Another Whiny Self-serving Essay About Teachers in the Morning News Sunday

On Sunday The Dallas Morning News printed an essay on its op-page by Austin writer John Savage about teaching in what he calls "the worst school in Texas." It's a piece that has been making the rounds from Salon to the blog of Diane Ravitch, a former champion of school reform who has become a born-again critic of most test-and-teacher-accountability reform efforts. The point of the piece is that most reform efforts are bullshit.

Savage taught at a middle school named Pearce in Austin 10 years ago. His essay offers a tensely wrought diorama of really bad poverty and really bad kids doing things like not paying attention, frowning all the time and fighting, not to mention not learning squat. Savage taught at the school briefly and then decided to quit after witnessing too many fights.

I read his essay closely. Two things leaped out at me, probably because I find these same two elements often in the angry cynical criticism of school reform efforts that show up here a lot in the comments. The first was that, in this essay which is at least nominally about teaching, Savage says nothing about teaching. The second is that in his drum-roll what-we-gotta-do section at the end, all of the solutions Savage proposes have nothing to do with teaching.

Forgive me, but when I go to the trouble of closely reading an essay about teaching written by a guy whose claim to authority is having been a teacher, I really do want to hear something about teaching. I would like to know if Savage was allowed much freedom in devising lesson planes, for example, or was confined to an inflexible test-driven regimen of knowledge bites taught on a stop-watch. I'm just curious. I hear that's an issue. I wonder.

Or maybe I'm too dumb about teaching even to ask the right question. Maybe lesson plans aren't really important. So I would like it if somebody who is a teacher-essayist would maybe tell me what the truly important instructional issues are when you're teaching in a really tough school in a really poor neighborhood. A hint would be nice.

Savage's solution to his school being the worst school in Texas is threefold: 1) end poverty, 2) end racism, 3) end class bias. Anyone who thinks the solution has to do with instruction, he says, has fallen for what he calls rather sneeringly, "the myth of magical teaching." For evidence he refers to some teacher movie I never saw.

By the way, I agree with him 100 percent about teacher movies. My own aversion to the genre goes back to one made before Savage was born called, To Sir, With Love -- a title that still makes me want to call 911.

But, c'mon. End poverty, end racism, abolish class bias and then and only then you're willing to talk about issues at your school? Say, this isn't a trick is it? Like we do all three, and then you say, "Well, no, man, obviously you've got to do world peace, too. I thought that was understood."

I agree with Savage in another area -- his disdain for the idea that we can solve the problems of hard-nut disadvantaged schools by flooding their faculties with untrained and untested recent college graduates from the middle and upper middle classes. I agree we need to give those bright and beautiful kids a good five years on the street to deal with their own frustrations and disappointments in life -- the stuff their parents did such an excellent job of protecting them from -- before we throw them into the lion's den with people who have real problems.

But here's my problem and the reason I wish Savage had been willing to pony up a few more specifics about his teaching methods: When he even mentions teaching, Savage conflates two contraries by suggesting that teacher accountability based on student testing is tantamount to belief in magical teaching. But teacher accountability based on student achievement is the opposite of waiting for Superman.

The teacher accountability movement is based on research showing that all of those other factors external to the school -- especially poverty and family -- are indeed very important in predicting student success but not as important as teaching. Decades of research confirm that nothing is as important as the teacher -- and not the magical teacher, either, but the trained experienced teacher.

In a 2004 research paper, Leslie G. Vendevoort, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley and David C. Berliner looked at four years of scores from the Stanford Achievement Test for students in 14 Arizona school districts. They found that students whose teachers had been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards surpassed students whose teachers were not certified in three-fourths of the categories measured.

Their paper was another few pages stacked on a mountain of research showing that good teachers, while they may not be able to overcome the effects of poverty, can nevertheless move a poor kid up the scale several more notches than bad or poorly trained teachers. And testing is both the proof and the celebration of that fact.

So, back to the essayist and his bruising encounter with a bad school early in his professional life. Savage might even have been able to persuade me a little bit with his list of things teachers cannot control if he had been willing to balance it with a short list of things they can control. In the story he tells, the only person who ever believed in magical teaching was him, in his own magical powers. He learned the hard way that he didn't have those powers. Tough lesson for any magician.

But none of that speaks to or about teacher accountability. Teacher accountability is based on the belief that teachers have a job to do and their success or failure is measurable. Nobody ever said they were magic or should be magic. Their job involves hard work, dedication and training. If they're working hard and they're dedicated and they've had the right training and they still can't get student achievement up a notch, then they're just in the wrong business.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze