Assessment Opinion

Change the Conversation on Teaching

By Deborah Meier — May 20, 2010 4 min read

Dear Diane,

Reading The New York Times Magazine pieces on medicine is always intriguing. Education and medicine are often compared—in ways that remind me how little our frame for considering teaching is realistic. The other night I heard several very good “educators” on C-SPAN answering questions from the Labor and Education Committee of the Senate. Both the AFT’s Randi Weingarten and Michigan State’s Deborah Ball were sharp, clear, and convincing. But...

They, too, talked about what we can learn from other professions, focusing primarily on the preparation that law and medicine offer prospective candidates. Yes, and we can learn from the preparation of electricians and carpenters, too.

But there is one very fundamental difference. Teachers must solve the problems facing anywhere between 20 and 35 students at a time. Not one at a time. They have at most five minutes to write up notes on the class that’s leaving before the next one arrives. And, few students come back to us year after year, as hopefully some do with lawyers and doctors.

Most doctors, lawyers, architects, and accountants take time to prepare for each individual client. They look up information ahead of time, consult with colleagues, and review his/her record before meeting one-on-one; and, if they are wise, they spend some time afterwards taking note of what happened, and of what they need to follow up. And, even then, they are often wrong—about both the diagnosis and the treatment. They start perhaps with the most common possibilities. They prescribe (in the case of doctors) on that basis, and then wait and see. Not infrequently their mistakes are the result of having missed some information that the patient or they forgot to clarify. Even the tests they recommend don’t settle the matter. Notes Lisa Sanders in The Times Magazine‘s “Diagnosis” piece of May 9th: “the most common error ... is the assumption that tests provide definitive answers. In the math and science classes doctors take leading up to medical school, we work through a problem, come up with an answer and then check the back of the book to see if we got it right. ... A medical test is simply another clue in the puzzle.”

These weekly case histories in the Times Magazine remind us of the complexity of the role of well-trained doctors, and why even top-notch doctors at top-notch hospitals, with one-on-one cases, have a tough time with tough cases. (Ditto for lawyers who don’t give a lecture to all their traffic-violator clients, and architects who don’t solve my particular dilemma in a room of dozens of other clients.)

But that’s what teachers are hired to do. They rarely can afford to deal with one-on-one dialogues to arrive at a diagnosis or conduct their plan of treatment. In the schools we mostly disparage, a very high percentage of the “cases” are tough ones. Yet we rarely have the time to meet personally, nor the time to confer with the teacher next door, call in the family, and on and on. That’s what we meant by factory-model schooling, and that is still our model.

Deborah Ball—a math educator I deeply respect—described good math teaching to the panel of senators. Her ideally well-prepared teacher made me wince. When the child answers the question wrong, Ball said, the teacher should have been prepared to know exactly what led to such an error. Nice. If that single child’s error were usually the standardized “wrong answer,” and the teacher’s standard response to this standard error was intelligible to the child, or she had time to ask the follow-up questions needed before rushing to conclusions before responding to the next waving hand. Ideally, experienced teachers are more likely to handle all these variables most/some of the time than badly trained or inexperienced teachers, keeping a lot in their head as they move on to the next child or the next question. But the rest of us...

How could we change the conversation about teaching? Yes, many parents know better, and most politicians once went to school. But we reinforce a picture of possible solutions to teaching and teacher-ed in terms which directly contradict our real-life situation. Most of us didn’t place ourselves in the teacher’s shoes when we were students; the same is true today when making policy—even ex-K-12 classroom teachers don’t after four or five years away from the classroom. (Ah, those wonderful ideas I had at night that got shot down by teachers whom I deeply respected the next morning in school.) But part of the blame for this lies with the media, which talks about teaching in ways that mislead even working teachers and teachers of teachers. In all the teacher movies we see, successful teaching is presented as a test of our charisma—not our knowledge or skill; once the hero wins the kids over, everything good just happens.

We need more movies like “Law and Order” or “E.R.” where the heroes sometimes fail, patients even die, cases are lost, and the dilemmas spelled out. But we need them about K-12 classrooms! With follow-up stories in the Magazine section that work through the gritty details of helping young people make sense of complexity.


P.S. Here’s the postcard I’m sending Michelle Obama on May 29th: “I want the same public education for my child that you have provided for Malia and Sasha. Quality education is not measured by high stakes standardized tests, My child is NOT a test score.”

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.