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SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) WHAT is to be done about America’s schools? Students are graduating, if they graduate at all, with a poorer grasp of writing, reading and maths than their counterparts in other countries. And the poorest students are often warehoused in the worst schools, ensuring that public education is a poor vehicle for social mobility. Reformers have spent decades reducing class sizes and introducing standardised exams, to little effect. Lately many have taken a new tack—blaming bad teachers and the unions that protect them.

Studies on good teachers have encouraged the weeding out of bad ones. When a California judge recently struck down teacher-tenure, education reformers around the country cheered. For policymakers the solution is now plain: use data (such as exams) to ditch the duds, reward the stars and steer the strongest teachers to the neediest students.

This sounds sensible. But will it have a serious impact on the quality of education in America? Not according to two new books. The real challenge, both authors argue, is not to get rid of the bad teachers, but to attract and keep good ones and improve the middling majority.

America has a poor record of luring ambitious people into teaching, writes Dana Goldstein in “The Teacher Wars”. This problem dates from the early 19th century, when schools were seen as places for moral guidance, and teachers were mostly low-paid, poorly trained women who prioritised faith over academic learning.

Elements of this attitude persists. Unlike countries with more successful school systems, such as Finland and Poland, teaching in America is still dominated by women and lacks prestige. Degree programmes are hardly selective, and teachers earn less than most other university-educated professionals. In North Carolina, for example, a teacher must work 15 years to raise her salary from $30,000 to $40,000.

Studies show that higher teacher pay correlates with better student outcomes. Raising the profession’s salaries and esteem would attract better candidates and make it easier to filter out underachieving applicants. But what about the teachers who are already in classrooms? This is more complicated. Recent efforts at reform, from George Bush’s No Child Left Behind programme to Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, have tried using carrots and sticks to improve teacher performance, without success. Not even the prospect of a $15,000 bonus per teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, yielded better student results.

Why? Because no reward can unlock a skill a teacher does not have. Without serious professional development, merit pay is “a non-starter in terms of raising student achievement”, writes Ms Goldstein. The recent proliferation of assessments has turned teaching into a high-stakes business without offering tools for making improvements. Teachers leaving the profession often complain about limited opportunities to learn and grow in the job.

This is where most American education reform goes wrong. By fixating on the hard data of inputs (incentives) and outputs (student performance), reformers neglect the most essential part: what happens in the middle. Most teachers enter the classroom with minimal practical training and little professional support. Only half the candidates are ever supervised as student teachers in a real classroom. Everyone seems to assume that good teachers naturally know what to do. But this is a myth, writes Elizabeth Green in “Building a Better Teacher”. Teaching is a skill, a trade, not an innate gift.

So how should the teachers be taught? There is no simple answer. Most people know a good teacher when they see one, but assessing what works can be “like trying to describe a dream”, according to a former principal. Yet Ms Green and Ms Goldstein agree on a few basic points: the best training should include regular feedback, collaboration, mentoring and observation throughout one’s career. In Japan, for example, teachers observe the lessons of mentors and dissect them afterwards. Colleagues collaborate on new lesson plans. Unlike the learning-by-rote maths classes typical of America, where teachers demonstrate (and often fumble through) sample problems and then have students solve similar ones on their own, Japanese classes are often devoted to solving a single problem all together, which creates a far livelier atmosphere of inquiry, full of mistakes and opportunities to learn from them.

Both books offer a damning assessment of America’s approach to teachers. These workers are expected almost single-handedly to create new worlds of opportunity for poor children, even as low pay and limited training dooms them to failure. But the authors also offer some good news. At a time when more people teach in America than work at McDonald’s, Walmart and the US Post Office combined—and nearly 400,000 new teachers start at schools each year—it is reassuring to know that teaching well is a skill, and it can be taught.

 

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