The history of school reform in the United States might best be summarized as “much change, little progress.” Despite the standards and testing prevalent today, schools haven’t improved appreciably since the landmark 1983report A Nation at Riskwarned, in effect, that American students perform like a bunch of slackers when compared with the rest of the developed world.
In this book, Gary Gordon, vice president and practice leader of The Gallup Organization’s education division, attempts to explain why. He thinks we’ve been focusing on the wrong things. If we want to improve schools, we should forget about perfect curricula, or testing more, or toughening accountability sanctions. We should be paying closer attention to “the talent and the engagement levels of the people within an individual school.”
This, of course, contradicts the one-size-fits-all approach of the No Child Left Behind Act. “A high-quality education isn’t something that can be mandated by law,”Gordon pointedly writes. He adds that NCLB actually undercuts academic achievement because schools now emphasize “getting all students to average, not to excellence.”
Drawing on a management model from the private sector that puts people ahead of processes, Gordon claims that nothing has a greater impact on students, for better or worse, than the quality of their teachers. The “people invited to teach in our schools,” he says, “are the X-factor that invariably makes the difference in student learning.”It’s therefore essential that instead of simply filling teaching vacancies, school administrators “hold out for talent.”
Most don’t. There’s a belief—one that NCLB has done a lot to foster—that teachers are interchangeable parts in a standards-driven machine. What bull. You can know the curriculum inside out and the prescribed means for delivering it, but until you know kids—and, more important, care about them—you really don’t know anything about teaching.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Building Engaged Schools