Should Program to Reward Teachers Include More Hours and Students?

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Earlier this year I wrote about some of the problems in Project Respect, a proposed federal program designed to try to "keep good teachers on the job and reward the best ones,'' in the words of President Obama.

Project Respect re-envisions a teacher’s career, and its associated compensation. Over all, the proposal has goals I endorse, but some of them are implemented poorly.

There is another larger problem with the proposal, and it is one that lies at the heart of too much so-called school reform being proposed: extending school days and asking effective teachers to work with more students.

Anyone who has taught long enough to be able to reflect on how students learn knows: teaching is an immeasurably complex task, and public policy implemented by large bureaucracies often cannot capture the nuances of learning.

To borrow the framework of the philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler as outlined in his Paideia Proposal, schools are responsible for helping students develop three things: knowledge, skills and understanding.

In two different places, the Department of Education’s proposal expresses a desire to see successful teachers engage with more students, either in larger traditional classes or through the assistance of technology. Both of these are fine suggestions as long as we are concerned only with the first of Mr. Adler's goals for student learning: acquisition of knowledge.

We teach students knowledge by telling, and I can just as easily tell things to a large group as a small group, and there is a chance a computer can do it better than I can.

However, to develop students’ skills requires coaching (no one would ever suggest students learn to play a sport by sitting and listening to someone talk about it). To develop students’ understanding requires questioning and conversation.

For example, in my government class, it my responsibility to make sure students leave with the knowledge of how our government works. This is a relatively simple, though not easy, task to accomplish.

It is also my responsibility to ensure that my seniors have the reading, writing and speaking skills necessary to succeed in college-level social studies courses. They develop these skills by practicing them, with time-consuming feedback from myself and peers, repeatedly throughout the year.

Finally, they need a deep understanding of how democracy actually works, in all its messiness. This requires ongoing conversations, as we examine case studies such as the Republican primary, the Citizens United case and Occupy Wall Street. Comprehension of these issues grows as we return to a theme several times over the semester.

Effective teaching requires time and intimate knowledge of individual students’ minds and capabilities. These are things that a computer cannot do, and teachers cannot do well if they are responsible for too many students. I am actually less concerned with class size than with total student load; I would be happy to teach 50 students at a time if those were the only students I had.

While I can still be an effective teacher in a large class (and I actually had 50 students at once in Virginia at certain points), I cannot be a highly effective teacher of skills, understanding and decency in that environment.

Developing students’ skills and understanding also requires a more complex conception of education than a simple input/output model. While more knowledge can be taught in longer school days, the same does not apply to the development of the other realms. Skills must be practiced before proceeding to new ones, and understandings must marinate in students’ minds and be applied to new situations.

Before we discuss extending school days and years, I would rather examine how to better use the time we have. The law of diminishing returns is very much in play with young people’s time, particularly adolescents. I have seen far too many teachers and schools make the mistake of saying, “we need to do more,” when in reality they need to do less better.