|Socrates and Plato.
Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.
Haydn and Beethoven.
Jen and Hannah.
Learning happens in the relationship between teachers and students. If we want
to improve public education, we should strengthen that relationship in every way that makes
a difference in learning. Absent that, other attempts at increasing student achievement are
not likely to succeed.
Before going further, it’s worth noting that we should not define “teacher” as
only a professional pedagogue. As a child, I knew that most adults in the community were teachers
to me, even the clerks at stores where I bought bubble gum and marbles. They would look me
in the eye and patiently count the change into my hand. They demonstrated that it was important
to learn money math—and they wanted me to learn it.
I don’t see many interactions
like that today, which makes the job of public schools more difficult. Pennsylvania’s
elementary students are required to attend 900 hours of instruction each year. This represents
just 15 percent of a child’s waking hours in a
year, and it is folly to expect classroom teachers to impart 100 percent of what a child needs
to learn in 15 percent of a child’s time. All adults—pre-eminently but not solely
parents—have to accept some responsibilities as teachers. It’s simple
math, and adults-as-teachers of all children too often are a missing factor.
do not focus on the relationship between teachers and students, or that are disrespectful of
that relationship, do not succeed. In Pennsylvania, charter schools are a sad example.
has 109 charter schools that enroll 42,000 students. If they constituted their own district,
charter schools would be the second largest school district in Pennsylvania, behind only Philadelphia.
And if that were the case, they would have ranked 490th in reading and 494th in math achievement
out of 502 districts last year.
Contributing to this dismal record is a state law that requires
only 75 percent of teachers in charter schools to hold teaching certificates. In practice,
the average has been significantly below 75 percent. Add to this a charter-school teaching
corps that averages several fewer years of experience with high turnover rates, and it’s
tempting to conclude that failure becomes not just predictable but unavoidable.
Another “reform” that
fails to put the teacher-student relationship at the core of improving public schools is “choice”—the
romantic idea that simply allowing parents to choose the charter or other schools their children
attend will automatically produce better results.
While the market force that underlies choice
may eventually contribute to better public schools, it will do so only if parental choices
are informed choices based on what matters in teaching and learning. Yet most advocates of
choice oppose universal accountability systems that would permit parents to compare all schools—public,
private, charter, religious—on the
basis of a common set of performance standards such as the quality of teaching. Until that
happens, choice will remain little more than an ideological sound bite, not a strategy for
So how can public education improve the relationship between teachers and
students? There are several ways, ranging from small classes to better management of disruptive
students to team teaching.
More specifically, states and schools can encourage teachers to achieve
certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Some states provide
grants to help teachers obtain national certification. Private foundations, such as Pittsburgh’s
Grable Foundation, also are committing significant sums to help schools promote national certification
among their teachers.
Short of national certification, most states insist on more and better
continuing education for teachers in both content and pedagogy. Fortunately, technology is
making such demands perfectly reasonable. Today the Internet can deliver interactive, research-based
and classroom-applied professional development to all teachers regardless of where or what
they teach and at minimal cost.
We can celebrate and strengthen teaching, or we can denigrate
and weaken it. But its fundamental value remains because we all remember turning points when
an excellent teacher made all the difference to us.
Jen and Hannah? This teacher and student
are not famous, but they are equally important for being closer to home.
Jen is Jennifer Blyth, associate professor of music and chair of Dickinson’s
music department. Hannah is a piano student and the daughter of some family friends. When the
two met recently, Jen managed to reach Hannah in ways that inspired her to a new love of music
and piano when Hannah was discouraged and disinterested. Hannah’s parents now wonder
at her spending so much time at the piano.
Such is the power of great teaching. If we want great
public schools, we should start there.
A consultant in education policy, politics and communication, Tim Potts ’71 was the
director of the Pennsylvania School Reform Network from 1997 until late 2004. Potts, who majored
in English, serves on the communications committee of Dickinson’s Alumni Council.