Teaching and the Miracle Ideology

Elementary school library

Speaking to the American Federation of Teachers on Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "Great teachers are performing miracles every single day." Later on, when asked during a press conference about what makes a good teacher, he replied, "An effective teacher? They walk on water."

On the surface, Duncan's "miracle" ideology might seem like an innocent pander to teachers, akin to saying, "You guys are awesome!" But in actuality, the concept of "good" teachers as miracle workers has long been one teachers' unions have resisted. Why? Because their ideology tends to push back against the notion that given just a few hours each day with a child, it is a classroom teacher's responsibility to undo the effects of a student's background, which might include poverty, hunger, domestic violence, cramped quarters, and families that do not emphasize academic success. Just because some teachers are successful at turning around the lives of a small number of impoverished children, the thinking goes, it doesn't mean that it's fair to ask all "good" teachers to perform such "miracles," especially in a society without universally affordable health care, child care, and housing.

While acknowledging that social problems enter the classroom, folks like Duncan and D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee are far more optimistic than unions are that teachers can counterbalance them. Because they believe "miracles" are necessary for poor kids, they want to set up salary reward systems for teachers that incentivize 24/7, passion-driven work. For young elites choosing a profession, that is very attractive. But to many veteran teachers, it seems naive.

The jury is still out on merit pay. But the bottom line is that debates over the very nature of teaching — not just debates over how teachers are compensated — are at the heart of all the education policy differences roiling the Democratic coalition.

cross-posted at TAPPED

One thought on “Teaching and the Miracle Ideology

  1. Sam Penrose

    When I read this paper:

    link to americanprogress.org

    I see a lot of arguments you don’t respond to in the “jury is still out” piece. Nor does the “social problems enter the classroom” line of thinking you develop seem applicable: of course it matters hugely, but that doesn’t mean teacher quality doesn’t also matter. For me, the merit pay issue breaks into at least three pieces:

    1) Do teachers differ in their positive impact on students in ways we value?
    2) Can we identify those teachers?
    3) Will pay reform (or “reform”) result in higher average teacher quality and/or better allocation of high-performing teachers?

    My answers are:
    1) YES!
    2) Some credible people seem to think so.
    3) This could only be false if one of the following held:
    i teaching was different from every other competitive labor market I’ve experienced
    ii the reform didn’t function to make teaching enough like most competitive labor markets

    I would love to hear your answers. If I’m overlooking them somewhere, my apologies and I’d love a pointer.

    Reply

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