The Dumbing Down of Quality Teaching: How Policymakers Snooker the Public

If No Child Left Behind (NCLB) let 50 states dumb down “quality teaching” to the credentials teachers earned from colleges, then current policymakers are repeating the process by grasping students’ test scores as a key measure of “teaching quality.” Both reduce a complex idea–quality teaching–to a simpleminded formula that deceives parents, voters, practitioners, and students.

Quality teaching is complex because an essential distinction is masked: the difference between good teaching and successful teaching. Both “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of “quality.” To lead us through the thicket of complexity, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson’s explanation (hereafter F & R).

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the other. How can that be?

F & R point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching.

In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning. Policymakers snooker the public by squishing together”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. Current hoopla over paying teachers for perfomance (P4P in policy jargon) is an expression of this conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning and the ultimate deceiving of parents, voters, and students that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

Not only does this snookering of the public encourage a simpleminded view of teaching and learning, it also encourages the heroic view of teaching where superstars (e.g., Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver”, Erin Gruwell of “Freedom Writers”) labor day in and day out to get their students to ace AP Calculus tests and become accomplished writers. Neither doctors, lawyers, soldiers, nor nuclear physicists can depend upon superstars among them to get their important work done every day. Nor should all teachers have to be heroic. The squishing of “good” teaching with “successful” learning, then, does further collateral damage to the profession of teaching by setting up the expectation that only heroes need apply.

By stripping away from “good” learning essential factors of students’ motivation, the contexts in which they live, and the opportunities they have to learn in school–federal, state, and district policymakers twist the links between teaching and learning into a simpleminded formula thereby miseducating the public they serve while encouraging a generation of idealistic newcomers to become classroom heroes who end up deserting schools in wholesale numbers within a few years because they come to understand that “good” teaching does not lead automatically to “successful” learning. F & R help us parse “quality teaching” into distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning. Now policymakers, voters, parents, and educators need to learn and use those distinctions responsibly. Until they (and we) do, the high price of bad policy and ill-conceived reform will be paid by both teachers and students directly and the nation indirectly.


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