Teaching: it’s about teachers


I’ve been reading Amanda Ripley’s piece in the Atlantic Monthly about the work of Teach for America, a charity which funds successful college graduates in the States to work in challenging schools for two years after graduation. Teach for America has pioneered the assessment of individual teachers thanks to its access to data about teachers in its programme, and has learned (apparently quite recently, in the last decade) that the individual qualities of the teachers themselves have dramatically greater impact on children’s achievement than any other factor, far more so than even the socioeconomic circumstances of those children, which had been assumed (in America, at least) to have been the single biggest issue.

Even more importantly, these qualities can be described and identified in the recruitment process. They include relentlessness (aka “grit”) and, perhaps most resonantly for this most unionised of middle-class professions, a tendency to see problems as being within oneself rather than in the system:

Other teachers I interviewed spent most of our time complaining. “With the testing and the responsibility and keeping up with the behavior reports and the data, it has gotten so much harder over the years,” said one fourth-grade teacher at Kimball, the same school where Mr. Taylor teaches. “It’s more work than it should be. They don’t give us the time to be creative.”

A 23-year veteran who earns more than $80,000 a year, this teacher has a warm manner, and her classroom is bright and neat. She paid for the kids’ whiteboards, the clock, and the DVD player herself. But she seems to have given up on the kids’ prospects in a way that Mr. Taylor has not. “The kids in Northwest [D.C.] go on trips to France, on cruises. They go places and their parents talk to them and take them to the library,” she says one fall afternoon between classes. “Our parents on this side don’t have the know-how to raise their children. They’re not sure what it takes for their child to make it.”

When her fourth-grade students entered her class last school year, 66 percent were scoring at or above grade level in reading. After a year in her class, only 44 percent scored at grade level, and none scored above. Her students performed worse than fourth-graders with similar incoming scores in other low-income D.C. schools. For decades, education researchers blamed kids and their home life for their failure to learn. Now, given the data coming out of classrooms like Mr. Taylor’s, those arguments are harder to take. Poverty matters enormously. But teachers all over the country are moving poor kids forward anyway, even as the class next door stagnates. “At the end of the day,” says Timothy Daly at the New Teacher Project, “it’s the mind-set that teachers need—a kind of relentless approach to the problem.”

The really effective teachers, on the other hand, were constantly questioning their own approaches, and their default position when faced with something that wasn’t working was to change their approach to it, not to blame it on external factors.

I know a lot of teachers. My wife is a primary school head, one of my best friends is a deputy at a comprehensive, my wife’s best friend is a head at a special school within a secure psychiatric unit. All of them are relentless and all of them assume, before they step through the door of their school, that any child inside is capable of as much as any other child. And they plan and they plan and they plan.

Parents know this, of course, particularly at primary school, where children have to spend a whole year with a single teacher. But they are badly served by the media, which focusses on shadowy cohorts of “failing teachers” in their hundreds and thousands, as against a small handful of “super teachers” who take home awards and appear on magazine show sofas and then disappear. What we need is a crunchy, statistically demonstrable and relentless (that word again) approach to identifying the best teachers at the point of recruitment, and less talk about “free school dinners” and “class sizes.”

The Bad Good Schools Guide

My regular reader will know my strong, irrational and profoundly hypocritical views on private education, because she’s married to me. Others may be on less firm footing, so let’s try and demonstrate by taking a look at something written by Ralph Lucas, editor of The “Good” Schools Guide. His charming prose appears in the latest edition of Living South, which is one of those magazines which pops through your front door and lets you imagine a world where you need stone flooring, a glass-and-steel conservatory, and a new house with a 90 foot garden.

I don’t know Mr Lucas, but his photo is best described as generic overprivileged and somewhat-overfed white man. He is introducing a special supplement feature in Living South, which is essentially a dozen pages of adverts for local schools in my area. Most of these are private schools, as they’re the only ones who need to advertise.

He starts off in a friendly if vaguely disconcerting fashion:

“After, I hope, a relaxing holiday free of academic strees, it’s back to the autumn term and, for me at least, thoughts turning to ‘which school next?'”

What is this “academic stress” he speaks of? Is is stress which is caused by studying? Or stress which is made pointless by external events? And what does he mean by ‘which school next’? Is he planning some kind of bombing?

No, of course he’s not. He’s talking about choosing the next school for your loved ones. As he says:

“You need to give yourself a good, long run up – three years seems ideal to me – to dig out parents to chat to, read prospectuses, take advice, visit and discuss, and all in good time to make the grade for entrance: whether this means tutoring or moving home.”

