I'm sure the part of President Obama's plans to improve education that includes stricter standards for teachers is giving plenty of residents of the Village a case of the warm fuzzies. I don't know why but among our elites the teachers unions are regarded as a more pernicious and corrupting influence on the body politic than the Teamsters were back when Jimmy Hoffa was in charge and they love it when politicians, particularly Democratic politicians, "take them on."
I have to give the President's plans some real study. I hope he's taken into account that teachers actually have very little influence on the way our schools are run nor do they exercise any control over their students' home lives. Seems to me that all our discussions about what's wrong with our schools and how to fix them tend to overlook things like stupid and corrupt administrators, know-nothing school boards, indifferent parents, the obscenely high number of students with undiagnosed or even ignored emotional problems and learning disabilities, and a culture which generally values every other kind of achievement in school---sports, starring in a play, selling candy bars for fundraisers, cheerleading, and going to prom---far more than it values good grades, and those it values more for their economic benefits than for anything intrinsically beneficial in a good education.
If we've ever had a President who was in a position to address that last one, he's in the White House now.
There also seems to be a general sense that we are all still attending one-room school houses where a single teacher has the power to shape the hearts and minds of a generation of students for a lifetime. All the good a second grade teacher might have done for her kids in one short year can be wiped out in a month by their incompetent third grade teacher.
The ideal would be to usher that incompetent third grade teacher into another line of work or teach her how to be a better teacher.
But this assumes you can identify her incompetence. She might appear to be a much better teacher than she is because that second grade teacher is sending her such well-prepared and inspired students.
So then we should recognize that second grade teacher's talents and achievements and reward her, right?
But who's to say she's not benefiting from the work of the first grade teacher?
Odds are, if she's really as good as she appears to be, she knows what she owes to the teachers who came before her, but does her principal know it?
I'm not saying that good teachers shouldn't be rewarded or that bad teachers shouldn't get fired. I'm just pointing out what a lot of smart people, many of them members of the teachers unions, have pointed out---there isn't reliably objective teacher meter.
Being a good teacher is only a little like being a good doctor. A talent for diagnosis and a knack for prescribing the right course of treatment is necessary in both professions, but surgeons get to perform operations and teachers have to hand the scalpel to their students and ask them to operate on themselves every day for the whole rest of their lives.
And being a good teacher is like being a good lawyer in this way---you're a lot better at the job if you happen to work for a top-flight firm with lots of other talented people and plenty of resources to back you up when you go into the courtroom or the classroom.
Updated: What I said above about the culture's de-valuing of education and the President being just the right person to deal with this? Fromthe White House blog:
And for students themselves, the President had a message for them as well:
"Of course, no matter how innovative our schools or how effective our teachers, America cannot succeed unless our students take responsibility for their own education. That means showing up for school on time, paying attention in class, seeking out extra tutoring if it’s needed, and staying out of trouble. And to any student who’s watching, I say this: don’t even think about dropping out of school. As I said a couple of weeks ago, dropping out is quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country, and it is not an option – not anymore. Not when our high school dropout rate has tripled in the past thirty years. Not when high school dropouts earn about half as much as college graduates. And not when Latino students are dropping out faster than just about anyone else. It is time for all of us, no matter what our backgrounds, to come together and solve this epidemic."