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15th August

First Published in The New York Sun,  August 15, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

If there’s room for another book on Joel Klein’s summer reading list, Peter Temes’s “Against School Reform (And in Praise of Great Teaching) ought to be it. Mr. Temes has got it half right, and in the world of public K–12 education that’s much better than most.

Mr. Temes rejects the usual solutions for fixing the schools: the demands for more money, the regular restructuring, the gimmicks, and the gurus. Rather he advances a simple premise. The only things that really matter are good teachers. We must find the best teachers, empower them and restructure our society to afford them the respect that they must be given. Beyond that, Mr. Temes views the billion-dollar school reform industry with disdain.
And, Mr. Temes is right. A quick look at the local news stories on public education over the past generation would reveal the huge amount of attention we have paid to three issues that Mr. Temes finds irrelevant: funding, school governance, and who occupies the chancellor’s office. With the exception of the occasional feature story about a great teacher, most coverage of the profession relates to union contracts — an area that Mr. Temes, probably naïvely, believes can be radically reformed.

Mr. Temes, who has taught at levels from elementary to graduate school, understands teaching and has an appreciation for what is really inside a teacher’s head. Money, while important, is not the only factor that drives young people away from teaching. Mr. Temes points his finger at a culture of mediocrity. “Money is more likely to keep people from considering teaching in the first place, but ‘softer’ issues — issues of respect, institutional support, and personal professional standards — are the ones that cut deeper for many of the most promising teachers, and they are harder to address than financial issues.”

More than half of American teachers quit by the third year, and Mr. Temes believes that those who quit are often from “the wrong half — they’re the ones we should most want to keep.”

To remedy this, he suggests instituting a real policy of apprenticeship. While most districts already have teachers serving a “probationary” period — typically three years, as it is in New York City — whether a new teacher keeps his or her job, in Mr. Temes’s words, does “not relate to job performance. So long as performance is not outright criminal or grossly harmful to children, new teachers in these districts will keep their jobs.”

Under the model Mr. Temes is proposing, at the end of the apprenticeship period, the best teachers would be invited to take permanent jobs: while “about half of the new teachers should be congratulated on their good work and sent on their way to different careers.” Aside from the clear benefit to students, this system would reassure the most talented newcomers by giving them a sense of achievement and a sense that they are not dooming themselves to the culture of mediocrity where the highest value is being the first to clock out at 3 p.m. Presumably, the general knowledge that there are real performance hurdles to be met by teachers will go a long way towards rehabilitating their standing in the community at large.

Mr. Temes would also like to see each school have “an idea at its center” and teachers and principals unafraid to experiment — and even fail. He reserves special contempt for district offices trying to run classrooms by remote control. This has been a particular problem for us in New York City where there has not only been the famous central office at 110 Livingston Street, but also 32 district offices, a half dozen high school superintendencies, a Chancellor’s District office, and a special education district office.

Mr. Temes seems to be uncomfortable with testing, but doesn’t offer any alternative — nor does he outright condemn testing. I wonder what his opinion is of value-added testing which measures schools by the individual progress made by each student, an idea that seems so much in line with his philosophy of teachers and students making those critical individual connections.

Similarly, Mr. Temes is too ready to accept some of the “feel good” concepts of urban education. One example is “parent involvement,” and he praises districts that have established school councils to actually hire teachers. In New York City, such an effort was begun in the 1960s and unleashed divisive negative forces from which we have yet to recover. The selection of principals and assistant principals by parent-dominated “C-30” committees has, for a generation, often resulted in disastrous choices.

The trouble is — and Mr. Temes doesn’t always remember this — that all-too often in the actual world well-intentioned ideas go wrong and incinerate the potential of our children.

But the central concept of this book, the reform of teacher selection and a renewed emphasis on educational improvement from the classroom on up, is both inspired and inspiring. This book is a worthy addition to Joel Klein’s summer reading list and, yes, Mr. Klein, there will be a test!

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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