The Dumbing Down Of What It Means To Be A “Great Teacher” — Will Lead To Machines Replacing Teachers

There’s a lot in the news about the importance of teacher quality, a lot of talk about the need for “great teachers.”

The Obama administration stimulated the discussion about “great teachers” in its “Race To The Top” competition. States were asked to compete with each other for $4.4 billion in funds, and, in the application process for RTTT, the area where states could earn the most “points” was in the quality of their plans to develop “Great Teachers and Leaders.”

That teachers should strive for “greatness” is a powerful idea — because it is an idea that forces the discussion about education to focus on fundamental questions:  What is the task of a teacher?  What are the signs, the evidence, of “greatness” in teaching?

Usually, we reserve the title “great” for the rare individual whose accomplishments far outshine the accomplishments of his or her contemporaries. There are many wonderful opera singers, but only a few, throughout history, are designated as “great.” There are many competent lawyers, or music composers, or political and military leaders — but few who are considered “great.”

But, apparently, the Obama administration has dumbed down the meaning of “greatness” in teaching so that it is reasonable to think that every child should have a great teacher. When Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, for example, says, “There is nothing more important we can do for this country than to get a great teacher in front of every child,” it’s hard to understand what his exaggerated statement really means.

There is no reasonable definition of “greatness,” I can think of, where “greatness” could become common.  But, the “Waiting for Superman” web-site declares, “Every child deserves a great teacher.”

What is meant by a “great teacher” is explained, helpfully, in an Atlantic article, “What Makes a Great Teacher?”, that tells about an inner city, Washington D.C., math teacher, William Taylor. The article says this teacher is “great” because,

“Based on his students’ test scores, Mr. Taylor ranks among the top 5 percent of all D.C. math teachers. On that first day of school, only 40 percent of Mr. Taylor’s students were doing math at grade level. By the end of the year, 90 percent were at or above grade level.  … Put concretely, if Mr. Taylor’s student continued to learn at the same level for a few more years, his test scores would be no different from those of his more affluent peers in Northwest D.C.”

Mr. Taylor, I agree, should be commended for his good work, but, the fact that Mr. Taylor’s students are showing acceptable competency fails to convince me that he is a “great teacher.” It is not reasonable that “great teaching” should be so simply indicated.

The notion that scores of minimum competency should be what designates “greatness” in teaching is a goofy idea that aligns with a similar ridiculous notion, embraced in Ohio, that a school should be officially designated “excellent,” if sufficient numbers of its students are meeting minimum standards.

The inexcusable dumbing down of what is meant by “great teachers” and “excellent schools”  is the foundation for the destruction of the current teaching profession, the foundation, in fact, for the destruction of meaningful public education.

It seems clear that in only a very few years, if the purpose of education is so shallow, the professionalism of its practitioners so diminished, sophisticated computer programs will replace teachers.  Such programs will do what effective teachers now do — everything that works to get students to score high on objective tests.  Such programs would deliver a personalized program based on the student’s learning styles, past experiences, likes and dislikes; would use a positive reinforcement reward system of motivation, probably with real money or other premiums; would be guided by a rigorous, multi-layered, measurable curriculum.  The Age of Intelligent Machines is upon us and gaining public support for the objectification of education is a needed first step toward justifying the eventual computerization, dehumanization, of education.

If what constitutes “great teaching” is all programmable, all objectifiable, it stands to reason that eventually “great teaching” will be computerized. The adults who will be hired to monitor the machines will be required to have good personalities to connect with children, but, unlike today’s teachers, these workers will be subjects of the machines, and as such will have no reasonable claim that they deserve salaries appropriate for a well trained and experienced professional.

I can almost see a nightmare version of the book I propose to write — Kettering Public Education In The Year 2025 — where the machines have taken over.  In this nightmare version of the future, the principal of the school is called upon to resolve disputes between the monitors of the machine (also known as “teachers”) and the machine itself — but, the principal, himself, is a machine. According to some futurists, such ascension of the machines is a profound possibility. It might be fun to try putting together a short story with such a theme.

Teachers’ unions and anyone who cares about the future of public education should be crying bloody murder about the dumbing down of what it means to be an “excellent school” or what it means to be a “great teacher.”    Teachers’ unions and anyone who cares should be lifting up a compelling vision of “great teaching” and “excellent schools” — a vision that aims at accomplishing a much higher purpose in public education than what we are now being asked to settle for.

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2 Responses to The Dumbing Down Of What It Means To Be A “Great Teacher” — Will Lead To Machines Replacing Teachers

  1. Vic says:

    Hi Mike,
    A quick question for you- what is your definition of a “great” teacher, or an “excellent School,” and to what degree should that definition be quantifiable?

  2. Mike Bock says:

    Vic — Thanks for the reply. I continue the discussion in my new post

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