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Mike Mullin, Author

I'm the author of the ASHFALL three-and-a-half-ology: ASHFALL, ASHEN WINTER, SUNRISE, and DARLA'S STORY.

Frustrating and Incomplete Look at Teaching in America

Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) - Elizabeth Green

I picked this book up for the premise: that great teaching is not inborn, but can be learned and taught. And the early part of this book, in which Green reviews the empirical evidence for that claim, and discusses teacher training systems in Japan, makes for compelling reading.


But when Green diverges from that premise, trying to diagnose the alleged ills of the American education system and attempting to prescribe solutions, her book seems more like a hyperactive and self-contradictory infomercial for the school privatization movement than the sober analysis of the craft of teaching that I had hoped for when I cracked its spine.


Green decries the "incoherence" of American education, then fails to note how the wildly varying practices and goals of charter schools have contributed to that incoherence. She writes glowingly of Teach for America, while ignoring how their cursory approach to teacher training (five weeks isn't enough time to train a dog-catcher, let alone a teacher) contradicts the argument she makes in support of professional development for teachers. She parrots the critics of the American education, barely mentioning the core problem facing American schools: poverty. Reading her book, one might come away with the idea that American teachers are the worst in the world, where in fact the opposite is true. American teachers who serve high poverty students outperform their Mexican counterparts who serve a similarly high-poverty population, just as American teachers in wealthy schools outperform their wealthy Japanese counterparts. At the elementary school level, American educators outperform everyone--the widely cited gaps in teaching results between the U.S. and some other industrialized countries appear in middle school and are exacerbated in high school.


At one point, Green acknowledges the fact that charter schools as a whole have not performed any better than public schools, yet all her examples of excellent teaching and education research are drawn from charter schools. Since public schools perform as well as charters, there must be--and is--excellent teaching going on in many public schools. So why does Green ignore it? A look at the flyleaf provides the answer. Green is the C.E.O. of Chalkbeat and connected with Teach Plus, both of which are largely funded by backers of the school privatization movement, including WalMart and Microsoft. To be truthful, the blurb on the front cover of the book should be replaced by the words "Paid Political Advertisement."


All these flaws obscure and weaken what should have been a powerful book. Good teaching IS difficult to learn and does take extensive, thoughtful, and continual professional development. Green's book could have contributed to improving education in the U.S. Instead, it merely amplifies one side of the noisy and chaotic debate, further politicizing education and undermining the hard work our teachers do--trying to make sure every student in America has access to a world-class education.