Readers of this blog know Jersey Jazzman as one of the sharpest bloggers on the web. I invited him to write something specially for the readers of this blog, and here it is:



As an American public school teacher, one of my greatest frustrations is how little our debate about education has been informed by the people who actually do the teaching. It’s not that I think teachers are the only ones who should have a say in education policy; that would be as foolish as thinking that only astronauts who’ve been in space should determine the direction of NASA.

Increasingly, however, I’m finding arguments put forward by pundits that are rather silly to someone who has actually spent his career in front of students. I read their op-eds and their blog posts and their magazine articles and I think to myself: “If this guy had spent a few years in front of a classroom, he never would have written this stuff.”
Take, for example, this post on teaching by the normally estimable Matthew Yglesias:
The new issue of the American Federation of Teachers’ magazine American Educator has a very interesting article from Richard Kahlenberg profiling the most innovative and effective socioeconomic integration schemes at work in public education today, and the considerable success these programs have at raising student achievement. But it ends on what struck me as an odd note:
I’ve been highly critical of Rhee’s attack on teachers’ unions in venues like Slate and the Washington Post. I don’t expect her to give up her fixation on unions, but I do help to convince others of a fundamental but too-often-ognored truth: the major problem with American schools is not teachers or their unions, but poverty and economic segregation. That’s what the research suggests. It’s what 80 school districts have come to realize. And until federal officials catch up, it’s what I will continue to push them to acknowledge.
The striking thing here is not so much the conclusion that classroom education isn’t very important compared to socioeconomic issues, but the venue in which it appears. The basic logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is fairly clear. Michelle Rhee is an enemy of the AFT, and Kahlenberg’s analysis suggests that Rhee’s agenda is mistaken. So AFT wants to publish Kahlenberg’s analysis.
But a straightforward reading of the policy implications of Kahlenberg’s piece is that instead of pursuing Rhee’s reforns, Adrian Fenty’s administration in DC ought to have reduced spending on teacher salaries and invested the funds instead in low-income housing subsidies and tax cuts for high-income families. Promoting more economically integrated schools and neighborhoods isn’t going to seriously reduce the city’s need for police and fire officers, for garbage collection and bus service, or most other things. But if it’s true that socioeconomic integration is much more important for student achievement than teacher quality, then it seems like a no-brainer to reduce expenditures on teachers (accepting that some good ones may leave and be replaced by somewhat worse candidates) and reinvest the funds directly in the key driver of achievement. Now maybe that’s right (though I doubt it) but certainly it’s not something AFT or other unions would be interested in seeing happen.
Yet it seems to me that if I want to make the business case for paying Slate writers, I have to persuade the bosses that Slate traffic is related to the quality of the writers employed in an important way. If it’s not fair to blame us for bad traffic because actually all that matters is the photos that accompany the stories, then obviously the thing to do would be to spend less on paying writers and more on photographers or photo licensing services.
See, I read this, and I think: “Matt has no idea what I do, does he? Because, if he did, he never would have written this; it’s embarrassingly clueless about teachers and schools.” I’m sorely tempted to leave it at that – but Yglesias is clever enough here that he deserves a rebuttal that’s based on more than argument by authority. So let me break down my specific objection:
Yglesias’s premise is fairly simple: teachers should not be pointing out the other factors that influence student achievement, because that diminishes their own importance.
But what if those factors are a necessary precondition for good teaching?
What Rhee and her ilk have been trying to sell lately is this notion of the Superteacher: a Mr. Chips or Mr. Holland or Mr. Escalante or Ms. Johnson (or Ms. Rhee – as if) so freakin’ awesome that even a kid with an abusive father or an unemployed mother or untreated allergies will rise above it all and conquer the world and be admitted to Dartmouth. It’s a nice story, and sometimes it even comes true. But not nearly as often as the reformy types would have us believe.
The sad truth is that the correlation between test-based student achievement and socio-economic status is nearly perfect; if poverty wasn’t destiny, that correlation would be far weaker. So it’s critical for good teaching to have a student that is ready to learn, and it’s ridiculous to assume teachers should simply shrug off these impediments and perform miracles.
But that’s not the same as saying that teaching doesn’t matter. Yglesias’s analogy is severely flawed – schools are not businesses – but let’s use it anyway:
If Yglesias’s bosses demanded that he generate traffic to his blog, but then refused to give him a stable connection to Slate’s servers, would that mean that he wasn’t important to the company? Of course not:  Slate needs him to generate content, but he can’t do that if he doesn’t have the preconditions necessary for him to do his job.
Imagine if the CEO of Slate went to Matt and said: “Look, nothing is more important than making sure we have good infrastructure, because if we’re not on-line, we can’t get viewers. So I’m going to slash your salary and gut the editorial department so we can invest in making sure our servers are rock-solid.”
Matt might say: “But how can we have a good magazine without writers?”
CEO: “Hey, you were the one always making excuses for not getting hits: you kept complaining that the servers were going down, and that’s why traffic was bad. We’re fixing that, just like you wanted. But YOU’RE the one who said the servers were important; don’t come around now and try to claim that you’re important too!”
Yes, this is absurd, but it’s the way Yglesias sees the teachers unions’ argument. He believes that pointing out the importance of poverty in student outcomes diminishes the importance of the teacher. But the effectiveness of the teacher’s work is predicated on the student’s environment: the teacher can’t teach if the student can’t learn.
I – and every other teacher in America – live this every day. It’s so ingrained into our daily work that we don’t even think about it: we find it silly to even consider the idea that our role is somehow diminished by the simple fact that student characteristics matter. We work closely with parents because we know what happens at home sets the stage for what we do at school. But the importance of the child’s life outside of school doesn’t mean that what we do is irrelevant.
All of this may not be immediately apparent to someone who doesn’t teach. All the more reason we should be more involved in the conversation.
I don’t know how many teachers Matt Yglesias interacts with, but I think it would benefit his perspectives on education enormously if he added a few more contacts to his address book who work in schools. For that matter, I’d like to see all education pundits spend some more time actually listening to those of us who are doing the job. I know you all went to school and you all send your kids to school, but that’s not really the same thing, is it?
Listen to us: you might be surprised at how much you learn.