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The Daily Need

Deconstructing the myth of the ‘extraordinary teacher’

Photo: AP/Bob Wands

Last week, The Los Angeles Times published an Op-Ed by high-school teacher Ellie Herman entitled “The Myth of the Extraordinary Teacher,” which challenges the compelling – and oftentimes unrealistic – notion held by many policy makers that “superstar” teachers will single-handedly save our education system.

Herman argues that even the most talented teachers can be thwarted by relentless budget cuts and a dysfunctional public education system. For Herman, a larger classroom means that she has less time to devote to individual students; as a result, she often feels less capable in her chosen profession. The hard reality of bigger class sizes is that teachers — even highly capable ones — often become less effective when confronted with the competing demands of 30-plus students with disparate needs.

Or as Herman states, “We can’t demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence.” Herman’s editorial begs the question if it’s easier for policy makers to put the onus on individual teachers because it relieves them of the pressure to make the hard decisions that many of our country’s most intractable education problems require.

She points to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in July, in which he claimed that the billions of dollars spent in the United States to reduce class size was a misguided policy decision. Rather, Duncan said that many top performing countries like Japan and Korea have accepted larger class sizes to pay qualified teachers more. “The best thing you can do,” he said in his interview with Mitchell, “is get children in front of an extraordinary teacher.”

In a similar vein, Bill Gates wrote an Op-Ed for The Washington Post expressing a similar sentiment earlier this year. “What should policymakers do?” asked Gates, “Get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students.” He backed up his claim with a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, which he claims showed that 83 percent of surveyed teachers said would be happy to teach more students for more pay. (In fact, what the survey showed is that many teachers would take a $5,000 pay increase instead of a reduction in class size of two students per class.)

Accepting larger classrooms on the condition of higher pay and talented instruction is far from a proven solution on its own. For example, Duncan’s data set includes many countries (like Finland and South Korea) with a high percentage of students who pay for after-school tutoring. At the school in South Los Angeles where Herman teaches, most parents could not afford private tutors.

Herman’s argument seems to point to a third perspective amidst an often two-sided debate on education reform in the media that focuses on teachers: either that we maintain support for tenure and unions at all cost or place all our hope in teachers with supernatural powers to rise above all odds and deliver higher test scores. Herman underscores the need to recognize standout teachers, but reminds us that that the most effective ones are often aided by reasonable demands and policies.

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