"In Defense of Educators"

“In Defense of Educators”

E.D. Hirsch Jr challenges the concept of “teacher quality” in an article in the Winter 2016-17 edition of American Educator. He argues that teacher effectiveness is contextual and that teachers can become “highly effective” in a coherent school.

Hirsch sees recent changes to American schools as structural in nature and when they don’t work, it’s teachers who are blamed for poor implementation. He adopts the belief of challenging the “blame the teachers” culture with one of “blame the ideas”.

Educational success is defined by what students learn—the received curriculum. Not to focus on the particulars of the very thing itself has been an evasion that is not of the teachers’ doing. The underlying theory of the reforms (reflected in state reading standards) has been that schools are teaching skills that can be developed by any suitable content. That mistaken theory has allowed the problem of grade-by-grade content to be evaded. It was that fundamental mistake about skills that has allowed teachers to be blamed for fundamental failures—the failures of guiding ideas, not of teachers.

He goes on:

The “quality” of a teacher is not a permanent given. Within the American primary school, where curriculum is neither coherent nor cumulative, it is impossible for a superb teacher to be as effective as a merely average teacher is in Japan, where the elementary school content is coherent and cumulative. For one thing, the American teacher has to deal with big discrepancies in student academic preparation, while the Japanese teacher does not. In a system with a specific and coherent curriculum, the work of each teacher builds on the work of teachers who came before. The three Cs—cooperation, coherence, and cumulativeness—yield a bigger boost than the most brilliant efforts of teachers working individually against the odds within a topic-incoherent system. A more coherent system makes teachers better individually and hugely better collectively.

American teachers (along with their students) are, in short, the tragic victims of inadequate theories. They are being blamed for intellectual failings that permeate the system within which they must work. The real problem is idea quality, not teacher quality. The difficulty lies not with the inherent abilities of teachers but with the theories that have watered down their training and created an intellectually chaotic school environment based on developmentalism, individualism, and the skills delusion. The complaint that teachers do not know their subject matter would change almost overnight with a more specific curriculum and with less evasion about what the subject matter of the curriculum ought to be. Then teachers could prepare themselves more effectively, and teacher training could ensure that teacher candidates have mastered the content they will be responsible for teaching.

Part of Hirsch’s article deals with the problems of using reading tests to gauge teacher effectiveness:

Scores on reading tests reflect knowledge and vocabulary gained from all sources. Advantaged students are constantly building up academic knowledge from both inside and outside the school. Disadvantaged students gain their academic knowledge mainly inside school, so they are gaining less academic knowledge overall during the year, even when the teacher is conveying the curriculum effectively. This lack of gain outside the school reduces the chance of low-socioeconomic-status (SES) students showing a match between the knowledge they gained in school during the year and the knowledge required to understand the individual test passages.7 The tests are fairly accurate means of gauging a student’s general knowledge, but they have no way of indicating the sources of students’ general knowledge. Not being curriculum based, they cannot be an accurate means of testing how well the particular knowledge in the school curriculum has been imparted. The implicit assumption that “general reading skill” is itself the content of the curriculum is a technical mistake and an incorrect assumption.

SOURCE: American Educator