Psychologist Daniel Willingham has written an op-ed for the New York Times called “Teachers Aren’t Dumb.” His premise is simple: teachers, he says, don’t know their stuff. But it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because their training is.
His argument goes something like this: everybody seems to think that the problem with our education system is that teachers just aren’t smart enough to do a good job. This is, of course, not really true, and Willingham knows it. Is it any wonder that our “best and brightest” choose other careers when this one promises low pay, a disappearing pool of benefits, and working conditions that include almost daily tongue lashings from politicians, of all people? For some reason people are always trying to convince us that if only more smart kids would go into teaching, the pay, benefits, and working conditions would all improve dramatically. Is that how the Invisible Hand is supposed to work?
Anyway, Willingham wants to turn this argument on its ear but it’s harder than it looks. He doesn’t want to blame teachers; he wants to blame teacher educators. This is just a variation on a familiar theme. Same song, different verse. I’d actually go a step further than Willingham and argue that the real problem is teacher training policy, for lack of a better term. The real problem, in other words, is that the rules and regulations we place on teacher preparation programs—rules and regulations that too often originate in op-eds like Willingham’s—are the real enemy here. And they’re based on a value system that rarely gets interrogated like it should.
But let’s look at what he’s saying. In essence, Willingham is arguing that we know more now than we ever have about, for example, how human beings learn to read. And how do we know this? Because research. Willingham leans heavily on a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education in 2000, and that study—which you may know as the infamous “Reading First” study—concluded that the key to making more kids into good readers was to focus on “scientifically based” reading instruction, which here means things like syntax, morphology, and phonological awareness.
From this study, and a few other pieces of evidence, Willingham draws two conclusions. One is that we all just need to come to an agreement that, as he puts it, “the way to evaluate teacher training is to test teachers.” The second conclusion follows from the first, even as it anticipates criticism of it. That anticipated criticism is that deciding what teachers need to know (which we would need to do if we wanted to create valid and reliable tests for them to take) isn’t as easy as it might seem to be. So he has a friendly piece of advice: let’s just go with what research tells us.
For those of us who spend our days thinking about teaching, teaching about teaching, studying teaching, and, well, teaching, these kinds of conclusions are hard to countenance. In fact, they can be infuriating. I actually have a great deal of respect for Willingham, and have found a lot of his work to be thoughtful and thought-provoking, especially his assertion that strong readers are strong readers because they have background knowledge, not just because they are phonologically aware. I have even assigned his books to students in some of my classes. But an academic psychologist like Willingham should know that the line between clarity and oversimplification is a thin one, and an easy one to cross. Complex problems usually don’t have simple solutions. If they did, we would have thought of them already.
Yet Willingham’s solution is both too simple and too cute by half. His solution is to narrow teacher education as much as K-12 education has already been narrowed. Never mind that the “science” behind the approach to reading instruction he cites, not to mention its close connection to standardized testing, has failed to deliver the results we were promised. Take it from a parent of three children who have endured elementary education in the age of Reading First and No Child Left Behind: endless parsing of words into component parts and quixotic efforts to boil reading down to its most basic elements—let’s call it academic fundamentalism—might raise test scores (might, I say), but it doesn’t make for better (and by this I mean: more independent, more critical) readers. This approach has made too many kids timid, worried about making mistakes, and uninterested in reading for pleasure (a term that would probably make many of them laugh out loud). The Golden Age of American Proficiency still hasn’t arrived, and it doesn’t appear to be imminent either.
In spite of that, Willingham wants to double down on bad ideas. Why would he do that? I think it’s because he accepts the idea that fixing public schools is a scientific problem, not a philosophical one. He doesn’t realize, apparently, that he’s not making an “evidence-based” argument here so much as a value-based one. Economists and psychologists dominate the education policy discourse right now, and they’ve brought their social scientific analysis and data points with them. Their perspectives are important. But when’s the last time you heard a politician quote an educational philosopher? Just once, wouldn’t you like to hear Arne Duncan or Rahm Emanuel say that John Dewey’s philosophy is good enough for his kids, so it’s good enough for your kids too? Science has a place in education—just ask Dewey. But philosophy does too.
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t have evidence to support the decisions we make about how to educate kids and their teachers; I’m arguing that there are many different kinds of evidence, and what we value often determines what kinds of evidence we prefer to use. The policy discourse is tilted heavily right now—too heavily—toward a narrow definition of evidence, and that definition is based on a certain set of values. Some of those values are: school should be about “what works,” not about what feels good; schools and teachers must be “held accountable"; researchers know how to educate kids better than teachers do; kids aren’t smart enough to know their own minds, and need expert guidance in order to be successful in life. There are other hidden values too: private companies are more trustworthy than government. Bigger is better. Cheap ain’t cheap; we prefer efficient.
If you start in those places, you arrive at this definiton of “evidence.” Of course Willingham’s solution to the teacher quality problem is to create more summative tests; what other kind of evidence could we collect to demonstrate what teachers have learned before entering the classroom, given his orientation to the problem? But what if we started someplace else? What if, instead of focusing relentlessly on accountability, we went back to asking questions about what we value, and why? If we said that the number one goal of public education is to create thoughtful, intelligent, engaged democratic citizens, how would our definition of evidence change? I haven’t seen the standardized test yet that evaluates those skills well.
So, no, I can’t agree that we need more tests or, for that matter, more research. I think what we need is a more thoughtful approach to sorting through the things we value in this enormous, diverse society and a more humble approach to defining what works and what doesn’t. Who’s with me?
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.