Making Teaching a Better Job

The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership
by John Merrow
(LM Books, 220 pp., $14.95)

Let me admit to a prejudice: I have known John Merrow for more than a quarter of a century and greatly admire his single-minded interest in national school reform. Having said this, let me say that in all candor I liked the second half of this book, particularly the third section, better than the earlier chapters, which are, by the author’s own admission, recapitulations of interviews on NPR and PBS.

Not that Merrow does not cover the ground effectively. He deals with many of the hot-button issues by drawing on his own experiences as a student at the Taft School and his subsequent encounters in the less privileged world of urban education. Teacher evaluation he rightly insists is a complex issue (much more so than exclusively linking teacher education to results from standardized tests). Misassignment of teachers (i.e. teachers teaching out of their field or academic discipline) does not escape his attention. Teacher tenure and the mediocrity the tenure system Merrow rightly identifies as a significant hindrance to genuine reform. He underscores the importance of safe schools and early reading programs. He is astute in his approval of the charter school movement under certain circumstances. He contrasts school reformers like Michelle Rhee and Paul Vallas. He rightly identifies the success of Teach for America as a comment on the comparative mediocrity of so many other teachers trained in traditional teacher colleges. All this is good stuff, even if we have heard about most of it from other sources.

What is fresh, however, are his recommendations in his concluding chapter. After reminding us that two competing views are vying for national attention, “mediocre teachers are the heart of the problem” or “is it the job itself with its low pay, and even lower prestige,” he constructs a series of recommendation all of which are very much to the point.

Teaching would be a better job (1) When principals have authority over hiring their staff. (2) When teacher evaluations of students count as least as much as the score on a one-time standardized test (3) When employment contracts are not for life and employee evaluations are fair and thorough. (4) When everybody’s pay depends in part on the performance of students academically. (5) When teachers get students to ask good questions and not merely regurgitate answers to pre-constructed questions.

While all this may sound to the uninitiated as a litany of the obvious, in fact such changes would be revolutionary and are desperately needed. Thank you, John Merrow, for reminding us.

-A. Graham Down

You can find more book reviews by Graham Down here.

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