The conditions under which she worked were debilitating and would have challenged even the most experienced teacher. Yet these most demanding-- and nearly impossible--jobs in urban schools are routinely assigned to the least experienced newcomers. No wonder so many burn out.
In contrast, veteran teacher Margaret Metzger and her former student Clare Fox, featured in our cover story, work in a teacher's paradise--a school that, in the words of Metzger, trusts its teachers. Both of these women love teaching and find it virtually impossible to conceive that they could really be happy doing anything else. Yet, like all teachers, each over the years has had to make sacrifices and adapt to extraordinary demands. Says Metzger: "I also hate this job. In March, I wanted to quit because of the relentlessness of dealing with 100 antsy adolescents day after day. I'm physically exhausted every Friday. The filth in our school is an aesthetic insult. The unending petty politics drain me.''
Sachar, Metzger, and Fox are not complaining about hard work or low pay. They expect that. They protest the anything-but-professional working conditions that sap teachers' energy and erode their spirit: too many students, never enough time, an inflexible schedule, lack of opportunity for reflection and professional development, and a bureaucratic system that is uncooperative--even hostile-- and often treats them like indentured servants.
One of the catch phrases of the reform movement is "teacher empowerment.'' It does not mean giving teachers power to exert their will over others; it means giving teachers the autonomy, opportunity, and support they need to be professionals. That is all that Sachar, Metzger, and Fox want and need to meet legitimate demands.
We may demand too much of teachers, but many feel we demand too little of students. Marc Tucker believes that students often perform poorly because they're not expected to perform well; they've been given "no reason to take tough courses or study hard,'' he says. In "Ambitious Measures,'' beginning on page 50, Tucker describes his proposal for a national examination system pegged to "world-class standards.'' It is predicated on the conviction that all children can learn; if some fall behind, it is not because they are stupid, but because they are not working hard enough.
There are several efforts under way to establish highstakes national standardized tests, including one by President Bush's education advisory committee. But Tucker is not talking about another standardized test designed to measure native ability or aptitude. He is advocating an elaborate assessment system tightly linked to curricula that are based on what we want high school students to know and be able to do.
Tucker is a staunch advocate of teacher professionalism. He is the architect of the report that led to the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is currently wrestling with the question of what every teacher should know and be able to do. His proposal for a national examination system for students is also a proposal to empower teachers. Teachers would be centrally involved in setting the goals in each academic speciality; teachers (and principals) in each school would determine the most effective ways to get their students to meet the national standard; teachers, not machines, would score students' performance on the assessments. These are the central tasks in implementing the system that Tucker proposes, and only professionals can accomplish them.
In short, what Tucker and the teachers in this issue are telling us is that if we want better results from our educational system, we need to rethink what we ask of both our teachers and students.
Ronald A. Wolk