Not all teachers are great. Neither are all beauticians, butchers, doctors, insurance agents, lawyers, truck drivers, waiters and journalists. But those teachers with a gift for presenting lessons and motivating students have more power to make useful changes than most of us. They benefit from our ancient preference for letting educators do whatever works with our kids.
Many of us have vivid memories of teachers who had a positive effect on our lives. No other adults, other than our parents, spent that much time with us as children. None of the other honorable occupations I mentioned above involve much talking to young people.
When I started writing about schools I resolved to avoid the traditional journalistic approach of looking for what was wrong and headlining the bad news. That was in part because I had been raised by two people who looked for the best in everyone. I also thought that reporting on the most effective teachers and schools would be more useful to readers than exposing corruption, incompetence and malevolence, the usual targets of my trade. How could we learn how to improve schools unless we understood in some detail how the best people did it?
My preference for good news has led some to accuse me of writing puff pieces. Fortunately, enough people want to read about progress to keep me employed.
I have just published a book that explains why I think we will get past the pandemic and make our schools deeper, livelier and more attuned to what students need. The title is “An Optimist’s Guide to American Public Education.” It focuses on three important but often overlooked or misunderstood movements that have had a remarkably positive impact on the schools I have been covering since the early 1980s.
Those movements are: (1) the growth of participation by average and below-average high school students in college-level courses and tests, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, which enliven their educations; (2) the development of what I call supercharters, public charter school systems that show strong growth, high achievement and compelling ideas, particularly for impoverished children; and (3) the persistence of progressive education, NOT the same as progressive politics. It is also not a curriculum but a century-old approach to learning full of real-world examples and student-led projects.
I have written much in this space about the first two movements. They are both the work of classroom teachers. Political party platforms and blue-ribbon commissions rarely focus as our best educators do on making schools more challenging.
The importance of the third movement, also led by teachers, became clear to me as I thought about what I had seen in the liveliest classrooms. That led me to ponder a fact that I have never seen mentioned in arguments over traditional public schools vs. charter public schools.
Many charter schools deserve the support they are getting, but the vast majority of our best teachers work in traditional schools, not charters. They include: Harriett Ball in Houston; Jaime Escalante in Los Angeles; Darren Johnston in Carmel, Calif.; Greg Jouriles in San Mateo, Calif.; Lauren Ramers in El Cajon, Calif.; Phil Restaino in Mamaroneck, N.Y.; Jason Roberts in Pasadena, Calif.; and Mary Catherine Swanson in San Diego. I have encountered some creative teachers like them in nearly every school I have visited, including a group of instructors whose online work I observe these days over the shoulder of a sixth-grader I know. That is one of the reasons for my optimism.
Another is Diane Ravitch, America’s best education historian and a progressive superstar. No individual has had more impact on our debates about schools than she. Ravitch is right that we can’t put our schools on a solid footing without giving the families of the low-income children the financial and health support they need. But she is wrong to dismiss charter schools as an unproductive approach to more learning.
Maybe she’ll change her mind. She has a refreshing ability to do so. She said in her masterpiece — the 2016 revised and expanded edition of her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education” — that one reason she did the revision was “I wanted to clarify that I no longer believed that a national curriculum was needed” to rescue the U.S. education system. She said she would instead put her faith in creative teaching by educators reacting to what they saw and not to what school boards and superintendents told them to do.
I feel the same way. Teachers have taught me nearly everything I know about how schools work best. Despite the pandemic they, their methods and their imaginations are still with us. If teachers are lucky enough to be in a state or district that sets coherent priorities for recovering from the pandemic, they should embrace them. But in many cases they are not going to get useful guidance. I will have more about that next week. When we encounter teachers making progress, we should tell them what we like about what they are doing and ask how we can help.
It will take some time to put our schools back the way they ought to be, but with so many energetic and thoughtful educators leading the effort, I think we will eventually see teaching and learning rise to levels higher than ever before.
That’s the optimistic view. I don’t see the point of thinking any other way.