America's Schools Won't Be Saved by Great Teachers

Disconnected and muddled curriculum does more damage to our schools and colleges than bad teachers do.

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Everybody loves a great teacher. When a student crosses paths with one, the influence can reverberate well beyond the last day of school. In last year's State of the Union address, President Obama informed us that a "good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000," a claim supported by a widely reported study by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities.

But by focusing too heavily on the teachers themselves, Obama may have missed an opportunity to bring out a far deeper problem. In this year's address, he should focus on the disconnected and muddled curriculum that does more damage to our schools and colleges than bad teachers do.

"Getting better teachers in the classrooms" may be the mantra of the moment, but no matter how wonderful some teachers may be, their work will be consistently undermined if they aren't teaching out of the same playbook. When they are not, students receive confusingly mixed messages about the do's and don'ts of academic practices. This leaves them profoundly confused about the intellectual work they are expected to do.

These mixed messages include everything from whether it's all right to use "I" in academic essays to whether summarizing and quoting other authors is standard practice or a sign of insufficient creativity. While some teachers are sticklers for grammar, others tell their students that grammatical correctness is far less important than expressing genuine feelings or having a strong thesis. In some courses, strong opinions are welcomed; in others they are shot down as symptoms of adolescent overconfidence. One class is all about coming up with the right answer, while the rule in the one next door is that there are no right answers, only endless questions. Some teachers design their classes as job-training workshops while others design theirs as antidotes to the dreary world of the bottom line.

Even when different teachers' lessons are actually compatible, students often fail to recognize the convergence because the same things are said in different ways, and the teachers are too oblivious to spot and address the confusion. In her recent book, The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another, Rebecca Cox documents the damage such mixed messages inflict on community college students. One student Cox interviewed put her finger on the problem with unusual poignancy:

What is really right for a good paper? Everybody has their standards. So if Mr. Dobbs is teaching me, and he thinks this is a good paper, then what if I do what he told me to do, and I take it to another professor and maybe that's not his standards? And if my teacher says, "Well, it's not a good paper," what am I supposed to do?

So what is right? So that's very vague; there's no curriculum--I mean, is that what all the teachers think is a good paper? Or is that just his opinion?

Cox notes how difficult it is for a student to determine whether something a teacher says is "what all the teachers think" or just one teacher's opinion. This confusion often erodes students' "initial optimism" about education. They become cynical and disillusioned, and in many cases, even drop out.

Such curricular dissonance also does much to widen the achievement gap. The high achievers manage to synthesize the mixed messages on their own and thereby deepen their learning from course to course, but the rest do not. For them, education is not a cumulative process, but a bizarre obstacle course in which students must virtually start from scratch every time they enter a new course. Who can blame them if they come away believing that education is just a cynical business of learning enough to get past one teacher and then setting aside those lessons to meet the unrelated or conflicting demands of the next one, who can blame them?

Great teaching can't fix this problem as long as students are distracted by the discrepancies and contradictions between classes. In a New Yorker article some years back, Malcolm Gladwell unwittingly illustrated this point when he compared talented instructors to NFL quarterbacks. "There are certain jobs," he wrote, "where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that?"

Yet as any sports fan knows, teams that have great individual athletes still lose when their stars work at cross purposes. Like losing sports teams, American schools and colleges depend too much on brilliant individual teaching performances instead of coordinating their teachers' lessons enough to give students a clear and consistent picture of how academic work is done. And journalists, politicians, and Hollywood studios support this misguided reliance on individual performance when they glorify individual difference makers like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society or Ms. Gruwell in Freedom Writers.

In contrast, when teachers are all working out of the same playbook, the pressure lessens for each of them to be a brilliant solo performer. Harvard education professor Richard F. Elmore, who has researched the factors that cause schools to succeed, finds that in failing schools everything depends on the individual talents of the teachers "with little guidance or support from the organizations that surround them." Again the point is not that good teaching doesn't matter; it is that a coordinated curriculum makes teachers better.

But getting teachers to use the same playbook is just the first step. Unless the curriculum itself is simplified and made transparent, students will still experience their lessons as a clutter of diverse subjects and skills. To clear up this confusion, teachers need to agree on the skills that will enable their students to graduate, to go to college, to do well there, and to eventually become articulate citizens and workers. In other words, the playbook needs not only to be a common one, but a good one.

At first glance, it may seem hard to imagine teachers ever reaching this kind of consensus. In fact, it's closer than it may appear. For years now, there has been nearly universal acceptance among educators, business and government leaders, policy makers, and parents that schools need to focus less on imparting facts and more on teaching "higher order critical thinking skills" that will enable students to make use of information.

To be sure, "critical thinking skills" has often seemed a nebulous concept. But the new Common Core State Standards--which amount to the first set of national standards for American K-12 schools--have provided helpful definition by making argument the centerpiece of the curriculum. Though many have focused on the Core Standards' call for students to read more non-fiction and informational texts, we believe that it is more significant that they emphasize how important argument is.

One of the greatest strengths of the Common Core Standards is that they go on to specify the argument skills that should be developed from pre-kindergarten to the high school years. In pre-kindergarten, for instance, students should learn to form an opinion about an experience or a text. By first grade, they should be able to give reasons that explain their opinions. From third grade to sixth grade, they should learn to structure their arguments in an essay. And as they move through junior high and high school, students should learn to map their ideas onto a larger intellectual landscape and make the crucial move of acknowledging and engaging opposing arguments.

Throughout it all, students learn that arguing is not synonymous with fighting -- its primary goal is not to destroy contradicting viewpoints, but to engage them in a way that reveals hidden dimensions of a problem. As the authors of the Standards explain in an appendix, argument requires students to employ "substantive claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence." And:

[w]hen teachers ask students to consider two or more perspectives on a topic or issue, something far beyond surface knowledge is required: students must think critically and deeply, assess the validity of their own thinking, and anticipate counterclaims in opposition to their own assertions.

(Admittedly, we're somewhat biased, because the authors of the Standards also cite Gerald's 2003 book Clueless in Academe, quoting his observations that "'argument literacy' is fundamental to being educated" and that "the university is fundamentally an 'argument culture.'")

In this digital age, when vast amounts of data are as close as the nearest touchscreen, it is all the more crucial that schools focus on helping students make articulate arguments out of the information they can so easily access. Now more than ever before, schools need to help students do more than acquire data. They must learn how to explain that data, apply it, promote their interpretations of it, and modify those interpretations through respectful debate and discussion.

This emphasis on argument also provides a common playbook for teachers, without depriving those teachers of autonomy. Different teachers can still promote and encourage dramatically conflicting beliefs about their subjects. And it's so much the better for students if they see their teachers engaging one another in thoughtful debates about meaningful questions. Such substantive conflicts will give students a model of how it's done, as long as teachers can show them that the art of making arguments remains the same even though opinions themselves may clash.

The Common Core Standards give us a picture of what American education might look like if talented teachers -- like celebrity athletes and movie stars -- could exercise their genius even as they even as they contributed to common team goals. If we can rebuild our schools around such standards, perhaps we can finally put aside the seductive but ultimately disabling belief that only great solo teachers can save American education.

"Get better teachers in the classroom" is a mantra that is easy to sell. But we think our schools and colleges will be better served by another mantra: "Make argument the center of the curriculum."

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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