I had to read that sentence a few times to let the full middle-class existential horror of it wash over me. Yes, folks, if you haven’t worried about your child’s next school for a good three years, you’re not working hard enough. And what’s this about “making the grade”? Tutoring is presumably about improving your useless offspring to the level required by these awesome seats of learning. But moving home? Does that mean moving out of an area if you’re not good enough for it? Or vice versa?

“Most London senior schools are ridiculously selective. The cause of this is the shortage of independent secondary schools in central London, caused in turn by the shortage of good state secondary schools: not something that shows signs of being speedily remedied.”

Ah, Mr Lucas is on firmer ground now. This is recognisably Daily Mail territory. Not only is state education, ipso facto, shit, but its essential shitness is also dragging down the fine purveyors of private education. And with a sweep of his Mont Blanc, Mr Lucas writes off the thousands of men and women who remain dedicated to state education in London. Nice going, Mr Lucas.

So Mr Lucas recommends looking further afield, to something he calls “country schools”. Not, as you might think, named for the kind of people they grow on the trees in these schools (think about it), but for their essential Non-Londonness. The phrase is redolent of cord trousers, restaurants which close at 10pm and an inherent assumption of superiority. Mr Lucas mentions Eton and Wycombe Abbey, and describes such schools as having a “delight in educating the average child and bringing out the best in them.”

Ah, the average child! God bless the average child! Fear not if your child is average, because these charitable institutions, these “country schools”, will take them on. As Mr Lucas says, they will take on the “shy, the dyslexic, the sporty, the theatrical, the entrepreneurial, the rebellious – and still have a shot at getting him or her into Oxbridge if that’s how they turn out.” And all for free! Although I might have got that bit wrong.

God bless Mr Lucas and his kind. With their sage advice and warm humanity, we can share in the common endeavour of educating all children, or equipping the next generation with the social skills, the love of learning and the sense of fellowship which this country needs. For otherwise, what is there? A country where the rich educate their children to a sense of entitlement, of special distinctiveness which marks them out from the common crowd, and where the rich encourage their children to avoid the common herd at all costs and choose private education for their own children when the time comes because all state schools are, axiomatically, completely and utterly shit.

Thanks Mr Lucas! And by the way, the person who build your website obviously went to state school, because it doesn’t work! Stupid state school idiot.

Stupid Good Schools guide
Stupid Good Schools guide

An essential poem

I’ve been reading Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain, which I recommend wholeheartedly, and apart from reflecting on how much harder politics was in the aftermath of the War than it is now (devaluation, Rhodesia, Vietnam, borrowing money, strikes, inflation – all in 1968) I also wondered what happened to the censoriat – the army of small-minded self-appointed “public servants” who attempted to keep the intelligent and the daring at bay with their blue pencils and narrow horizons.

I’ll tell you what happened to them. They became “external examiners.” Step forward Pat Schofield, whose complaint about a Carol Ann Duffy poem and its supposed glorification of knife crime led to the poem being withdrawn from the English syllabus. Duffy’s response, titled Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, has a poetry which Mrs Schofield will never be able to understand:

You must prepare your bosom for his knife,

said Portia to Antonio in which

of Shakespeare’s Comedies? Who killed his wife,

insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch

knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said

Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?

Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt’s death?

To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – do you

know what this means? Explain how poetry

pursues the human like the smitten moon

above the weeping, laughing earth; how we

make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:

speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

And indeed, Mrs Schofield finds that rather hard:

Contacted by the Guardian last night, Schofield said she felt “a bit gobsmacked” to have a verse named after her. She described the poem as “a bit weird. But having read her other poems I found they were all a little bit weird. But that’s me”.

Yes, Mrs Schofield, that’s you. You’re an idiot.

Accord Coalition » Declaration of aims

In a pluralist, multi-cultural society, the state should promote tolerance and recognition of different values and beliefs. Given the dangers of segregation and the importance of community cohesion we need schools that welcome all and are committed to non-discrimination. Schools should promote a culture of questioning, of knowledge, of respect and of exploration of values, where students develop their own identities and sense of place in the world. We believe all state-funded schools should:

1. Operate admissions policies that take no account of pupils’ – or their parents’ – religion or beliefs.

2. Operate recruitment and employment policies that do not discriminate on the grounds of religion or belief.

3. Follow an objective, fair and balanced syllabus for education about religious and non-religious beliefs – whether determined by their local authority or by any future national syllabus or curriculum for RE.

4. Be made accountable under a single inspection regime for RE, Personal, Social & Health Education (PSHE) and Citizenship.

5. Provide their pupils with inclusive, inspiring and stimulating assemblies in place of compulsory acts of worship.

And we commit to work with each other locally and nationally to turn public support for inclusive education into a campaign for reform that the government cannot ignore.

Accord Coalition » Declaration of aims.