Caught Michelle Rhee on Real Time with Bill Maher the other night. She’s the reform educator who closed low-performing schools in the Washington, D.C. school district.
One of the comments she made was that, when she visited a school early one morning, she found classrooms with five students, seven students, three students in them. Wondering where all of the students were, she chanced upon one classroom with thirty students in it. Leaving the school a short time later, she found herself walking behind a couple of the students who had been in that classroom.
Tapping them on the shoulder, she asked what was going on. The students told her that, while their first period teacher was worth the effort of showing up, their next teacher was not worth the effort of staying. Rhee said that, while people noticing these kids hanging around instead of attending class might think they are not motivated, she took away something entirely different from this encounter.
Rhee said that what she realized was that, these students were motivated enough to get themselves up, dressed, and to school in time for the first class of the day. Once they were there, though, they weren’t motivated enough to stick around. In other words, they were being savvy shoppers of their time.
Rhee’s comment on the whole situation was that teachers make a difference. I have something to add to that. Since even students in the worst schools can figure out whether they are learning anything or not, let’s chuck the whole tenure thing, the whole standardized testing thing, and let the students decide whether a teacher is worth his or her salt, or salary.
Set up each teacher with a classroom of thirty students. At the end of six weeks, if the teacher can’t manage to retain at least twenty students in class, that teacher is fired immediately. All of the other teachers keep their jobs until the next semester/quarter, when the process is repeated. And repeated, and repeated, each year.
Instead of tenure, where teachers keep their jobs until they are forced out, make them provide something worthy in order to keep their jobs. Impossible! you say? Anecdotal, you say? The kids will pick the teachers who make life easy for them? Not so. I will repeat my main point: children are programmed from birth to learn. Given their druthers, they will learn. They must learn. Learning to be productive in the society in which people find themselves is the only way for the species to survive. It’s in our genes. Students will gravitate to the teachers who teach—it’s human nature. That desire must be stomped out of them.
Look at the Khan Academy, which is a corollary to the main point. We lost teaching when we went from requiring teachers to know their subject to requiring teachers to know how to teach. Sure, aspiring teachers need a few pointers on how to engage a class, how to deal with unruly children, and how to create an effective lesson plan. But those pedagogical aspects have overrun the absolute need to be fully conversant with the subject you are trying to get across to the students. Know your stuff, and the teaching will come. Know everything about teaching, and you still can’t teach celestial navigation if you don’t know it.
And Michelle Rhee? She didn’t get tenure, she got fired.