'BetterJobs,' Better Teachers

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show,  John Merroweducation correspondent at the PBS NewsHour, president of Learning Matters, and the author of the new book The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership discussed his decades of reporting on education and his new book on the subject.

John Merrow said the "better people" argument is winning when we talk about what to do with teachers and education, but it's the teaching job itself we need to focus on. Just look at the numbers:

We lose 40 percent of teachers in the first five years on the job. No other profession suffers that kind of loss. No other profession treats its new people so badly. If you could listen to what teachers ask for, they want a chance to collaborate, to develop curriculum... if you could change those conditions, I think you'd find that an awful lot of the people that are now teaching are in fact better people.

The problem, Merrow said, is the definition of "better teachers" has been co-opted by trade unions and defined by the details, such as how early a teacher arrives at school, when a teacher leaves, and how many days in advance a principal needs to ask before watching a teaching session.

Somehow you have to rescue that better-job definition away from that narrow trade union view and define it as quality of life.

Merrow says the education wars these days are irrelevant to the needs of children because the world has dramatically changed, particularly for education. Schools used to be important for three reasons, according to Merrow: Custodial care, socialization, and knowledge. No longer.

We're all surrounded by this flood of information, which isn't necessarily knowledge, but schools remain these answer factories. What we need are schools that help kids formulate questions, help kids turn this stream of information into knowledge and wisdom. Socialization, we went to school to learn to get along with other people, well today' there's an app for that..and kids are socializing with kids all over the world.

Custodial care is the only reason that's still relevant, but we can't have schools that just do that, Merrow said.

Ron in Brooklyn has taught elementary school for 17 years and said being a new teacher is particularly challenging "It's basically a sink or swim mentality," he said, during a call-in to the Brian Lehrer show. Merrow agreed and said this is what has to change, just like in any organization that wants staff retention.

You create conditions for success. When you hire somebody here at WNYC, you want them to be successful. In education they just say, well, ok, come on in. You're on your own, here's your classroom.    

As for standardized testing, Merrow said we need to give fewer tests, but more teacher-made tests and progress tests. We need focus on what we want our kids to be able to do, he said. That includes harnessing new technology for curriculum.

This technological revolution makes so much more why not, for a city organize the 7th grade, 8th grade social studies classes and everybody with a smart phone, go map your neighborhood and just take photos of the trash cans and then start sharing the data. You may find that in the upper east side in Manhattan there's one on every corner but not in Queens- you start sharing that information and you can act on that information. Then you'll want to go to school.

All the Amazon sales proceeds of John Merrow's new book, The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership will be donated to his non-profit, Learning Matters.



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Comments [23]

Nate from Boston, MA

@ Jen

Graduate programs in education (at least all those I researched) do indeed require the GREs for admission, and if you ask anyone who has been through a MEd or MAT program they may disagree that they've achieved a "pseudo degree." These program often include close to a full workload of classes in addition to student teaching and observation, making them more rigorous than other liberal arts graduate programs (granted, they are often only 1 year programs).

Mar. 22 2011 01:52 PM

P.S. Real graduate programs require that applicants submit GREs, MCATs, or LSATs. Education schools do not. If they use similar requirements for admission, certainly more than half their teacher-students would not meet admissions criteria.

Teachers should only take additional coursework in their content areas to stay on top of their respective fields so they can bring that fresh knowledge into the classroom. Education degrees are widely held -- and have always been thought to be pseudo degrees.

Mar. 16 2011 08:18 PM

Thank you, John Merrow. You are absolutely right that good teachers want, more than anything else, to be able to perform their jobs well. Teaching is an inherently creative, dynamic job, but we are asking our nation's public teachers to do the impossible. They are given more classes, more preparations, and more students, with inadequate supplies, poor facilities management, and little guidance. It makes it close to impossible for conscientious teachers to grade papers, much less plan exciting lessons for each and every day. Creating an impossible job only results in mediocre and bad teachers hanging on for the paycheck and pushes smart ones out the door. (Superman is a character in a comic strip.)

