From Gary Imhoff
Practice Makes Imperfect
I’m reluctant to disagree with Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s national education reporter, because his years of experience have given him a deep knowledge of his field. But on Monday he wrote an article that I have to challenge, “New DC Principal, Hand-Picked Team Make Early Gains,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/30/AR2008113001929.html. This article is yet another link in the Post’s chain of articles prompted by Michelle Rhee’s national public relations campaign. This public relations blitz explains why Rhee’s school “reform” remains popular with those who are untouched by it, though it is viewed with deep skepticism by the teachers, students, and parents whom it affects. Mathews’ article praises the work of the principal whom Rhee hand-picked as a shining example for Mathews to interview, Brian Betts at “Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson,” as the combined schools are clumsily called.
I’m sure that Betts is as enthusiastic and energetic as Mathews describes him. In addition, Betts was given the opportunity that Rhee wants to give all her principals, to replace almost all of the teachers at his school with new hires. In the most telling paragraphs of the article, Mathews quotes what Betts thinks was the key question in his interviews with prospective teachers: “‘Shaw and Garnet-Patterson have proficiency rates in both math and reading in the low 20 percents. To what do you attribute this poor performance and what do you plan to do or do differently next year to improve test scores and student achievement?’ A young teacher from New Jersey named Meredith Leonard was hired after saying: ‘Every kid can learn, and we all say that, but what is missing is the last part of the sentence: every kid can learn given the motivation, given the supports, given the expectations. I will be motivating my kids, I will be giving my kids the support and I will be expecting them to do it.’ Many more applicants, including experienced teachers, blamed the bad test scores on undereducated parents and impoverished homes and suggested that those social ailments would be hard to cure. They weren’t hired.”
In one way, Betts’ and Rhee’s emphasis may be right. Teachers aren’t social workers who can solve their students’ home and social problems. That’s not their job. They should concentrate on what they can accomplish in their classrooms. They also should have the attitude that teaching their students is not hopeless. In another, more important way, Betts and Rhee are very wrong. Teachers can make all the difference for some students, but it is naive and foolish to think that they can be the most important factor in the education of most of their students. Meredith Leonard is simply wrong in thinking that the motivation she provides will be the most important thing determining the performance of her students; she’s setting herself up for disappointment, disillusion, and an ultimate fall. Betts rejected the teachers who correctly recognized that most students are much more influenced by the attitudes of their parents and peers, and that if their parents and peers do not value, or are even scornful of, education, that will be more important to them than any single teacher’s enthusiasm and energy. Betts chose to hire the teachers who gave the answer politically and ideologically approved by Rhee, not the right answer.
The Washington Post shares Rhee’s faith that the path to improvement is to get rid of older, experienced workers in favor of younger, inexperienced ones, assuming that the new workers will have an initial burst of energy and enthusiasm that will make up for their lack of background and knowledge. Malcolm Gladwell, in his new book Outliers, argues “that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice,” and that “researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours,” http://tinyurl.com/6jsvo7. It’s a commonsense notion, long ago distilled into three words: “practice makes perfect.”
Rhee rejects it; she thinks teachers are best at the beginning of their careers, and that practice at teaching makes them imperfect. Similarly, over the past few years the Post has used repeated worker buyouts to rid its newsroom of many of its best writers and editors, those with years of experience and depth of knowledge in their fields. As readers of the newspaper, we’ve seen how well that is working out. As one of the rare survivors, Mathews should know it better than we do. Now the Post is urging the same road to perdition on DC’s school system.