Tuesday, May 7, 2013

TED Talks Education: Operating On a False Premise

On May 7, 2013 TED partnered with PBS to air an hour-long program about education: "TED Talks Education." Since my local PBS station air time is 10:00 p.m., I'm dividing my thoughts into pre and post viewing sections.

Pre-Viewing Thoughts

When Bill Gates talks about "giving teachers what they deserve," I experience "a tighter breathing / and zero at the bone," similar to the effect that narrow fellow in the grass had on Emily Dickinson.

"Give teachers what they deserve" is the idea Gates espouses in his recent collaboration with TED. The only problem is that what Gates claims teachers need doesn't jive with my own professional thoughts on the subject. On first glance, Gates' contention that teachers need feedback, similar to that given to athletes seems pretty innocuous. However, a close look at Gates' phrasing reveals a more sinister intent:

It's amazing to think about how much coaching is given to, say, professional athletes...But most teachers get almost no feedback at all.

It's true that teachers get little meaningful feedback. We get far too much feedback about our profession from characters like Bill Gates. Gates' comparison of teachers to athletes suggests teachers aren't experts. The underlying premise on which Gates operates is that teachers need feedback from people like him--pseudo, self-appointed experts rather than from professional educators and master teachers.

Gates gets to talk about eduction, and TED has given Gates a bully pulpit for one reason: Gates is extremely rich, and as one of the most wealthy individuals on earth, Gates has bought his way into the discussion about education policy. His money has allowed him to dictate education policy with little regard for those with real expertise and those we serve--students.

Gates talks about the need for innovation and technology in giving teachers what they need. We already have an innovative program that offers teachers a challenging way to hone their skills: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. NBPTS requires teachers to submit portfolios of their lessons and student work samples, as well as videos of their teaching practice. Yet NBPTS certification receives no support in my state. It's a rigorous, standards-based program, one Gates should support with his billions if he truly wants to "give teachers what they deserve." Gates calls giving teachers feedback "the most powerful idea in education today."

In my postion as an adjunct faculty member for Idaho State University teaching Communication 1101 in the Early College Program, I receive exceptional feedback from my supervisor, Professor Nancy Legge. Nancy has subject-area expertise that far exceeds mine and having her input into my pedagogical practice has been invaluable. When Nancy visits my classroom and listens to my students' speeches and to my presentation of lessons, I'm confident that she will offer thoughtful ways for me to improve my practice.

Additionally, the kind of feedback I receive from Nancy offers me ways to think about my teaching of both English and fundamentals of communication, our required speech course. Unlike Bill Gates who has no credibility as an educator, Nancy's is unparalleled.

Every state has a university system filled with expert faculty, all of whom would be excellent resources for offering secondary teachers meaningful feedback. Given time to observe one another, teachers are extraordinary sources of feedback. And we work cheap.

In addition to Gates' special brand of faux expertise, TED chose the celebrity expert John Legend to host "TED Talks Education." Gates gives Legend a glowing endorsement:

John cares a lot about improving education and is investing a lot of his own time on the issue. I first met him when we were both involved with the documentary Waiting for Superman, and I could tell right away he was an impressive and well-informed guy...

I'm glad Legend cares about education. Really. But his involvement with the misleading and often false Waiting for Superman undermines his credibility among professional educators. Rick Ayers composed an excellent analysis of the documentary in which he responds to its disingenuous rhetoric and fear mongering in The Washington Post.

Moreover, the idea that celebrity and wealth gives one special expert status is simply a wrong-headed notion. Being rich and talented and having sat in a desk does not make one an expert in education.

In Gates blog about the upcoming program, there is no mention of the myriad challenges facing schools, including poverty, funding, etc. That's because the premise on which Gates operates is this: Teachers are the problem. Teachers need fixed. And Bill Gates is the source of a solution. That doesn't make me feel too appreciated this Teacher Appreciation Week.

More thoughts to come after the show. Stay tuned.

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