Saturday, January 21, 2012

Teacher Quality Matters But There is More

Teacher Quality Matters, But There’s More.
On the first day of each school year, the long-term principal at my kids’ elementary school assembled the school community for what was to us his famous new-shoes speech.  “Think of all the new shoes in this room,” he’d marvel.  Then he’d follow with announcements about what else would be new that year – new teachers, new programs, new floors in the bathrooms.
Those were calmer, nicer times.
These days principals really should include some marveling about how the latest obsession of the education industry will affect the school this year.  Such honesty might feel less welcoming, but it would be a favor to parents.  Education has always done a stunningly bad job of explaining itself to lay people.  And it’s particularly crazy-making to parents not to have hard information about the forces behind education’s latest obsession – school choice, accountability, curriculum alignment, integrated technology, new tests.  What do they mean?  Why that?  Education officials settle on one big idea and seemingly forget all the big ideas that came before.  Not unfairly, teachers call the ideas “fads.”
Currently, America is obsessing and compulsing about teacher quality.
And yes, of course teacher quality matters hugely.  No dispute whatever.
But the thing to remember is that teacher quality is by no means the ONLY thing that matters.  The myopia of these obsessions is what keeps steering us wrong.
Dr. Robert Balfanz, one of my personal heroes, says “Everything that you think matters, matters.  But only a little bit.  You have to do it all, and do it all at once.”
“But only a little bit.”  Radical thinking.
Balfanz is a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, and the Co-Operator of the Baltimore Talent Development High School.  I admire a man with his head in the academic stratosphere and feet planted firmly on the hallway floor of an urban high school.  He knows whereof he speaks.
Remember the “math wars” and the “whole language” fight?  Remember social-and-emotional learning?  Remember how the Gates Foundation invested gajillions to help big schools cut themselves into “smaller learning units?” When these Big Ideas didn’t get quick results, everyone just moved on.  Did they build their next Big Idea on their prior one?  Rarely.  Mostly, they just pulled the plug.
But Balfanz and his colleagues can tell you that working on one or two initiatives piecemeal will not produce a cumulative effect.  Schools need all the good stuff, all the time.
Back in the late 1980′s, the seminal reports “Turning Points” and “Breaking Ranks” pushed educators to go bananas over “personalization,” which is to say, getting to know the kids.  Some schools made real progress, but the anonymity of the student experience remains a major issue.  The drop-out crisis continues nearly unabated.

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