Faulty Logic

Everyone has been to school.

Everyone has a story that begins, “I had a teacher who…”

Teachers have stories, too. “I had a kid who…” or “I had a kid whose parents…”

People use anecdotes to prove a point.

But anecdotes, however true, prove nothing.

My grandfather smoked heavily, lived to be ninety. My sister, who never smoked, died of lung cancer. From this ‘evidence’, one might suppose that there is no link between smoking and cancer. Maybe if we all smoked, we’d live longer!

It is from this kind of logic that conspiracies are imagined: “They’ve found a cure for cancer, but the drug companies are keeping it secret because they would lose a lot of money if everyone could be cured.”

Lately, it seems that this kind of anecdotal logic has been applied to education.

You might believe that because you had a bad teacher, there must be a lot of bad teachers out there. You might even think that’s why our educational system is going down the tubes — teachers are ignorant, lazy, and only care about their paychecks. You might even imagine that teacher’s unions are conspiring to keep our schools in decline.

Evidence? Oh, I guess we need some of that.

The evidence is this: the factor that most influences a student’s ability to learn is poverty. Poverty — not class size, school size, teacher experience, how long or short the school day is, or how many tests we give them.

Let me say that again: Kids who grow up in poverty, whose parents have little education, who have not seen a book before they start school, who move every six months, who have never been to a museum or library — these kids are more likely to do poorly in school and on standardized tests.

In other words: standardized tests show us who is poor. Didn’t we already know that?

What about “Leave No Child Behind In Poverty?”

But poverty is hard to fix. It’s much easier to blame teachers. And if we don’t have evidence that teachers are responsible, we can always make some up, can’t we? We could bust up unions (who must be protecting bad teachers) and cut teacher’s pay if they don’t produce A+ students.

Paying me less will not improve my students’ ability to learn.

Why are teachers angry?

The average teacher is paid to work between 37 and 40 hours a week. The average teacher actually works 54 hours a week. That’s 14 to 17 hours of unpaid overtime every week.

Why work all that overtime? I have a hundred students — some of my colleagues have a hundred and fifty. Because I’m an English teacher, I get 500 minutes a week in ‘planning’ time — 5 minutes per student. Teachers of other subjects get half of that.

In those 500 minutes, I plan lessons and grade papers. If I’m holding high expectations for my students, I will assign work every day. 500 papers a week to grade, sixty seconds per paper.

But I’m also expected to to check a student’s attendance to see if they’ve been cutting class, call home if they are arriving tardy every day, talk to the guidance counsellor, the tutor, the administrator about behavioral and other issues.

I’m angry not because I’m poorly paid, or because I have to work unpaid overtime to do my job well, or because my students are immature and lazy (i.e. they are typical teenagers). I’m angry because teachers are asked to do what is statistically impossible. We are supposed to make every student ‘above average.’

All kids can learn, but there will always be those who can’t learn everything well. Not every kid can learn calculus or Latin. When I first meet them, they are not empty vessels, ready for me to pour knowledge in. They’ve already had fourteen years of life experience. They spend fifty minutes a day in my classroom.

What I do for them in those fifty minutes is more important than what a suburban teacher does in a classroom full of doctor’s and lawyer’s and professor’s kids.

And who will be rewarded when test scores come out? It will be my suburban counterpart, not me and my urban colleagues. Their test scores will ‘prove’ that they are great teachers.

I take no credit for the students who come to me brilliant and eager to learn. They would learn if they were locked in a closet with the textbook for nine months. I should not be rewarded because I have good students with good work ethics.

I would be happy if the general public would simply acknowledge what so many of us do. Getting kids to come to school, getting them to hand in work and take an interest in learning — these are tremendously difficult tasks.

Why are teachers being blamed for the failure of education in this country?

This is an American thing, or at least a Western thing, using anecdotes to ‘prove’ a point. It’s as if we distrust numbers. And every anecdote that doesn’t prove our point can be dismissed: “That’s just one instance…”

Teachers are being blamed for the educational crisis in this country with very little evidence to support that condemnation. Yes, there are ‘bad’ teachers – however we define it. There have always been bad teachers. Some of them shouldn’t have been teachers; some of them got away with teaching very little.

But most of us teach to the best of our ability, using the materials available, making instruction relevant and rigorous. We hold all our students accountable, and we deal with everything that’s already been written upon their blank slates when they walk through the door.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. theteachingwhore
    Mar 06, 2011 @ 22:52:54

    Excellent explanation of the teaching life. I just read a book called Academically Adrift, which explained why higher ed was failing students. All of the causes could be explained back to poverty. Students who don’t achieve in college, weren’t prepared for college and weren’t prepared for college because they weren’t ready for secondary school and weren’t ready for secondary school because they weren’t ready for elementary school and weren’t ready for that because they were poor and with poverty, research has proven, comes educational deficiencies almost impossible to overcome. No Child Left Behind? They should have applied that mandate to society as a whole and not schools, and we might have gotten somewhere. Sure, some poor people overcome the odds, but most don’t. We have always had that situation in America. It’s just that now, more people are going to college than ever before….and it’s suddenly become apparent to higher ed that–hey! there’s some kind of problem out there! Thanks for letting me reply at length. I always enjoy your thoughtful posts. (I’m an English teacher, too).


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