Education’s Overlooked Purpose

In her earlier post, Lindsay Whorton laments education researchers’ failure to do little more than affirm the obvious: teachers matter. Students in great teachers’ classrooms consistently land in the upper percentiles on standardized tests, even if these students faired poorly in previous years. Research bolstering this basic “teachers matter” reality does little to answer what Lindsay observes is the far more important question: if great teachers cause great scores, what causes great teachers?

However, the question we should be asking is not necessarily what causes great teachers, but what causes great students? And once we understand what makes students great, how do exceptional teachers bring this out in students?

I taught high school social studies for two years in Jackson, Mississippi. After my first year in the classroom, I came to see academic content as a mere vehicle for something much more important: character development. This is a major pillar for charter networks like KIPP and Achievement First, so what I’m positing certainly isn’t anything new. But it fills some of the gaps we currently see in research on teacher effectiveness. A classroom with a strong culture, where students approach their study of academic content as an opportunity to develop character strengths like grit, zeal, curiosity, and optimism produces a natural byproduct: high test scores. A good teacher may produce strong test takers. An exceptional teacher will produce strong people who embrace the challenge a test poses and value the opportunity to grow through preparation more than the final result.

Obviously, a teacher cannot forsake strictly academic skills, and I do not diminish their importance. Quite to the contrary, character development allows academic content to flourish. It is only in classrooms where students have a willingness to tackle challenges that are initially daunting, to persevere through failure and to take risk that they will actually apply academic concepts outside of the school building- where we actually want students to use them!

Our most exceptional teachers powerfully combine academic and cultural components in their practice. Education reforms need to somehow identify the character and culture-building components of high-performing classrooms and incentivize teachers to bring them to their own students. Under our current system, which incentivizes test scores, teachers might skirt classroom culture inputs because they may regard them as superfluous. With such scarce time, they opt instead to refine their lesson plans and draft and redraft sample test items to perpetually assess students’ abilities to answer multiple-choice items — something that happened all too often in my own experience. We end up with scant gains and frustrated teachers who feel they are unable to reach students on issues of deeper meaning, and students who leave our classrooms without skills that stretch beyond multiple-choice tests.

Researchers like Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania are exploring this frontier in education. Others should follow her lead if we are to build an American education system that teaches students, not tests. Students, teachers, and society at large will reap the benefits.
Image Credit: begemot_dt via Flickr.


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