The State of the Teaching Profession

The American Public School Teacher: Past, Present, and Future
By Darrel Drury and Justin Baer
(Harvard Education Press, 344 pp., $34.95)

The American Public School Teacher is not for the faint of heart.  Rather, it is a comprehensive report on the state of the teaching profession in the United States based on a 5-year study by the National Education Association.  It is steeped in useful data, rational commentary and thoughtful analysis.  Of course, like John Merrow, I found some of the reportage more illuminating than others.  But the authors included in this compendium are all distinguished in their fields, and not one can be dismissed as an educational lightweight.  As an historian, I was particularly pleased to see how the editor saw fit to include an historical review of the period since the 1950s, mentioning, among other things, Arthur Bestor’s great book, Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Our Public Schools, the influence of Sputnik, and (a little later) the Great Society legislation, to underscore the national commitment to education for everyone.

What the book does not do, however, is to introduce many new approaches to the challenges the profession faces.  Of course, as with so many other arenas, America finds itself hard put to keep up with some other countries’ success at significantly raising the levels of academic achievement on the part of the high school graduate.  Indeed, the high school graduation rate, we are reminded, remains stuck at about 75%.  Despite the influence of the unions (the NEA should be commended for the thoroughness of the research on which the book is based), teacher remuneration continues to lag behind other more prestigious professions.  While student-teacher ratios are strikingly reduced from past years, the hoped-for improvement in academic achievement associated with more intimate circumstances has not occurred.  The majority of teachers are still given to teaching behind closed doors. Only the few dare to work cooperatively with their peers on any kind of systematic basis. The unintended consequences associated with No Child Left Behind may be ameliorated in the near future, but rational student and teacher evaluation appear to be as elusive as ever.  The standards movement, which appeared to be so promising in its inception in the 1980s, seems to have lost its impetus, resulting in too much attention to English, mathematics and science, and too little to the other subjects in the basic curriculum, a point stressed by two prominent education theorists, Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond.  Finally, the concern about outcomes translates into a surfeit of standardized tests, many of which are rather remotely connected with what has been taught.

All these issues and many others are reviewed in the book, which makes the volume an extremely valuable primer when it comes to discussing the status quo.  However, in terms of the future, perhaps inevitably notions are more speculative.  True, the book heralds the recent alliance between NCATE and TEAC.  True, it suggests that there is a growing consensus in the field at large about the need for a radical reappraisal of what should constitute teacher education and teach licensing, Katherine Neville’s comments notwithstanding.  True, it argues that more and more teachers are losing their technophobia.

All in all, this book should serve as a splendid resource for the foreseeable future.  There is little of consequence that is not reviewed.  In other words, this is not bedtime reading.  It is a serious book of reference dealing with an extraordinarily important aspect of school reform.

-A. Graham Down

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