Fish with Fur: Natural Selection of Teachers

Published February 11 by Mr Teachbad

About five years ago I read Tin­ker­ing Toward Utopia: A Cen­tury of Pub­lic School Reform by David Tyack and Larry Cuban (Har­vard, 1995). It’s a great his­tor­i­cal overview, writ­ten before the Dark Times, and I rec­om­mend it.

The thing that still sticks out most for me from that book is their argu­ment that edu­ca­tion reform, small– or large-scale, can­not be suc­cess­ful with­out a great degree of sup­port and com­pli­ance from teach­ers. Ulti­mately, we are the ones who run this place. We don’t get to decide where we’re going, but we’re fly­ing the plane. You need us.

We wanted to go to Las Vegas, but you’re mak­ing us go to your aunt’s wed­ding in Syra­cuse. Well, guess what, asshole…we’re not going to either. We’ll tell you we’re going to Syra­cuse. Oh, yeah…and you’ll believe us. But really we’re just going to fly this thing out of gas over the Andes and one of us is going to end up eat­ing the other one.

Tyack and Cuban were right. If reforms are to work and teach­ers are to do what the peo­ple who decide these things want them to do, teach­ers have to be on board. If they aren’t happy, they won’t go along and it sim­ply can’t hap­pen with­out their buy-in. But there is an impor­tant unstated assump­tion in this argu­ment. The assump­tion seems to be that teach­ers, for bet­ter or worse, will stick around long enough to be able to thwart any changes they don’t like.

What Tyack and Cuban didn’t count on is that teach­ers might leave or be removed from the pro­fes­sion en masse rather than go along. They hadn’t con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity that any reform effort could pos­si­bly be so broad, unpleas­ant, well-funded or per­sis­tent as the one we are see­ing now.

The result is that the reforms are chang­ing the demog­ra­phy and char­ac­ter of teach­ing. The organ­ism of the teach­ing pro­fes­sion is adapt­ing in a nat­ural selection-y sort of way; chang­ing itself to sur­vive in the chang­ing cir­cum­stances of its envi­ron­ment. Teacher sat­is­fac­tion is sink­ing like a stone. Teacher turnover is greater and the pro­fes­sion is becom­ing younger.

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