Teaching in All Its Complexity

Teaching and its Predicaments
by David K. Cohen
(Harvard University Press, 248 pp., $26.95)

Teaching and its Predicaments is a very thoughtful book, written by one of the most serious and accomplished authors of our time.  To say that David Cohen is aware of complexity is a serious understatement.  In fact, he is so aware that it is difficult, if not impossible, adequately to synthesize his perspective in a short compass.  Among his concerns:

1)  He recognizes, as few do, the reciprocal nature of teaching.  As Milbrey McLaughlin writes on the book’s jacket, “Expertise is not good enough: teachers need empathy, persistence, familiarity with their students, and back-up from their colleagues and the community.”  Or, putting it more simply, even the most gifted teachers can be thwarted by unresponsive students or unpropitious circumstances.

2)  He assesses the most recent efforts at school reform – performance pay, school turnaround strategies, renewed emphasis on school accountability – as relative failures. Performance pay is frequently linked to unreliable test scores – hardly reflective of an individual teacher’s class-room efforts.  School turnaround attempts have rarely proven durable, too often connected with the charisma of a particular teacher.  School or administrator accountability measures are almost invariably data-driven to the point that insufficient attention is given to the individual needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

3)  David Cohen is keenly aware of the “coat of many colors” approach to our multi-layered system of educational governance.  The more activist role of the federal government and the infinite variety of the individual perspectives of state boards of education (i.e. Massachusetts vs. Mississippi) have combined to jeopardize the traditional role of school boards.  Is it really possible in a world of such divided authority to hold out much hope for the newly adopted Common Core standards in English language arts and mathematics?

4)  If I have a criticism of this important book on teaching, it is that David Cohen knows so much as to make it difficult for the reader to assimilate his insights.  What is the way forward, given the multitude of countervailing forces?  Despite his recognition of the success of certain reform initiatives, it is clear that, authoritative as this book is, translating its many insights into the current status of the teaching profession into substantive reform in both the classroom and the educational community at large is no easy task.

-A. Graham Down

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