Would busy Braham, Cambridge and Isanti teachers classify veteran educational journalist John Merrow’s new book, The Influence of Teachers, as liberal or conservative, pro or anti-teacher? Probably not.
Two of the best words are “pragmatic and provocative.” Merrow has huge respect for great teachers. He has won many national awards for his programs on National Public Radio and PBS Television describing what they do. But he also thinks the way teaching and accountability programs evolved made it harder to be a great teacher.
He describes two poles in the national debate about teaching: one that argues better people are needed for the profession. The other insists that we need to focus more on making teaching a better job. He is more sympathetic to people promoting the idea that teaching needs to be a better job.
Teachers will like his conclusions that teachers should earn more, and receive greater respect. But Merrow also insists that other changes are needed. For example, he says teaching will be a better job when
• “principals have authority over hiring their staff but are savvy about bring trusted veterans into the process.”
• “Teacher evaluations of students count at least as much as the score on a one-time standardized test.”
• “Employment contracts are not for life and employment evaluations are fair and thorough, with all due process rights respected.”
• “Everyone’s pay depends in part on how students perform academically. However, merit bonuses must go to the school’s entire staff, so that the art, music and phy education teachers and even the school secretary have a vested interest in student success.”
• “We recognize that the world has changed and the job of a teacher is to help young people learn to ask good questions, not regurgitate answers…young people need help separating wheat from the chaff.”
When these things happen, “we will likely discover that many teachers now in the classroom have been better people themselves all along.”
Just when you think that Merrow is siding completely with educators who question reforms like Teach for America, or charter public schools, he writes things like this: “I think people who throw up their hands and say they can’t do anything (or anything much) because of attendant social issues and problems that exist outside the school ought to find other work.”
Both Merrow and I have seen teachers and entire schools that have made a huge different with student from very challenging families and communities.
His comments about chartered public schools also make sense. Merrow and I were together at a meeting more than 20 years ago in northern Minnesota, when this concept was being developed. Merrow has seen some great and some poorly performing chartered public schools.
He writes, “Never forget that the word ‘charter’ on a school house door reveals no more about a school’s quality that the word ‘restaurant on a sign that tells you about the food inside.”
No one will agree with everything he says. But Merrow’s admiration for great teachers, and 35 years in journalism, make him someone to consider carefully as various groups, in and outside of education try to help improve public schools.
Joe Nathan, former public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, parent of three public school graduates now directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. Reactions welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org