It is also the case that, while there are some excellent teachers in the system, there are some who should not be there at all. Sometimes, these are young recruits who lack the maturity and long view to be strong role models. In other cases, they are, frankly, decrepit weirdos who are tolerated by administrators because they kow-tow to them.

Mar. 16 2011 08:08 PM
janet mayer from PA

As an awarding winning NYC high school teacher of English for over 45 years, I am furious that Brian Lehrer and all radio and tv hosts keep interviewing non-educators who really don't know what they are talking about. Mr Merrow talks out of both sides of his mouth, praising Teach For America participants(who stay only for 2 years, especially since Goldman Sachs gives them jobs if they just stay 2 years),and then saying he taught for 2 years and hardly had begun to know how to teach.
Mr. Lehrer, why not interview successful career teachers, like me and get some different views for a change?
Better yet, read my book, AS BAD AS THEY SAY? Three decades of Teaching in the Bronx, and learn the truth about my heroic Bx. students and the truth about all the current fraudulent reforms. My book is to be released on May1,2011 and is published by Fordham U. Press!
Janet Mayer

Mar. 16 2011 02:17 PM

How can the job be made "better?" The reality is, as a teacher you are locked in with 25 or more individual kids per class, for whom you have to perform flawlessly every day. And they can be a very tough audience. And a very disrespectful audience sometimes, especially when there are the one or two disruptive troublemakers who are going to do everything possible to wreck your day.

Anyone who criticizes teachers has never been alone trying to control and/or enchant a classroom for one day in his or her life. Teachers are powerless scapegoats for the failures of society as a whole.

Mar. 15 2011 11:04 AM
Ruth Halligan from NYC

Many of the "reformers", wealthy business people looking to do good, have nothing but contempt for the teachers they meet. They (the reformers) would never work for the pay and under the circumstances that most career teachers accept. (Career, not amateurs gathering material for their book on how tough it was to teach for a year.)

Mar. 15 2011 11:03 AM

I had a terrible teacher for trig in NY and he was eventually fired based on his long term Regents scores. Only 2 of us passed the test in his class that year. Why can't we use testing if the test is subject based? Granted it was too late for my classmates and those that came a few years before and after but it eventually worked.

Mar. 15 2011 11:02 AM

Conditions for success????

Children learn all day every day. Not just in the classrooms, but in their total environment. Today 5% of kids are homeless, 25% live in poverty, many parents are overextended with multiple jobs and do not have much time to devote to their kids. If we do not address the environmental "conditions for success, " classroom teachers will never be successful.

Mar. 15 2011 11:01 AM
Mr. Bad

@ Amanda from NYC

Exactly, this is what we need. Education degrees are a joke, the average high school math teacher in NYC would likely fail a math regents exam without an "answer" edition.

Mar. 15 2011 10:59 AM
Rebekah from Bronx

To Mike: I agree. I have a Masters in Physics and then got a Masters in Physics education. I couldn't believe how different the programs were, and that they gave the same titled degrees. It was absurd.

Mar. 15 2011 10:57 AM
Chad from Brooklyn

I am about to complete my masters degree for teaching social studies. Speaking as a soon to be teacher (or not depending on the job environment) I think it is not necessary to create a binary choice. Do we need better teachers or better jobs? We need both. Even Milton Friedman would agree that better jobs is the only way to attract higher quality teachers.

I think we need to look deeper. I believe the real issue isn't whether or not we value education/teachers but whether or not we value our students.

Mar. 15 2011 10:57 AM
Debbie from NYC

I was a NYC Teaching Fellow. Taught h.s. English for 5 school years and left. My school was a failing school, with kids running rampant through the halls, kids able to leave the building as they wished, 50% graduation rate. Administration concentrated on our "data" and our "evidence of differentiation," not on managing the building. The pay did not make me leave but the conditions of work, unmanageable work load (25 classes a week), "us vs them" mentality of the faculty at my school, forced me out.

Mar. 15 2011 10:56 AM
Nick from UWS

We have lost our way completely in the issue of teaching. We should stop all the blah blah, all the nonsense about "teaching concepts", get technology OUT of the classroom, and for Christ's sake teach kids how to READ, how to do basic MATH, and how to formulate a coherent sentence. The way kids write and speak today is absolutely disgraceful. All you need to do to prepare kids for the world is make sure they can read and think clearly and critically. The rest is all nonsense.

