Date: Feb 12, 2013 11:52 AM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: Great Teachers Can't Save America's Schools
From The Atlantic, Monday, February 11, 2013. See
Great Teachers Can't Save America's Schools
By Gerald Graff and Steve Benton
In last year's State of the Union address, the president placed too
much importance on individual educators. This year, he should talk
about a far deeper problem.
Everybody loves a great teacher. When a student crosses paths with
one, the influence can reverberate well beyond the last day of
school. In last year's State of the Union address, President Obama
informed us that a "good teacher can increase the lifetime income of
a classroom by over $250,000," a claim supported by a widely reported
study by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities.
But by focusing too heavily on the teachers themselves, Obama may
have missed an opportunity to bring out a far deeper problem. In this
year's address, he should focus on the disconnected and muddled
curriculum that does more damage to our schools and colleges than bad
Getting better teachers in the classrooms may be the mantra of the
moment, but no matter how wonderful some teachers may be, their work
will be consistently undermined if they aren't teaching out of the
same playbook. When they are not, students receive confusingly mixed
messages about the do's and don'ts of academic practices. This leaves
them profoundly confused about the intellectual work they are
expected to do.
These mixed messages include everything from whether it's all right
to use "I" in academic essays to whether summarizing and quoting
other authors is standard practice or a sign of insufficient
creativity. While some teachers are sticklers for grammar, others
tell their students that grammatical correctness is far less
important than expressing genuine feelings or having a strong thesis.
In some courses, strong opinions are welcomed; in others they are
shot down as symptoms of adolescent overconfidence. One class is all
about coming up with the right answer, while the rule in the one next
door is that there are no right answers, only endless questions. Some
teachers design their classes as job-training workshops while others
design theirs as antidotes to the dreary world of the bottom line.
Even when different teachers' lessons are actually compatible,
students often fail to recognize the convergence because the same
things are said in different ways, and the teachers are too oblivious
to spot and address the confusion. In her recent book, The College
Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another,
Rebecca Cox documents the damage such mixed messages inflict on
community college students. One student Cox interviewed put her
finger on the problem with unusual poignancy:
What is really right for a good paper? Everybody has their standards.
So if Mr. Dobbs is teaching me, and he thinks this is a good paper,
then what if I do what he told me to do, and I take it to another
professor and maybe that's not his standards? And if my teacher says,
"Well, it's not a good paper," what am I supposed to do?
So what is right? So that's very vague; there's no curriculum--I
mean, is that what all the teachers think is a good paper? Or is that
just his opinion?
Cox notes how difficult it is for a student to determine whether
something a teacher says is "what all the teachers think" or just one
teacher's opinion. This confusion often erodes students' "initial
optimism" about education. They become cynical and disillusioned, and
in many cases, even drop out.
Such curricular dissonance also does much to widen the achievement
gap. The high achievers manage to synthesize the mixed messages on
their own and thereby deepen their learning from course to course,
but the rest do not. For them, education is not a cumulative process,
but a bizarre obstacle course in which students must virtually start
from scratch every time they enter a new course. Who can blame them
if they come away believing that education is just a cynical business
of learning enough to get past one teacher and then setting aside
those lessons to meet the unrelated or conflicting demands of the
Great teaching can't fix this problem as long as students are
distracted by the discrepancies and contradictions between classes.
In a New Yorker article some years back, Malcolm Gladwell unwittingly
illustrated this point when he compared talented instructors to NFL
quarterbacks. "There are certain jobs," he wrote, "where almost
nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how
they'll do once they're hired. So how do we know whom to choose in
cases like that?"
Yet as any sports fan knows, teams that have great individual
athletes still lose when their stars work at cross purposes. Like
losing sports teams, American schools and colleges depend too much on
brilliant individual teaching performances instead of coordinating
their teachers' lessons enough to give students a clear and
consistent picture of how academic work is done. And journalists,
politicians, and Hollywood studios support this misguided reliance on
individual performance when they glorify individual difference makers
like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society or Ms. Gruwell in Freedom
In contrast, when teachers are all working out of the same playbook,
the pressure lessens for each of them to be a brilliant solo
performer. Harvard education professor Richard F. Elmore, who has
researched the factors that cause schools to succeed, finds that in
failing schools everything depends on the individual talents of the
teachers "with little guidance or support from the organizations that
surround them." Again the point is not that good teaching doesn't
matter; it is that a coordinated curriculum makes teachers better.
