Great Teachers Can't Save America's Schools

In last year's State of the Union address, the president placed too much importance on individual educators. This year, he should talk about a far deeper problem. 


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Everybody loves a great teacher. When a student crosses paths with one, the influence can reverberate well beyond the last day of school. In last year's State of the Union address, President Obama informed us that a "good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000," a claim supported by a widely reported study by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities.

But by focusing too heavily on the teachers themselves, Obama may have missed an opportunity to bring out a far deeper problem. In this year's address, he should focus on the disconnected and muddled curriculum that does more damage to our schools and colleges than bad teachers do.

Getting better teachers in the classrooms may be the mantra of the moment, but no matter how wonderful some teachers may be, their work will be consistently undermined if they aren't teaching out of the same playbook. When they are not, students receive confusingly mixed messages about the do's and don'ts of academic practices. This leaves them profoundly confused about the intellectual work they are expected to do.

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These mixed messages include everything from whether it's all right to use "I" in academic essays to whether summarizing and quoting other authors is standard practice or a sign of insufficient creativity. While some teachers are sticklers for grammar, others tell their students that grammatical correctness is far less important than expressing genuine feelings or having a strong thesis. In some courses, strong opinions are welcomed; in others they are shot down as symptoms of adolescent overconfidence. One class is all about coming up with the right answer, while the rule in the one next door is that there are no right answers, only endless questions. Some teachers design their classes as job-training workshops while others design theirs as antidotes to the dreary world of the bottom line.

Even when different teachers' lessons are actually compatible, students often fail to recognize the convergence because the same things are said in different ways, and the teachers are too oblivious to spot and address the confusion. In her recent book, The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another, Rebecca Cox documents the damage such mixed messages inflict on community college students. One student Cox interviewed put her finger on the problem with unusual poignancy:

What is really right for a good paper? Everybody has their standards. So if Mr. Dobbs is teaching me, and he thinks this is a good paper, then what if I do what he told me to do, and I take it to another professor and maybe that's not his standards? And if my teacher says, "Well, it's not a good paper," what am I supposed to do?

So what is right? So that's very vague; there's no curriculum--I mean, is that what all the teachers think is a good paper? Or is that just his opinion?

Cox notes how difficult it is for a student to determine whether something a teacher says is "what all the teachers think" or just one teacher's opinion. This confusion often erodes students' "initial optimism" about education. They become cynical and disillusioned, and in many cases, even drop out.

Such curricular dissonance also does much to widen the achievement gap. The high achievers manage to synthesize the mixed messages on their own and thereby deepen their learning from course to course, but the rest do not. For them, education is not a cumulative process, but a bizarre obstacle course in which students must virtually start from scratch every time they enter a new course. Who can blame them if they come away believing that education is just a cynical business of learning enough to get past one teacher and then setting aside those lessons to meet the unrelated or conflicting demands of the next one?

Great teaching can't fix this problem as long as students are distracted by the discrepancies and contradictions between classes. In a New Yorker article some years back, Malcolm Gladwell unwittingly illustrated this point when he compared talented instructors to NFL quarterbacks. "There are certain jobs," he wrote, "where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that?"

Yet as any sports fan knows, teams that have great individual athletes still lose when their stars work at cross purposes. Like losing sports teams, American schools and colleges depend too much on brilliant individual teaching performances instead of coordinating their teachers' lessons enough to give students a clear and consistent picture of how academic work is done. And journalists, politicians, and Hollywood studios support this misguided reliance on individual performance when they glorify individual difference makers like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society or Ms. Gruwell in Freedom Writers.

Presented by

Gerald Graff and Steve Benton

Gerald Graff is a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures The Life of the Mind. Steve Benton is the director of the honors program at East Central University, where he is an assistant professor of English and languages.

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