Saturday, August 14, 2010

Making Effective Teachers: engineering or wishful thinking?

“Every child deserves an effective teacher,” says Brian Armstead, director of civic engagement at the Philadelphia Education Fund. (Reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 2009 B4) What Armstead said sounds good; and it’s so very heart-warming. But it’s not only wrong; it’s misleading. What someone deserves depends importantly, not on some magic pill, but on how they personally contribute to the process of their own betterment.

Consider the idea, “Every patient deserves effective medicine.” Would a patient who mixes Tylenol with alcohol, or who skips doses have a valid complaint should they not improve? Only if the effectiveness of a medicine were to be misjudged by not considering whether every patient actually took the medicine prescribed for them in the manner indicated. Effectiveness of a medicine is judged on the assumption that it will be properly used by the patient.

Also consider the idea, “Every driver deserves a safe car.” Would a driver who speeds in and out of dense traffic, or who fails to have safety checkups for his car have a valid complaint should he get into trouble? Is the basic safety of a car to be downgraded because its owner is a bad driver?

The best of teachers will not be effective with a student who comes to class unprepared, who does not do his homework, or is disruptive or inattentive. Learning is not merely a teacher effect on a student, but the outcome of a cooperative effort between teacher and student (and often parent).

Armstead’s group, as well as Philadelphia School Superintendent Ackerman, talk as if they or someone else can determine the effectiveness of teachers in advance and apart from the kinds of students they are assigned to teach. This is clever politics – it tells parents and an uninformed public what they want to hear. But, it is wishful thinking.

To examine these issues further, see Increasing Teaching Efficiency


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