By now you’ve probably heard about Nancie Atwell’s admonition to anyone considering a career in teaching: don’t do it.
We’re supposed to be surprised by this because Atwell just won an award that is described by the people who give it as the “Nobel Prize of Teaching.” The Nobel Prizes, as we know, are awarded every year to recognize achievements that advance human understanding in or through the fields of medicine, chemistry, physics, literature, and economics. And peace, of course. Some of the most prominent Nobel laureates are winners of the peace prize, which Alfred Nobel included in his bequest to recognize people “who have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Atwell’s award came from the Varkey Foundation, which “builds new classrooms and centers of learning, addresses global teaching capacity and seeds excellence and innovation in the next generation of educators.” Sounds good to me, I guess, but not as lofty as Nobel’s goals were, and a lot less clear. The foundation’s honorary chairman is Bill Clinton. Hop on over to the Varkey Foundation’s homepage and you can hear Clinton talk, in a short video, about the foundation’s work. I’ll wait here until you get back.
Did you hear what I heard? I heard Clinton talking about things like making an “investment in knowledge” (though I did like the hat tip to Ben Franklin), and skills development, and multiplier effects, and about programs that enable people to “deliver education” to each other. When I was in graduate school we referred to plans like the one Clinton describes as the “infectious disease” model of teacher training and development: first one teacher catches the bug, then he or she passes it on to ten or twenty new teachers. They catch it too, and then they pass it on. And so on and so forth.
It all sounds nice and logical, and even a little appealing. But there are some drawbacks to thinking about education this way. For starters germs mutate; information mutates even more quickly. Anybody who has ever played Chinese Whispers (also known as the children’s game “Telephone”) knows why teacher professional development models that are connected to top-down, large scale reform efforts usually fail. What’s bewildering is that so many people can’t seem to figure out why.
There’s also a counterproductive idea lurking below the surface of the infectious disease model of education. That idea is that “learning” is a thing, something like a virus, that can just be passed from one person to another and good things will follow. It’s an exceptionally simple (some might even say simple-minded) notion that has immense policy consequences, if people believe it. And believe it they do. We have built an entire educational superstructure on the idea that since successful (“educated”) people have knowledge, spreading it around will inevitably make more people knowledgeable—and, in turn, allow us to reap the benefits of living in an educated (or “enlightened"; or “civilized,” to use terms popular in earlier generations) society.
Now, there is reason to believe that this may be true. Certainly, educational attainment correlates to success in life, as measured in purely economic terms. The more you learn, the more you earn, and the less likely you are to be in want of a job. It is altogether fitting and proper for politicians and policymakers to promote social programs that encourage people to get educated, however we define it, and the stories we hear about people raising themselves out of poverty by earning an educational credential deserve to be told and retold. Also, multiple studies have shown, as Cecilia Rouse and Lisa Barrow put it, that “parental socioeconomic status has a causal effect on children’s educational outcomes.” Researchers have found, for example, that simply increasing the incomes of disadvantaged families can have an impact on student achievement that is at least comparable to structural changes like lowering class sizes. In fact, one study pointed to a clear increase in student test scores correlated to increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit—something Bill Clinton should know a lot about. So we spend billions of dollars on standardized tests. Huh?
On the other hand, the idea that just gaining knowledge and earning a credential confers economic advantage, ipso facto, is obviously false. Only the most naive among us will attempt to argue that this is always true, but, yet, we perpetuate the myth like it is true, and like it’s true for everyone all the time. This is the classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: just because something follows from something else doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second one. You can see it, for example, in the argument that everyone needs to go to college because, well, people who go to college earn more than people who don’t. But earning lots of money after going to college doesn’t necessarily mean that going to college caused you to earn lots of money. Some people are more advantaged in the college admissions and completion process, which might also help explain their high earnings when they finish. Some get a nice head start form mom and dad (see above). Some choose jobs in industries that pay well after earning “appropriate” majors, while others, as we are constantly reminded, major in art history or anthropology and end up with...well, you know the rest. Lots of our brightest college graduates have contracted (or become walking symptoms of) adjunctivitis and are struggling like hell to make ends meet.
This is as much a political problem as an educational one. We would be wise to heed the words of historian David Labaree, who has observed that “every effort to expand access for new students at a given level of the system has tended to provoke counter-efforts to preserve the educational advantage of the old students.” In other words, the goalposts always mysteriously seem to move just as soon as the general public wakes up to the advantages that have been conferred on the select few who have reaped the rewards of our economic and political system. This is no way to run an educational system, not one purported to be based on merit and dedicated to social mobility anyway.
The point is that the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize misleads us a little about what it means to be an excellent teacher by suggesting that all we have to do is “build global teaching capacity” and “seed excellence and innovation” to revolutionize our education system. Just plant the seed and watch it grow. Unlock the potential. Spread the disease. The story on Varkey’s website describing Atwell’s selection says it all:
What makes Nancie Atwell a super-special teacher and the winner of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize is her constant innovation over 40 years of teaching, striving to cultivate global citizens in the classroom, and being a leader in the field of education.
By this definition, a “super-special” teacher (pause here just to consider: was Martin Luther King referred to as a “super-special peacemaker” when he won his Nobel Prize?; was Faulkner recognized as a “super-special writer man” when he won his?)—one worthy of a $1 million prize—is one that innovates constantly, cultivates global citizens, and is a leader in the field of education. These sound suspiciously like entrepreneurial buzzwords, not educational concepts, which shouldn’t be all that surprising when you consider that most of the people responsible for giving this award are CEOs and politicians and celebrities, not teachers.
And they miss the mark. Atwell is right when she says that teachers have been turned into “technicians,” and she’s right to assert that the “hyper-testing, hyper-accountability” climate surrounding schools today has essentially put teachers in straitjackets. You can’t blame her for encouraging smart, creative types to run away as fast as they can. This is the system you get when you believe that education is mainly about knowledge transmission: either knowledge gets transmitted, or it doesn’t. You give a test to find out, then you remediate or move on. Atwell knows it’s not conducive to the kind of teaching that made her the teacher she is.
But was she right to discourage people from entering the field? My work as a teacher educator sometimes leaves me feeling like George Pickett on Friday morning at Gettysburg: I know what I need to do, but I’m not entirely convinced that it will work and I’m deeply concerned about the consequences. Yet I also believe that teachers are the key to finally turning the tide of school reform. No matter how many parents opt out, no matter how many politicians come along to lead from behind, no matter even if billionaires start lining up to pursue a genuinely better approach to making good schools—I’m convinced that teachers will have to lead the effort to make schools better. Teachers are better educated now than they have ever been, and are as attuned to the political, social, and economic implications of their work as teachers have ever been too. Our schools are in need of change, and it needs to come from the inside out. If we could lift the veil of insecurity from teaching who knows what we might accomplish?
And when I’m thinking that way, I think: it’s well worth it. I want my best students to become teachers, and I want them to understand and appreciate the complexity of education. It’s not an infectious disease. It unfolds more slowly, and more unpredictably, than any disease ever could. So I tell them: if you want to teach, please do. And please, also, resist the buzzwords, and don’t waste time looking for the silver bullet or the golden key or whatever else the hucksters are selling. Put away the scripts and the canned lessons. Focus less on delivery and more on discovery. Understand that good teaching takes time, and focus on figuring out how to hold yourself, and everyone around you, to the highest possible professional standards. If you provide the education, your students will provide the innovation.
Most of all, remember that education requires commitment from both the one doing the teaching and the one being taught. Make sure your students understand that they’re there to figure some things out for themselves, not collect and regurgitate what you say. What a difference that could make.
The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.