A pull-no-punches commencement speech for teachers
Here are excerpts from the commencement speech that renowned educator Linda Darling-Hammond recently gave at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she was awarded an honorary degree.
Darling-Hammond, didn’t pull any punches about how she views today’s school reform movement, which encourages new college graduates to teach in high-poverty schools with little training.
“Our leaders do not talk about these things,” she said. “They simply say of poor children, ‘Let them eat tests.’ ”
Darling-Hammond is a professor of Education at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. She was founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, and a former president of the American Educational Research Association. Darling-Hammond focuses her research, teaching, and policy work on issues of school restructuring, teacher quality and educational equity.
Here’s a taste of the speech, which was published in full in The Nation:
My first real glimpse of what Teachers College is and does occurred not in New York City but in a school in Washington, D.C., where one of my children had transferred into a first grade classroom to avoid the truly terrible teaching that was literally undermining her health in another school.
In her new school, Elena’s teacher, Miss Leslie, had created a wonderland of stimulating opportunities for learning: children experimenting and investigating in the classroom and the community, designing and conducting projects, writing and publishing their own little stories (one that my daughter wrote after the birth of her little brother was entitled “Send Him Back”). This teacher — who was in her very first year of practice — not only had created a classroom that any mother would want to send her child to, but she also had the skillful eye and knowledge base to figure out within weeks that Elena was severely dyslexic, to teach her to read without her ever being labeled or stigmatized, and to instill in my daughter a lifelong love of books and learning that has led to her being a literacy teacher working with special needs students today.
One day, I asked Miss Leslie how she had learned to do this miraculous work as a brand-new teacher. And she told me that she had learned to be this kind of teacher at Teachers College, Columbia University. She listed the courses she took in the Curriculum and Teaching department and the Special Education program that built her knowledge base and described what she learned with intensive supervision in a carefully designed clinical placement.
It was then that I knew that a profession of teaching was possible, and I learned much more about what is possible in building a profession from my colleagues here and in our partner schools when I later came to teach at TC. I became persuaded that policy-makers needed to understand how to enable all educators to acquire the knowledge and skills that could truly allow al children to learn — rather than to try, as so many have, to manage teaching through mind-numbing, and ultimately futile, prescriptions for practice.
As scientific managers were looking to make schools “efficient” in the early twentieth century — to manage schools with more tightly prescribed curriculum, more teacher-proof texts, more extensive testing, and more rules and regulations — they consciously sought to hire less well-educated teachers who would work for low wages and would go along with the new regime of prescribed lessons and pacing schedules without protest. In a book widely used for teacher training at that time, the need for “unquestioned obedience” was stressed as the “first rule of efficient service” for teachers.
No wonder that obedience was prized, when the scientific managers’ time and motion studies resulted in findings like the fact that some eighth-grade classes did addition “at the rate of 35 combinations per minute” while others could “add at an average rate of 105 combinations per minute.” Thus schools were to set the standard at 65 combinations per minute at 94 percent accuracy. One speaker at an NEA [National Education Association] meeting in 1914 observed that there were “so many efficiency engineers running hand cars through the school houses in most large cities that the grade-school teachers can hardly turn around in their rooms without butting into two or three of them.”
During that decade, precisely 100 years ago, nationally distributed tests of arithmetic, handwriting and English were put into use. Their results were used to compare students, teachers and schools; to report to the public; and even to award merit pay — a short-lived innovation due to the many problems it caused.
Does any of this sound familiar?
In the view of these brilliant managerial engineers, professionally trained teachers were considered troublesome, because they had their own ideas about education and frequently didn’t go along meekly with the plan.
As one such teacher wrote in The American Teacher in 1912:
We have yielded to the arrogance of “big business men” and have accepted their criteria of efficiency at their own valuation, without question. We have consented to measure the results of educational efforts in terms of price and product—the terms that prevail in the factory and the department store. But education, since it deals in the first place with human organisms, and in the second place with individualities, is not analogous to a standardizable manufacturing process. Education must measure its efficiency not in terms of so many promotions per dollar of expenditure, nor even in terms of so many student-hours per dollar of salary; it must measure its efficiency in terms of increased humanism, increased power to do, increased capacity to appreciate.
We live in a nation that is on the verge of forgetting its children. The United States now has a far higher poverty rate for children than any other industrialized country (25 percent, nearly double what it was thirty years ago); a more tattered safety net — more who are homeless, without healthcare and without food security; a more segregated and inequitable system of public education (a 10:1 ratio in spending across the country); a larger and more costly system of incarceration than any country in the world, including China (5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its inmates), one that is now directly cutting into the money we should be spending on education; a defense budget larger than that of the next twenty countries combined; and greater disparities in wealth than any other leading country (the wealthiest 1 percent of individuals control 25 percent of the resources in the country; in New York City, the wealthiest 1 percent control 46 percent of the wealth and are taxed at a lower level than in the last sixty years). Our leaders do not talk about these things. They simply say of poor children, “Let them eat tests.”
And while there is lots of talk of international test score comparisons, there is too little talk about what high-performing countries actually do: fund schools equitably; invest in high-quality preparation, mentoring and professional development for teachers and leaders, completely at government expense; organize a curriculum around problem-solving and critical-thinking skills; and test students rarely—and never with multiple-choice tests. Indeed, the top-performing nations increasingly rely on school-based assessments of learning that include challenging projects, investigations and performances, much like what leading educators have created here in the many innovative New York public schools.
Meanwhile, the profession of teaching and our system of public education are under siege from another wave of scientific managers, who have forgotten that education is about opening minds to inquiry and imagination, not stuffing them like so many dead turkeys—that teaching is about enabling students to make sense of their experience, to use knowledge for their own ends, and to learn to learn, rather than to spend their childhoods bubbling in Scantron sheets to feed the voracious data banks that govern ever more decisions from the bowels of the bureaucracy.
These new scientific managers, like those of a century ago, prefer teachers with little training — who will come and go quickly, without costing much money, without vesting in the pension system and without raising many questions about an increasingly prescriptive system of testing and teaching that lines the pockets of private entrepreneurs (who provide teacher-proofed materials deemed necessary, by the way, in part because there are so many underprepared novices who leave before they learn to teach). Curriculum mandates and pacing guides that would “choke a horse,” as one teacher put it, threaten to replace the opportunities for teachable moments that expert teachers know how to create with their students.
The new scientific managers, like the Franklin Bobbitts before them, like to rank and sort students, teachers and schools — rewarding those at the top and punishing those at the bottom, something that the highest-achieving countries not only don’t do but often forbid. The present-day Bobbitts would create “efficiencies” by firing teachers and closing schools, while issuing multimillion-dollar contracts for testing and data systems to create more graphs, charts and report cards on which to rank and sort … well, just about everything.
And the new scientific managers cleverly construct systems that solve the problem of the poor by blaming the teachers and schools that seek to serve them, calling the deepening levels of severe poverty an ‘excuse,’ rewarding schools that keep out and push out the highest-need students, and threatening those who work with new immigrant students still learning English and the growing number of those who are homeless, without healthcare or food security.
Are there lower scores in under-resourced schools with high-need students? Fire the teachers and the principals. Close the schools. Don’t look for supports for their families and communities, equitable funding for public schools or investments in professional learning. Don’t worry about the fact that the next schools are — as researchers have documented — likely to do no better. This is the equivalent of deciding that if the banks are failing, we should fire the tellers. And whatever you do, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
But public education has a secret weapon — a Trojan horse, if you will: the members of the profession like yourselves who have mastered a strong body of professional knowledge, who hold a strong ethic of care and who are determined to transmit this knowledge and this commitment to others throughout the education system.