February 9, 2011
The teacher’s main responsibility is to bring the subject to the students in such a way that they learn it. If they take interest in it, so much the better. Some teachers live for that second part — sparking the students’ interest — but first and foremost, the students need to learn the subject.
That’s what a teacher does, period: Teach the subject to the students in as interesting and lasting a way as possible.
But the just-released New York State Teaching Standards expect teachers to fulfill a much broader range of responsibilities. Consisting of seven standards, each of which is broken down into numerous elements, the standards outline, for the first time, what all teachers in New York State will be expected to do.
According to these standards, teachers at all levels, all subjects, are supposed to understand and respond to each student’s background, psychological needs, and interests; integrate technology into the lessons; stay abreast of developments in their subjects and in pedagogy; cite research in support of their instructional decisions; show understanding of the school’s history and social context; bring multiple perspectives into their lessons; incorporate sound, movement, touch, images, and writing in their instruction; apply the lessons to real-life situations and students’ personal experience; help broaden students’ cultural perspectives; and much more.
None of these expectations is really alarming or new; teachers do combinations of these things all the time, and a set of Model Core Teaching Standards proposed by an interstate consortium last year set a precedent for overreach. The problem is that the nature of teaching depends largely on the subjects, grade levels, students, and teachers, and some of the items listed are more important than others.
Does a high school physics teacher really need to foster cultural and social awareness in an overt way? Does a fifth-grade classroom teacher need to make use of the latest developments in mathematics? Does a literature teacher have to integrate technology into the lessons? All of these things are possible, of course, but should they be required?
Should all teachers be required to use “multiple modalities” — that is, to incorporate sound, movement, touch, images, and writing in their lessons? To some degree this is inevitable. Holding a book is a tactile activity; turning the page is kinesthetic. However, I doubt that’s what the authors of the standards meant.
Should teachers really be expected to understand “students’ cognitive, language, social, emotional, and physical develomental levels”? It seems that this could open the door to a lot of pop psychology and pseudoscience. Certainly a teacher should strive to understand the students. But once this expectation is institutionalized, it can easily become a feasting table for fads such as brain-based learning.
And what does it mean for a method to be “research-based”? This is a very slippery area, as Larry Cuban has pointed out. It is very easy to say that “research has shown” such-and-such. But we often cite the research that happens to support what we want to do in the first place. Moreover, research does not always show what people say it shows, nor can all practices be proven by research. Often the method of teaching follows logically from the topic itself, or at least several good possibilities present themselves.
Some areas of the standards do apply to all teaching. For example, element II.5 in New York’s standards involves connecting prior knowledge to new knowledge. All teachers should do that in some form or other. Likewise, teachers monitor student progress and provide feedback (element III.6). But many of the elements seem more appropriate for some situations than for others, and some seem trivial or too vague to be meaningful. How much time should teachers spend equipping students with “assessment skills and strategies” (element V.5)? Why are teachers required to demonstrate “an understanding of the school as an organization within a historical, cultural, political, and social context”?
If these standards are intended to lay out the things that a teacher might do, then there is little reason for concern. But if all teachers are expected to do all of these things, we can expect two outcomes. First: it won’t happen; it’s close to impossible. Second, the words will be interpreted every which way, to the point where they mean anything and nothing.