Those Who Can’t, Write

What is it about New York Times columnists and education???

It’s time now for a feature in which I do something I am almost never allowed to do at home: unswizzle my wine box before noon go on and on (and on) about the latest New York Times column to work me into a lather. Today’s offender actually appeared on Saturday, which means that I have managed to hold in my rich and spicy commentary for the past two days. The author of the offending column: none other than Joe Nocera, a business columnist who has decided to turn his attention to the fiercely urgent cause of transforming teacher education. What could possibly go wrong?

Three sisters—and a corporate raider
The occasion for Nocera’s column was a discussion that he recently had with three teacher sisters. One teaches at a suburban school, one at an urban school and one at a charter that is part of a chain founded by corporate raider Carl Icahn
. Now hold on just a secsomehow I seemed to have missed that Icahn, who made *hostile takeover* a household word, is in now running charter schools. But alas, such is the case and Icahn’s schools are excellent. Of the three sisters, it is Icahn’s employee who speaks most glowingly about her employer. Or should I say former employer. Denise, who spent eight years teaching at one of Icahn’s charters, quit teaching three years ago citing the toll that the long hours took on her family life. In other words, hers was a longish short career by choice.

Cue music—and a thoroughly discredited study
Despite their varied career paths, and the fact that the one who took the Times’ preferred career path is no longer teaching, the three sisters all agree on one fundamental thing: their teacher preparation did not prepare them adequately to teach in an urban setting. Which turns out to be a happy coincidence as it’s the very thing that Nocera’s column just happens to be about. But columnists cannot live by anecdote alone, even when said anecdote appears in triplicate. Is there a, by now, thoroughly discredited study that might be invoked in, say, paragraph six?

According to a study released a few months ago by the National Council on Teacher Quality — a study that reported that three-quarters of the nation’s teaching programs are, “at best,” mediocre — “the field of teacher preparation has rejected any notion that its role is to train the next generation of teachers.”

The sisters actually levy some interesting complaints about the teacher preparation programs they attended. They would have liked more student teaching, for example. And Edel, who teaches second grade in the Bronx, says that the student teaching she did in no way prepared her for the kinds of issues that she’d be facing in an urban classroom: “‘like poverty, drugs, crime, and hunger’ that she was seeing on a daily basis.

Stop making sense—and excuses
If Nocera were a reader of his own publication, he would know that the education reform movement long ago cracked the code of exactly this problem. You see, the best way to prepare teachers to overcome the effects of “poverty, drugs, crime and hunger” is to teach them that these are not excuses. Also, the “theory” that teachers-to-be used to fritter away their time studying, like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is so over now that we know that “poverty, drugs, crime, and hunger” are no longer excuses. And since we’ve all agreed now that there is absolutely nothing we can do about “poverty, drugs, crime, and hunger
,” we can finally get busy with what matters: fixing our country’s broken teacher preparation programs.

The most over-hyped book in the world
But Nocera still isn’t quite done. There’s a word count to be reached after all, and happily he has room to include an expert opinion. But whom fits that bill? Whom indeed, reader! Why it’s Amanda Ripley, whom Nocera describes as “the author of the fine new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.” Ripley’s fine new book is beloved by the punditocracy because it confirms what they absolutely know to be true: that our failed and failing public schools are failing due to the non-excellence of our teachers, and that to excel, and to reclaim the rightful place at the head of the global pack which we never had, we must talk endlessly about what other countries do differently whilst ignoring the one thing that makes us most different, the fact that 23% of American kids are consigned to the dust heap of poverty.

Alas, there is only a paragraph left to devote to Ripley’s recently acquired expertise, so we will have to wait to read more about her expertise in a future column or columns. For his part, Nocera assures us that now that he’s discovered this fiercely urgent issue, he’s going to force us to keep reading about it. “As it turns out, there are some people who are trying to transform teacher education here at home. As the school year progresses, I hope to introduce some of them — and their ideas.” I can hardly wait…

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  1. Smartest thing I ever did was to stop reading the NYT from Monday to Saturday. Next smartest thing I ever did was to stop reading the Sunday NYT. Now I’ve come to believe that the NYT is really just a another nonexistent NYT false trend.

  2. The masters of the universe want it all. Higher ed is next on the list failed failures that needs disruption. How convenient they’ve found their useful tool at the NYTimes in Nocera.

  3. Thank you! Now I can break out the wine and toast you for writing exactly what I was thinking as I read Nocera’s column Saturday. A job that forces you to give up because you don’t have time for a life, is not a job worth having. And these sisters weren’t even high-school English teachers with 165 essays to mark 😉

  4. Are there teachers out there that think their teacher prep actually helped prepare them for teaching…anywhere?

    1. Absolutely! And I was in a non-traditional undergrad program where all formal course work was optional. I took some education courses because I wanted to know what they were teaching and I got so much out of them that I kept taking more and more.

    2. Why is it we train panel beaters for 3-4 years to bash dents out of cars but teachers only have 6 months practise with real children whom are our most precious commodity? Teachers are born not made but university should train teachers to hone their skills so the ‘metal’ of the students can really shine!

  5. Last week a student told me he had a story to tell me. It was about crossing the Rio Grande River, but before he crossed he was forced to strip and carry his clothes over his head. Next, he told me about walking through the desert and almost dying. Now, his father has been deported and his mother works two jobs to keep his family of four housed and fed. He has constant nightmares about the river and the ‘coyotes’ he was forced to deal with. Another student cries on a daily basis because she misses her father and another cries because she misses her mother. One was deported, the other dead. Today, I drove by a memorial of a gang member. I drove by another house that proudly declared which gang the house belonged to. I drove by another abandoned house that had been claimed by another gang. I will never understand the importance of all those tests when I listen to horror stories every day from my urban students. So what does it take to work in an urban area? Courage and patience. Trust and acceptance. Once upon a time, I was one of my students. I was them. I still am. I am an educator now, but this hyper focus on testing and blasting teachers has to stop. What is the end game of people like Nocera? To minimize the great work many public school teachers do? And why is everyone so hesitant to say to the community and to parents and to the churches and to students: “Hey, you need to step it up here a little bit? We need your help?” I had great public (and Catholic) school teachers who didn’t accept my excuses, but did accept that I had very real and very valid reasons for my behavior and academic problems. My teachers reached out to me–with compassion and books.They also taught most of my 14 siblings. I also found community support at different agencies and at the library. Nocera’s article was poor in relevance and rigor and I don’t think he developed any lasting relationships.

  6. Being so tired of the “my teaching education did not prepare me for……” mantra; I must add my own personal anecdote. First I got a masters in economics, it did not prepare for working in the field of regulatory rate making. Twenty years later I got a masters in education, it did not prepare me to be a teacher (but I was still better prepared than when I had to jump from college to regulator.)

    No college program “completely prepares” you for anything if the program is worth its salt and not some vocational type degree. One learns how to learn on one’s own in college and is strengthened to persevere in the face of intellectual gaps and hardships. Any professional job requires the professional to continue to reinforce their learning on their own. Do we really expect college professors to spoon feed their students “how to survive in the office” “the boardroom” “the classroom” “the audit trail?”

    Perhaps the three sisters, and so many others who cry boo-hoo about their eduction, either did not take advantage of their costly college experience, or missed the No Whining Course 101.

  7. It’s fitting that corporate raider Carl Icahn back a charter school chain. After all, so-called education reform is really the hostile takeover of the public schools.

  8. There are many great things about this commentary, but I have to say, the title is absolutely BRILLIANT. Brava and keep up the good work. I was dismayed to see some thought Nocera had something worthwhile to say. Now I can set them straight by forwarding a link to your blog.

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