Education Trends

Fixing What’s Broken Without Breaking Everything Else

March 9, 2010

My adrenaline was still surging after joining thousands in my town demonstrating against the lay-offs of some of our best teachers at last Thursday's Day of Action to Defend Public Education. My spirits took a dive, however, when I opened my Sunday New York Times a mere three days later, and was reminded of another lay-off controversy turned lay-off melee in Central Falls, RI, where 93 high school teachers and staff were fired en masse by school officials last month. The two sides had been unable to reach agreement on a plan to turn around the failing school (they have since made some progress). Both Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama weighed in to support the Central Falls school officials, much to the fury of the local teachers union and just about every other union in the state. Talk about a downer.

What do you do when every teacher lay-off isn't about the sacking of honest, hard-working stewards of the learning process in order to meet the bottom line? Rather, when it's about ending years of woeful, sub-par performance by teachers who seem unable or unwilling to help pull their classrooms out of the rut? What to do when teachers' rights clash with students' rights to a decent education?

I don't have the answer, and anyone who tells you it's simple and not painful, isn't telling the truth. But I do know that if we, as citizens, parents, and teachers don't take bold systemic action to turn around chronic school failure, the problem will bleed out farther and farther into the system.

I also believe you can't be afraid to lay people off. You can't shrink from saying to some teachers, whose record of consistently missing opportunities to teach kids is beyond dispute, the time has come to step down from the classroom. The trick is, when is the fair and equitable time to force the issue? Or, far better, what is the fair, equitable and affordable combination of training and expanded hours spent with students that teachers should agree to, in order to improve their performance?

To that question, came something of a tangential answer from another Times report, last Sunday's cover story in the New York Times Magazine: "Building A Better Teacher." The subtext or sub-query of the article is how can educators be educated to educate better? Some suggest that perhaps they can't be, that there is a special sauce that makes a good teacher. That it has more to do with an innate ability to direct and to listen and to command attention, than anything you can learn. In other words, becoming a truly good teacher stems from a certain psychological and social aptitude one is born with and/or develops long before entering the profession.

Fortunately, Times reporter Elizabeth Green unearths other more optimistic researchers, including former teacher, principal and charter school founder, Doug Lemov of Albany, NY. Lemov believes you can help teachers teach better, and has written a book about it. Slated for release next month, it's called "Teach Like A Champion: The 40 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College."

In a similar vein, check out Edutopia's Seven Super Teacher Traits quiz from our "Schools That Work" series -- it's based on lessons learned by educators at Houston's YES Prep school.

One last note: You may have read recently about the highly esteemed education historian Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush and advocate of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, standardized testing, and using the free market to improve schools. Last week she executed a startling about face, and admitted she now believes she was wrong about most of what she once advocated. A major brouhaha has ensured. Read the analysis at

Join the Edutopia discussion about it in the Education Headline News group

And read the specifics of Ravitch's turnaround in her new book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

-- David Markus, Editorial Director, Edutopia

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