Radically simple thinking and a return to basic values may do more to improve education than a million years war against charter schools, Teach For America, or Common Core academic standards. That’s Raymond A. Schroth’s suggestion in his article “Teacher Heal Thy Self” for The National Catholic Review.
Schroth pierces the mainstream education conflict too often characterized by volley from side-to-side by teacher sympathizers fighting system technocrats, but he does it with a new set of eyes coming from the Jesuit tradition. That refreshes our browser which, perhaps, has been stuck on an error page for too long.
Up front he defines the purpose of teaching, drawing from “Jesuit Schools and the Humanities Yesterday and Today” by historian John W. O’Malley. These are the “five hooks” that unify Jesuit teaching that may be helpful for all of us:
1. It releases the “fly in the bottle,” that is, it helps students escape the bondage of unexamined assumptions.
2. It helps students understand our pasts, where we came from.
3. It communicates a commitment to “faith that does justice.” That comes from Cicero’s “We are not born for ourselves alone.” Our talents are given us to serve.
4. It offers a study of the great literature so we can fit words to thought—that’s called eloquentia perfecta.
5. Its humane letters sharpen students’ aesthetic sensibilities—teaching prudence to make wise decisions. These principles remain relevant today.
If those five hooks are real, then teachers must be very important to the process of education. That might sound trite, but we often talk about teachers as if they have no agency, no efficacy, and no direct connection to outcomes that aren’t pre-determined by the demographic composition of the students in their classroom.
Schroth has this to say about teaching’s connection to our problems in education:
Perhaps the real crisis in education centers on a decline of teaching as a profession. We all know great teachers who have transformed our lives; but too many teachers today are guilty both in their laxity in the classroom and in their failure to raise and enforce the standards of their profession. Both documentary and experiential evidence paints a picture today of mediocrity. College professors encounter high school graduates who have never read a book, who can barely write a sentence, who know no grammar, cannot stand up and speak and have no intention of doing the next assignment.
During a formal visit, one group of college students told me with a straight face that their teachers were so good that they learned everything in class and so never had any homework. On my professional visits to all the Jesuit universities, I found very few students could name books that had influenced their lives. Lawyers tell me that newly hired colleagues lack sufficient writing skills.
The responsibility for these lapses falls upon those teachers who—out of laziness, timidity, ignorance of their field or a misguided desire to be loved—fail to challenge every student to do his or her very best. This includes chairpersons and deans who do not demand high standards, visit classrooms, study syllabi or publish the grade distributions by departments. Little do teachers realize that in the long run students will admire the professors who cared enough to challenge them and despise those who gave them the easy A’s.
Too many schools of education and education majors are considered academically soft. In 2014 the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research group committed to restructuring the teaching profession, released a report on 836 academic institutions housing teacher preparation programs, evaluating them on the core components of teacher preparation, including course content and practice teaching. Only 26 elementary programs and 81 secondary programs got top rankings.
And, there are real impacts to lax attention to teacher efficacy in basic material:
The weak schools disregard the basic methods of reading instruction. As a result, only 30 percent of American children learn to read beyond the basic level. Only 15 percent improved teaching on how to control classroom disruption. Worse, many classroom teachers have not been tested in the subjects they are assigned. In 509 institutions, 44 percent of the education graduates received honors, compared to 30 percent of other students. As a result the word spreads that getting an education degree is an easy college path—when, considering the responsibility of forming young minds, it should be the most rigorous.
Lowering standards, avoiding rigor, and discounting high expectations – as many do when they mock “no excuses” as a reform mantra – has disastrous consequences. We degrade the system if we forget education is supposed to free students of intellectual limits and ignorance by arming them with skills and a world fund of usable information.
Here are several books on teaching that Schroth recommends:
- Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America (1945);
- Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching (1950);
- Mark Edmundson, Why Teach? (2013);
- Garrett Keizer, Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher (2014);
- Elizabeth Green, Building a Better Teacher (2014);
- Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (2014);
- Vanessa Rodriguez with Michelle Fitzpatrick, The Teaching Brain (2014).