The New Frontier of Factory Education: Replaceable Teachers

When I heard the title of TNTP’s new report, “The Irreplaceables,” my first thought was, yes, that’s a good thing to call teachers.  And students! A good way to honor the human being engaged in learning and teaching.  I thought of Pat Carini’s description of this work:

Children (and ourselves) making things, engaged actively and dialectically with the world, have a broadly liberating influence – and sometimes, if unpredictably, a transforming effect.  To affirm a view of our human possibility by calling attention to the widely distributed capacity of ourselves as makers and doers, in which works are understood as the self’s medium, is an enactable educational, social, and political stance.  For me that view of the self and the enactment of it offers a solid center and compelling aim for education: to be the poets of our own lives (Starting Strong, 52).

One of Carini’s trademark terms is at the heart of this passage: widely distributed.  This means that good thinking and good work isn’t limited to the classroom – it takes place throughout life.  And it also means that good work isn’t just the purview of certain kinds of students and certain kinds of teachers.  And good thinking depends not so much on which teachers and which students they are but how they engage with one another and with the world.

I hoped that “The Irreplaceables” would offer much-needed quantitative support of teaching that emerges from teachers’ ongoing learning from their students, one another, and themselves.

I was wrong.  The report isn’t really about “irreplaceables.” It’s about replaceables.  It’s a brochure for school administrators, walking them through the mental and logistical steps needed to fire huge swaths of the teacher force.  It suggests that new teachers are more effective than older ones as it advocates getting rid of “bad teachers” instead of attempting to retain or improve all teachers: “Three out of four times, new teachers perform better in their first year than the low-performing teachers they replace, and they are more likely to improve over time.  Even an average new teacher is likely to be a step up.”  Old teachers, then, are the replaceables.

The report’s byline is “smart retention,” and it doesn’t actually say anything about what schools should do to retain teachers, but rather what supports principals need to be able to fire more freely.  It is chock-full of colorful graphs and pie charts about students’ scores, and empty of educational theory or practice.  It reassures new teachers coming into a fraught field that they are the chosen ones, and threatens administrators who don’t jump on the new teacher bandwagon.

Who will conduct the sorting of good and bad teachers that “smart retention” will depend on?  What are the educational values and what may be unintended consequences of this sorting?  Will administrators support the “bad teacher” witch hunt, at the risk of on the one hand sowing division in their schools and on the other hand provoking teacher solidarity and widespread organization?

I don’t have such questions about teachers’ responses to this report – we know propaganda when we see it.

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