In “What Makes a Great Teacher?” (The Atlantic, January/February 2010), Amanda Ripley tells us that Teach for America has succeeded in linking certain personality traits with teacher “greatness”-that is, the ability to drive up test scores. According to Teach for America staffers, those teachers who achieved “big, measurable goals” in college – particularly grade point average and “leadership achievement” – have a greater chance of bringing up their students’ scores than others. “If you not only led a tutoring program but doubled its size,” Ripley explains, ”that’s promising.”
But Ripley’s article neglects to ask: What makes a great education? Teach for America, too, has forgotten to ask this question. The researchers seem indifferent to the purposes of school, the content of a curriculum, or anything beyond the test results. Worse, their findings directly affect their admission practices:
Last year, Teach for America churned through 35,000 candidates to choose 4,100 new teachers. Staff members select new hires by deferring almost entirely to the model: they enter more than 30 data points about a given candidate (about twice the number of inputs they considered a decade ago), and then the model spits out a hiring recommendation. Every year, the model changes, depending on what the new batch of student data shows.
If the “new batch of student data shows” that those who were presidents of clubs in college are likelier to bring up test scores, then apparently Teach for America will give preference to former presidents of clubs. By their reasoning, if the data showed that thieves and bandits brought up test scores, then TFA would recruit thieves and bandits.
Do we really want our teaching faculty to consist entirely of a “perfect” personality type, be it leader types or others? Let us say we filled a school with straight-A leaders. Wouldn’t we be missing something? Don’t we also want teachers who love to delve into their subject, who would rather read Far from the Madding Crowd than lead a club? Don’t we need a few teachers who in college stayed up all night debating a philosophical question and got a B on their chemistry test the next day?
Such a system operates on an empty conception of education. The only meaning lies in the results. So we are letting the results on dumbed-down tests determine who our teachers should be? We think the “right” sort of teachers will make our schools right? Let us instead begin by defining education. Is education preparation for a test? Yes, but it is much more. It should give students knowledge, ideas, and works that will stay with them throughout their lives. It should teach real subjects, not watered-down versions. Literature, not literacy; history, not social studies; biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, languages, music, art, and drama should fill the curriculum. Teachers will seek out this sort of school.
In a school with an excellent curriculum, students respond to both the teacher and the subject. The teacher brings knowledge, insight, and a special way of conveying the material. Some do it with humor, others with solemnity. Some are structured in their presentations, others ruminative. Some are stern and formal, others less so. Some lead solitary lives; others have large families. Some may be organizers, others quiet contributors. A liberal arts education teaches us that there is more to humanity, even within ourselves, than we have recognized before. There is room for many personalities in a great school; what unites them is their knowledge, passion, and contribution to the school’s endeavor.
Teach for America’s attempt to identify the personality traits of a successful teacher-and to select candidates possessing those traits-amounts to social engineering. It reflects a lack of educational vision. It is deadly for the teaching profession and for our schools.
Diana Senechal taught for four years in the New York City public schools and has stepped back to write a book. Her writing has appeared in Education Week, GothamSchools, the Core Knowledge Blog, Joanne Jacobs, and Common Core. She has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale.