March 13, 2009

so classic! and so wrong!

Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

There's so much wrong with this as a statement of policy that I don't even know where to start. You know who wrote it, right? David Brooks. Who seems to believe that emotional bonds with students are both the real measure of success in teaching, and that they can easily be measured using standardized tests. Honestly, there are a lot of people who believe both of these things. They're all wrong.

Meaningful, personal relationships with students are great. They were and are the lifeblood of any success I ever had as a teacher, in no small part because they were by far the most rewarding part of teaching and I would never have lasted without them. I still run into my students occasionally - on the trolley, on Facebook, and outside the deli by my house - and the ones I see, for some reason, are students I had a real relationship with. Every so often I get a phone call or an email. I love knowing how my students are, and sometimes they tell me that my role meant something. But - and I know this is true - this is only one of the many ways to be a good teacher, and it is not enough. I knew plenty of teachers who had real relationships with their students, who did not treat them like cattle to be processed, and who nevertheless did not expect their students to do well academically and were unable to get them to do so. In fact, there were plenty of my students - the students of someone who unambiguously cared about her students, and tried to have meaningful relationships with them - who for various reasons, didn't learn that much in my class. For some of those kids, I know why: untreated mental illness, chaotic life situations, illiteracy, a rational calculation that summer school would be less work. For others, I don't. There were kids with whom I had real connections who didn't learn much.

While I didn't have kids who couldn't connect, but nevertheless learned, those kids - and those teachers - exist. It's a different teaching style, and while it's unlikely to help a kid supersede crazy obstacles outside of school, that impersonal quality can be its own powerful center for a classroom culture. I had plenty of teachers like that in high school, and some of them were excellent: they devoted tremendous attention to planning their lessons, communicating material, and offering academic feedback, with minimal interest in your personal affairs. In some situations, this is a great teaching method, though I'm not surprised that David Brooks, decades from any personal experience as a teacher or student, can't remember the value of these teachers. I will agree that many students need to have a few teachers who develop a personal connection and use that to motivate that individual student, and that students from unstable home situations can especially benefit from that kind of mentoring, but it is nevertheless not the only valuable teaching method.

Brooks's worst mistake is to claim that merit pay will reward caring teachers over impersonal ones. The obstacles to implementing merit pay are enormous: most systems give good teachers even more incentive to find a well-run, high-performing school serving students with stable home resources, and even less incentive to work with the most difficult students. At any given school, the obsessive focus on standardized test scores takes time: teachers who are interested in how their students will do on standardized tests, and thus what their merit pay will look like, need to teach lessons focused on standardized tests, research the standards, grade practice tests, etc. None of those things involve real connection with students. And real connection with students will continue to go unrewarded, because it is remarkably difficult to measure, and in and of itself not sufficient.

It's no surprise that David Brooks is incoherent, and the rest of the article (where he tries to talk about policy) is worse. But this tiny example - one sentence in one column - seems extraordinarily apt to me as a representation of just how poorly thought out his views on education are.

(I should probably leave this alone, but I just can't:
Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends. The idea was to cause maximum suffering, and 58 Senators voted for it.
There is practically no evidence that vouchers work. They do not provide adequate funding for most students to attend wealthy, fancy private schools, and they disproportionately benefit students with well-organized, stable family situations who are in the best position to take advantage of it. Plus, vouchers are expensive. I'm not deeply opposed to grandfathering in students who already have vouchers, but it's fucking irresponsible for David Brooks to talk about it this way. Education is complicated, and there's a lot of real information out there. He needs to shut up til he understands it.)


Frank said...

I almost called you on your cell phone this morning when I noticed that Mr. Brooks had put his pen toward education policy again. Just to hear how angry it would make you.

Agreed agreed agreed re: his false dichotomy between good/bad teacher as caring-involved/removed-impersonal.

I would also point out that he makes an even more embedded assumption that emotional bond = caring. I can remember teachers who certainly developed emotional bonds with me and my fellow students by sheer force of personality - in the case of two high-school teachers that come to mind immediately, by cultivating the personae of "eccentric genius" or "widely recognized talent." We in turn related to these teachers more as unique characters, not as intellectual leaders or authority figures. So I would define those bonds as emotional, but can't say there was actual caring involved in either case. Much less was there any actual teaching going on.

North said...

Right, exactly! And there are some teachers who, in the right circumstances, can leverage "eccentric genius" or "widely recognized talent" into real learning for students by using those personae to command attention. So: emotional bonds, actual caring, and student learning are not two, but THREE, separate things that David Brooks manages to mash up into one indigestible policy recommendation. Strong work, agent Brooks.

amelia said...

the thing that really gets my goat, though it's not the worst of what brooks has done in this column, is his attempt to appropriate traditional left/liberal/progressive values ("emotional connection") to such a deeply right/conservative/regressive policy scheme. rar.