Elizabeth Green, one of our leading education journalists, has just published a book titled “Building a Better Teacher.”
In this thoughtful post, Andrea Gabor points out the strengths and weaknesses of Green’s book. Gabor believes that Green makes a strong case for those who are doing a god job of teaching teachers.
“I picked up Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher, with great anticipation. By the time I finished reading the nicely written, highly detailed descriptions of some of the latest efforts to improve teaching, I was alternatively gratified, intrigued and more-than-a-little frustrated.
“Let’s start with why I was gratified: Her book argues that good teaching can and must-be taught. This would seem to be mere common sense. But what Green calls the “black box” of teaching has been long neglected not only by university based schools of education, but also by education-policy makers.
“Green’s narrative seeks to debunk the notion that the secret to improving U.S. education is to place a superstar teacher in every classroom. She argues, instead, what many education reformers would consider heresy: That improving education is about teaching teachers, including ordinary ones, how to improve. Being a good teacher, Green painstakingly shows us, is extraordinarily difficult. And teaching someone to become a good teacher is even more difficult. Writes Green: “By misunderstanding how teaching works, we misunderstand what it will take to make it better—ensuring that, far too often, teaching doesn’t work at all.”
“Green argues that by making accountability (via test scores) and autonomy (the notion that teachers are professionals who should be treated accordingly) the two dominant theories of teacher improvement, policymakers and pundits “have left us with no real plan. Autonomy lets teachers succeed or fail on their own terms with little guidance. Accountability tells them only whether they have succeeded, not what to do to improve. Instead of helping, both prescriptions preserve a long-standing culture of abandonment.”
“Green’s subject is hugely important. But to make her argument she must navigate the minefield of the highly politicized education-reform movement. And, at times, she seems to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid offending education reformers who have made accountability—not improvement of either teachers or pedagogical methods—the centerpiece of both private education-reform efforts and the nation’s education policy.”
Gabor was disappointed by Green’s deference to the “reformers,” especially those who think that young people can become effective teachers with only five weeks training. Gabor is also uncomfortable with Green’s lengthy treatment of Doug Lemov, “the managing director of Uncommon Schools, a charter chain, and author of best-selling books that have become the gospel of the no-excuses behavioralist approach embraced by most charter schools. This approach holds that what disadvantaged kids need more than anything is strict discipline, even if it sometimes verges on being ‘punishing, even cruel.'”
Gabor clearly admires Green’s appreciation for the study and practice of teaching. She especially enjoyed what Green learned about Japanese teaching. Japanese educators borrowed American ideas–starting with John Dewey–that Americans had forgotten or ignored. The same things happened in business, Gabor notes, where the Japanese learned from the work of W. Edwards Deming, but his own countrymen did not. Deming had many great insights, one of which was that the system created the conditions in which individuals can succeed or fail. Thus, accountability begins at the top, not the bottom.
Green is CEO of an education journal called “Chalkbeat.” Gabor implies, though she doesn’t say so outright, that Green must walk a fine line between reporting what she knows and not offending her funders, who include the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Although she doesn’t like test-based accountability, she can’t bring herself to criticize Eric Hanushek, who is the father of the test-based accountability movement. Also, she writes admiringly about the charter movement and its devotion to improving the craft of teaching even though charters are known for high rates of teacher attrition.
I know and like Elizabeth Green. She is a talented journalist and a gifted writer. And yes, she does have a dilemma, one which is shared by many media outlets. The survival of independent journalism is now dependent on foundations that have an agenda. Can independent journalism exist if it must be funded by those with an agenda? Unless this situation changes, good writing in America will become–if it isn’t already–samizdat.