But getting teachers to use the same playbook is just the first step.
Unless the curriculum itself is simplified and made transparent,
students will still experience their lessons as a clutter of diverse
subjects and skills. To clear up this confusion, teachers need to
agree on the skills that will enable their students to graduate, to
go to college, to do well there, and to eventually become articulate
citizens and workers. In other words, the playbook needs not only to
be a common one, but a good one.
At first glance, it may seem hard to imagine teachers ever reaching
this kind of consensus. In fact, it's closer than it may appear. For
years now, there has been nearly universal acceptance among
educators, business and government leaders, policy makers, and
parents that schools need to focus less on imparting facts and more
on teaching "higher order critical thinking skills" that will enable
students to make use of information.
To be sure, "critical thinking skills" has often seemed a nebulous
concept. But the new Common Core State Standards--which amount to the
first set of national standards for American K-12 schools--have
provided helpful definition by making argument the centerpiece of the
curriculum. Though many have focused on the Core Standards' call for
students to read more non-fiction and informational texts, we believe
that it is more significant that they emphasize how important
One of the greatest strengths of the Common Core Standards is that
they go on to specify the argument skills that should be developed
from pre-kindergarten to the high school years. In pre-kindergarten,
for instance, students should learn to form an opinion about an
experience or a text. By first grade, they should be able to give
reasons that explain their opinions. From third grade to sixth grade,
they should learn to structure their arguments in an essay. And as
they move through junior high and high school, students should learn
to map their ideas onto a larger intellectual landscape and make the
crucial move of acknowledging and engaging opposing arguments.
Throughout it all, students learn that arguing is not synonymous with
fighting -- its primary goal is not to destroy contradicting
viewpoints, but to engage them in a way that reveals hidden
dimensions of a problem. As the authors of the Standards explain in
an appendix, argument requires students to employ "substantive
claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence." And:
[w]hen teachers ask students to consider two or more perspectives on
a topic or issue, something far beyond surface knowledge is required:
students must think critically and deeply, assess the validity of
their own thinking, and anticipate counterclaims in opposition to
their own assertions.
(Admittedly, we're somewhat biased, because the authors of the
Standards also cite Gerald's 2003 book Clueless in Academe, quoting
his observations that "'argument literacy' is fundamental to being
educated" and that "the university is fundamentally an 'argument
In this digital age, when vast amounts of data are as close as the
nearest touchscreen, it is all the more crucial that schools focus on
helping students make articulate arguments out of the information
they can so easily access. Now more than ever before, schools need to
help students do more than acquire data. They must learn how to
explain that data, apply it, promote their interpretations of it, and
modify those interpretations through respectful debate and discussion.
This emphasis on argument also provides a common playbook for
teachers, without depriving those teachers of autonomy. Different
teachers can still promote and encourage dramatically conflicting
beliefs about their subjects. And it's so much the better for
students if they see their teachers engaging one another in
thoughtful debates about meaningful questions. Such substantive
conflicts will give students a model of how it's done, as long as
teachers can show them that the art of making arguments remains the
same even though opinions themselves may clash.
The Common Core Standards give us a picture of what American
education might look like if talented teachers -- like celebrity
athletes and movie stars -- could exercise their genius even as they
even as they contributed to common team goals. If we can rebuild our
schools around such standards, perhaps we can finally put aside the
seductive but ultimately disabling belief that only great solo
teachers can save American education.
"Get better teachers in the classroom" is a mantra that is easy to
sell. But we think our schools and colleges will be better served by
another mantra: "Make argument the center of the curriculum."
PHOTO SIDEBAR: teachers.jpgTouchstone / Paramount / Warner Bros.
Gerald Graff and Steve Benton -- Gerald Graff is a professor of
English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and
the author of Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures The Life of
the Mind. Steve Benton is the director of the honors program at East
Central University, where he is an assistant professor of English and
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244