Teaching to What End?

Why do good teachers deserve professional respect? They do because successful teachers are people who possess the same skill sets as most successful CEOs. To be a good teacher one must be a skilled planner, sale meeting annual objectives in several different courses or domains. The annual objectives must be broken into units of learning and then into daily plans. The daily plans must take into account the individualized learning styles of each student because research has proven that all people do not learn the same way. In addition to being an excellent planner, see a great teacher is also someone who understands child psychology. They understand the difference between Piaget and Pavlov and can apply the best psychology to their students in a variety of unpredictable situations throughout the day. A good teacher must be flexible, for sale alternately compassionate and demanding. A good teacher is creative, humorous, patient, intelligent, a good listener and has communication skills that reach children, parents and colleagues with equal aplomb. And this is just the beginning.

Good teachers don’t need to be racing anywhere, much less to “the top,” “reliving Sputnik” or “building nations,” all phrases President Obama has used to paint a picture of his goals for teaching. What teachers need are ways to measure their effectiveness. But this is not easy. In fact, sometimes I think the education discussion is simply too nuanced to be adequately communicated to a mass audience. Recent films, news shows and speeches are not helpful in presenting truth or solutions.

The truth is that we need to begin with the student, not the teacher. We are placing a great deal of faith in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). The PISA provides useful information but that information must be used to retool the system. See, we need more than high scores. We actually need students to graduate and willingly and enthusiastically enter professions. Data from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD, the creators of the PISA test used to globally rank student performance) tells us that focusing on raising test scores will not get us the results we desire. As reported on their website, a global polling of OECD students in 2006 revealed that “while most students said they were motivated to learn science, only a minority aspired to a career involving science: 72% said it was important for them to do well in science; 67% enjoyed acquiring new knowledge in science; 56% said science was useful for further studies; but only 37% said they would like to work in a career involving science and 21% said they would like to spend their life doing advanced science.”

As long as we continue to focus on holding teachers accountable for student success on a narrow measurement we will not recruit and retain the right professionals for the job. This isn’t the Olympics where we train in order to take home the gold. If it were, we would include independent school children and homeschoolers on the scoring team and see if we could up the rankings. The OECD created the PISA as a tool to inform instruction, not to evaluate teachers or become the instructional ends. We have not yet clarified as a nation what the ends of education are and how to ensure students attain those ends. We can side step this issue all we want by blaming teachers, pointing to scores, disarming unions, throwing copious sums of money around but until we decide how we can get students involved in actually performing and demonstrating mastery of and desire to do the kinds of tasks needed for the jobs of the future, then we are wasting our time.

We must begin with the end in mind. What do graduates need to be able to do on the job, rather than on the test? How do we inspire students to enthusiastically embrace careers in the sciences once they have the knowledge to score well on the test? How can we attract and retain teachers who can not only get students to achieve high scores but who can inspire young people to desire fulfilling careers? Before we solve the wrong problem, we need to develop new performance criteria that is compatible with 21st century learning. We should be talking about assessment reform as the most important first step to true school reform. The president should be using his bully pulpit to make this discussion intelligible and intelligent.

Jenifer Fox is an internationally published author, educational keynote speaker and leading innovator on 21st Century Learning. Her groundbreaking book, Your Child’s Strengths, a Guide for Teachers and Parents (Viking/Penguin) is widely accepted as the definitive guide to developing success through a focus on strengths for children. Jenifer authored The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists (Wiley) and has created Differentiated Instruction, an online professional course for teachers.

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