integrity, wit—these gifts strengthen with practice, and even the practiced and gifted teacher has lessons now and then that flop. Even so, you’re much better off if you’re teaching Tennyson’s “Ulysses” than if you don’t know what you’re going to teach. If nothing else, the students will hear, “The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: / The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / Moans round with many voices.” Their lives will be the better for those lines.

By a curriculum I do not mean a script that all teachers must follow. My high school offered courses devised by individual teachers. Students took required English courses through grade 9 (and one semester of Expository Writing in grade 11); otherwise, in grades 10–12, they chose from an array of seminars, on topics ranging from satire to Southern literature to Shakespeare. Each course had an enticing syllabus; it was in high school that I read Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge; Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying; Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, The Tempest, Hamlet, and Macbeth, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and much more. The English department ensured that the courses would challenge students similarly, but each course had a teacher’s special mark. At the same time, after taking five or six of these courses, students ended up with a common foundation in literature and writing. There was a core curriculum, though it played out in varied ways.

In the current push to rate teachers by students’ test scores, we hear little about curriculum. Policymakers make two erroneous assumptions: first, that the tests reflect what should be taught, and second, that schools have a curriculum that reflects this. The reality is a far cry from such assumptions. Standardized tests focus on generic skills; they do not assess students’ knowledge or understanding of literature. The reading passages on the tests tend to be bland; the questions, banal (“Based on the reading passage, what action is Marco most likely to take next?”) Teachers who teach to such a test may end up with higher-scoring students than the teacher who teaches Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” But the students in the latter class will end up with more goods for their minds and lives, especially if “Ulysses” is part of a larger curriculum.

It is problematic enough, even under the best of circumstances, to rate teachers by students’ test scores. But when this is done without consideration of curriculum, it casts off even the semblance of sense. Results mean nothing until you establish what you are teaching. We do not need a national curriculum; that is too constricting and would involve too many compromises. But if policymakers disregard the actual stuff of learning, peddlers of junk learning will set up shop in schools, promising “results,” and will not leave willingly. Wake up, chancellors and secretaries of education. If you want good teachers, have schools that teach good things.

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