Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bill Maher's New Rule: Don't Blame the Teachers

Bill Maher: "New Rule: Let's Not Fire the Teachers When Students Don't Learn, Let's Fire the Parents."

I've been waiting for education to become a topic on my favorite sociopolitical talk show, HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher (I'm a big fan of Maher even though I strongly disagree with him on some topics, like marijuana and animal rights, to name two), and last night we got this "New Rule," which you can read in its entirety at the link above. He was responding largely to the recent wholesale firing of the entire faculty of a "failing" Rhode Island school. Now, the piece isn't entirely satisfactory; it is, after all, only a brief segment and played mostly for laughs, which explains the too-many jokes about recent teacher-student sex scandals. There are a few lines I want to highlight, though:

Yes, America has found its new boogeyman to blame for our crumbling educational system. It's just too easy to blame the teachers ... We all remember high school - canning the entire faculty is a nationwide revenge fantasy.

But isn't it convenient that once again it turns out that the problem isn't us, and the fix is something that doesn't require us to change our behavior or spend any money. It's so simple: Fire the bad teachers, hire good ones from some undisclosed location, and hey, while we're at it let's cut taxes more. It's the kind of comprehensive educational solution that could only come from a completely ignorant people.

Firing all the teachers may feel good - we're Americans, kicking people when they're down is what we do - but it's not really their fault.

Maher's commentary touches on a number of themes.

First, the idea of firing teachers as a "revenge fantasy" makes perfect sense to me, and is in line with what I've observed in the past about how students view their teachers as arbitrarily evil, cardboard Bond villains, which is how they always portray them in fiction writing. Especially today, where schools have gone from being institutions of learning to institutions of validation, when parents send their kids to school not to learn but to be praised and lauded for what they already know, teachers are an easy, convenient and frequent target.

Second, it is convenient to blame and/or fire the teacher because, as appears to be the main point of the commentary, it absolves the parent, the student and society of any responsibility for the actual occurrence of learning. People seem to think that teaching is the equivalent of casting a magic spell; if you do it right, the spell will work and learning will magically occur, and if not, it won't. Further, the idea that it's so easy to identify a "good teacher" or a "bad teacher" is absurd. When I ask people to describe either of these, the answer is always couched in vague outcome-based platitudes; "...makes it interesting...," "...gets the kids to learn...," etc. Getting rid of "bad teachers" is not only easy and cost-free, it's completely subjective and arbitrary.

Third, Maher makes a good point by implicitly asking the question, Where do we think we're going to find all these "good teachers" after we fire all the "bad" ones?

Finally, it's about time the schools turned to parents, and especially to students, and asked them "What are you doing to make sure you learn?" I can't count how many times I've sat with a student and a parent at Open School, where the student has done no work so far and is failing the course, but has never raised her hand, asked a question, come for extra help, etc. The parent or the child will say she is "completely lost," and "has no idea what's going on in class," and "doesn't understand the literature," and "doesn't know what she's supposed to do," and on and on and on. Complete and utter helplessness. And my question is always the same: "What have you done about it?"  

That's the question we need to be asking. The issue is not what the teacher is doing, as Maher points out in his commentary. If you're a student and you're "lost" or "not understanding" the material or "don't know" what you're supposed to do, What do you DO about it? If you don't know what you're supposed to do, what steps have you taken to find out? If you "don't understand" the material (a lie, but I've been over that repeatedly), what steps have you taken to generate and increase your understanding? In most situations, the answer is: Nothing. Why? Because they don't think they have to do anything, and because they know that someone, whether a parent or an administrator, will absolve them of responsibility and place the burden on the teacher, to either un-do the outcome or give the child "another chance," because after all, she "deserves" it.

The point is that neither students nor parents feel that they have any responsibility at all to their own learning, nor for making that learning happen. They still cling to the idea that if the teacher "makes it interesting" and showers the child with praise, that somehow learning will occur on its own. It's foolish, intellectually lazy and counter-educational. And "firing all the bad teachers" won't fix it.

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