Often politicians and others seem to like teachers. This is sometimes because of the “love” teachers provide students. President Obama, for example, recently opened the 2014 State of the Union message talking about a teacher (Obama, 2014, Jan. 28, downloaded from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/us/politics/state-of-the-union-address, January 29, 2014).
Yes, talking about teachers this way makes us feel good. For example, the genre of heroic teacher movies often contains a protagonist teacher turns a failing classroom around.
Not only that, but it is easier to say “thanks” than to pay a professionally appropriate salary or to actually respect the work that teachers do by providing them with the resources and training it takes to succeed.
Now, it’s perfectly acceptable to be appreciative of teachers. We all like appreciation for a job well done. Nor is there anything wrong with a teacher going above and beyond the call of duty. However, such views often obscure the real needs of teachers, not to mention students.
It’s easier to say thanks in these contexts because the United States socially values education in a different way than many other countries. Amanda Ripley (2013) speaks of this culture in her book The Smartest Kids in the World. Instead of respecting teachers as respected professionals, the U.S. offers them lower wages than many other professionals.
Ripley also points to less rigorous teacher training programs in the United States compared to the high performing countries that she profiles in depth. She claims this harms professional respect and preparedness of teachers leading to less positive moral among teachers and less professional trust.
According to Ripley, some of these trust issues inherent in the culture of testing so prevalent in the United States is due to this lack of trust, by the Federal government, in education at a local level. The United States has a tradition of local control of schools. According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, this may continue to technically be the case on the curricular level, that is that the new Common Core standards [the latest educational reform testing proposal to come about] are the work of states, not just the Federal government (Strauus, 2013, June 25, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/2013/06/25/arne-duncan-tells-newspaper-reporters-how-to-report-on-the-common-core, downloaded Feb. 1, 2014). However, Federal or state mandated testing is not really a voice of confidence in local control nor does it mention the significant Federal involvement in promoting the core standards.
International Perspectives on Testing
The reason why the U.S. government seems to be such a fan of testing is because of its success in South Korea. Ripley’s book, however, also discusses the discontent that many South Koreans have concerning their system of testing. Furthermore, countries like Finland have managed to be successful while maintaining local control (although the Finnish government helps out with financing schools). Because teachers in Finland and Poland are highly educated, according to Ripley, they are more trusted to be able to get their students to achieve national education standards without resorting to nationally sanctioned tests.
According to Ripley, the keys to success in education seem to mainly lie in a) respect for education, b) providing vigorous training and creating high standards for teachers, c) providing significant resources for underprivileged schools, d) assuming competence of students, helping them to achieve goals.
While Ripley does mention some of the weaknesses of testing, she hardly shrinks from the need of educational reform. What she does do, however, is to call for significant changes in the policy, funding, and social valuing of schools, teachers, and students. Schools in the United States can (and should) be better, but some of the insights gained from Ripley’s book provide insights in how to get there by means other than assessment by a national government. Rather, it focuses on making significant cultural shifts in professionalizing and empowering teachers and in the social valuing of education.
With these tools, we may not, based on the experiences of other countries, necessarily need these nationally based assessments. If tools are provided and there is a push to improve the respect given to teachers (including by monetarily means), the system may well be better off.
Most people love to be praised for a job well done. Successful teachers certainly deserve it. However, the steps outlined above move this appreciation beyond words of praise into action benefitting students and educators in their professional lives.