By Jan Resseger
The blogosphere went wild recently when Reuters reported that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted $1.4 million to university researchers to investigate the use of biometric, galvanic skin response bracelets to measure whether teachers are engaging students’ interest.
This is one more step in the move to de-professionalize teaching, part of the idea that it doesn’t help teachers to go through the college certification process. Today’s so-called education reformers believe we need to replace “qualified” (certified) teachers with “effective” teachers, as measured by students’ standardized test scores or perhaps galvanic skin responses.
We’ve come to trust counting and measuring instead of our judgment and our hearts.
I like to browse among college bookstore shelves stocking the required books for students studying to be professional, certified school teachers—books like Mike Rose’s Possible Lives and Gloria Ladson-Billings’ The Dream-Keepers.
Just read the titles. They are books of hope, the stories of excellent school teachers. Ladson-Billings, whose book is subtitled “Successful Teachers of African American Children,” describes professionals who honor their students’ home culture, help children understand their world and equip them to improve it. She celebrates teachers who understand themselves as members of their communities and simultaneously lifelong professionals called to nurture children steadfastly, creatively and thoughtfully.
For four years, Rose traveled the United States, visiting classrooms where fine teachers in cities, towns, and even a one-room school in Montana’s Grasshopper Valley inspire children to explore and work together.
Rose begs us not to look for a one best measurable way to replicate good teachers: “Though the chapters offer a number of portraits of good teachers, there is no single profile of the Good Teacher…. I recommend no final list of good practices…. Such profiles and lists have value…but they also have a tendency to be… reduced to slogan or commodity.”
These books, published in the mid-1990s, have become classics. I encourage you to read them, although the students learning to be school teachers still read The Dream-Keepers and Possible Lives, because many of us outside the colleges of education no longer understand teaching as the kind of profession these books present. Our understanding of teaching has changed, as our understanding of public education itself has narrowed.
In a recent graduation address at Teachers College of Columbia University, Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University expert on teaching, declared, “The new scientific managers like to rank and sort students, teachers and schools, rewarding those at the top and punishing those at the bottom while issuing multimillion-dollar contracts for testing and data systems to create more graphs, charts and report cards on which to rank and sort.”
She continued, The new scientific managers cleverly construct systems that solve the problem of the poor by blaming the teachers and schools that seek to serve them, calling the deepening levels of severe poverty an ‘excuse,’ rewarding schools that keep out and push out the highest-need students. The United States now has a far higher poverty rate for children than any other industrialized country. Our leaders do not talk about these things. They simply say of poor children, ‘Let them eat tests.’”
Jan Resseger is minister for Public Education for the United Church of Christ.