Mar. 15 2011 10:54 AM

Teachers have NO power whatsoever! At one time, when I went to school back in the '50s and '60s, kids were scared of their teachers just a bit. But for the last 40 years, teachers have been scared of the kids, the principal, and the parents.

Teachers are the scapegoats today. Yes, there are bad teachers, and always have been. But there are far more bad kids! Or spoiled and undisciplined kids whose parents can't or won't handle them, and then expect an overburdened hapless teacher to do it for them. Absurd.

Mar. 15 2011 10:53 AM

Teachers have NO power whatsoever! At one time, when I went to school back in the '50s and '60s, kids were scared of their teachers just a bit. But for the last 40 years, teachers have been scared of the kids, the principal, and the parents.

Teachers are the scapegoats today. Yes, there are bad teachers, and always have been. But there are far more bad kids! Or spoiled and undisciplined kids whose parents can't or won't handle them, and then expect an overburdened hapless teacher to do it for them. Absurd.

Mar. 15 2011 10:53 AM
Mike from Park Slope

Totally agree on closing education schools. As a real PhD student I hate getting compared to those education PhD-lites that can pump out BS dissertations in 2-3 years for $$$.

Mar. 15 2011 10:52 AM

So one of the issues is that an existing "by-the-numbers" approach to rewarding teachers (courses, degrees, years) has proved ineffective. The solution of Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, Michael Bloomberg? A "New and Improved" by-the-numbers approach, but now run both teachers and kids through the wringer.

Mar. 15 2011 10:52 AM
Amanda from NYC from NYC

My husband teaches at one of the CIty's most expensive, oldest private schools. None of the teachers have degrees in teaching. They have degrees in the subjects they teach.

Mar. 15 2011 10:52 AM

Teachers have NO power whatsoever! At one time, when I went to school back in the '50s and '60s, kids were scared of their teachers just a bit. But for the last 40 years, teachers have been scared of the kids, the principal, and the parents.

Teachers are the scapegoats today. Yes, there are bad teachers, and always have been. But there are far more bad kids! Or spoiled and undisciplined kids whose parents can't or won't handle them, and then expect an overburdened hapless teacher to do it for them. Absurd.

Mar. 15 2011 10:52 AM
Rebekah from Bronx

As a very successful, third year teacher in NYC public school (I'm home sick today), I can say that when I got into this profession, I was SHOCKED to realize what little respect teachers have from all sides: students, parents, and principals. Management and school culture is very important here (your guest has the definition of "better job" right). I switched schools after my first year, and have had a much better experience. Unfortunately, I think that most schools are like my first one...

Mar. 15 2011 10:51 AM
Jennifer Jones from New York

I have hired hundreds of teachers, primarily for new inner city charter schools, and I also have a doctorate from Teachers College Columbia. Merrow is absolutely right. The teacher is the key to outcomes, and salary has absolutely nothing to do with those outcomes. Great teachers want to teach because they love the job and the challenge, but many of the great ones are shut down in the first 2 years and leave the system disenchanted.

Mar. 15 2011 10:50 AM
Doreen Caldwell from Rego Park

I taught high school French for a year before quitting, and the biggest quality-of-life challenge was student discipline. Teaching is essentially state-funded babysitting. The teacher's primary function is keeping kids off the street during business hours. Student behavior in public schools is outrageous, and the new teacher has few tools. Parents deny and get defensive, administrators blame the teacher, kids run rampant.

Mar. 15 2011 10:49 AM
carolita from nyc

I have to say that of all the teachers I've had in my life, only three stand out as having influenced me in a positive way. The rest were uninspired, dead inside, just going through the motions, and at least one had a very negative influence on me. This is what makes me agree that tenure is not a good thing, even though I think teachers should be paid more and valued more.

My favorite teachers, for the record:
Mr. McLaughlin, PS22Q: 5th grade
Mr. Brodsky, Cardozo HS: 10th grade
Mrs. Giepetto: Parson's School of Design (college)

Mar. 15 2011 10:46 AM

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