Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dear Nicholas Kristof

                I apologize for using the same rhetorical trick twice, but this seems to be my time for responding to nationally renowned columnists. Two weeks ago, Jay Mathews. This week, Nicholas Kristof, for his recent column “The Tangible Value of Great Teachers.” I’m not as upset with Kristof as I am with Mathews, but I do feel the need to point out some of my concerns with his argument.
Dear Mr. Kristof:
                Thank you very much for your recent column on the amazing difference a great teacher can make.  In particular, I want to commend you for two points.
First, while you cite test data, you talk about trends of data over a period of time. That makes a great deal of sense. Any test, no matter how well structured, gives a snapshot of a point in time. Tests also can provide very important insights into particular knowledge and skill sets. But they may not tell that much about how a student can apply those discrete bits. And they certainly cannot capture the attitudes fostered. I’ll share an anecdote to illustrate my point. I once worked with a teacher—and he remains one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever seen—who wanted to see student scores rise on the verbal portions of the tests being used at that school. That year, kids’ scores soared. When I talked with the teacher, he took no joy in this. Instead, he lamented, “I think I improved their writing less than I ever have with any group.” Still, used correctly over time, standardized tests can help through the revelation of patterns. Thank you for not falling into the high-stakes, single-test trap.
Second, you focus on the long-term benefits of an education, those that come out much later in life, often in ways that one cannot necessarily see coming. Considering the impact of a fourth-grade teacher later in a student’s life takes care of that. At first glance, the numbers don’t seem all that significant: 1.25% more likely to go to college, 1.25% less likely to get pregnant as a teen, likely to earn an average of $25,000 more through a lifetime. But they are massively significant to those who benefit. I’m even more struck by the notion that having a very poor teacher is equivalent to missing 40% of the school year.
The obvious conclusion is that we need more great teachers. Ideally, schools would get rid of all the poor ones. (Determination of such is another long, complicated topic.) I believe it was Newsweek that, a few years ago, had a cover story about firing all bad teachers. The natural question is: And replace them with whom? After all, we’ve said there are not enough great teachers. Hmmm…
Here is where I start to take issue with your argument, particularly the way you use the financial implications. We need more of the right people going into education. That is not going to link well with financial gain. No, I’m not about to rant on how teachers are underpaid. (Another long, complicated topic.) My point is that if we want the right people to go into education, along with many other lines of work that provide social service, we can’t focus on material gain as the measure of a meaningful education. We need more great teachers. Well, what if one of the measures of a great teacher were how many people he or she inspired to become a teacher? Or to serve others in some other crucial fashion? Not realistic in any way, but worth pondering.
One truly difficult aspect of being an educator teacher is often not knowing for sure if one’s work truly matters. There are myriad reasons for this, and all are real. If you don’t immediately sense why, stop and think about all the demands teaching really entails. Plus, as your column suggests, many of the pay-offs come later, long after a student has left a particular classroom. But when a teacher does know—such as when we hear from a former student who is doing beautifully, having found meaning and purpose—the feeling is amazing.
I’ve been fortunate enough to hear from many of my former students who have entered the education field. Some have joined the independent school world. Some have gone to the other extreme and worked in Teach for America and KIPP. Some do policy work, believing they can make a difference that way. I am very proud of them, and I am proud of myself, for I know those former students are contributing positively to a virtuous cycle.
To flip that coin, I’m saddened when I hear of people who have given their children wonderful educations, only to tell them they do not want them to become teachers. The reason usually has to do with the salary.
So, Mr. Kristof, I’m not condemning your argument. Nor am I against the notion of making money. I see why you have grasped onto this study. Rather than focus on the dollar amount, I probably should stress that this means those students have found steadier employment. My having to do that points to our needing a broader definition of success. Perhaps then we can find many more great teachers. Enough of them for every student to have one more often than in fourth grade. Imagine the value, tangible and intangible.

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