'BetterJobs,' Better Teachers

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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 possible...so why not, for example...in 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.