not if teachers matter but how they matter

A common theme of the initial wave of reaction to my book (due out August 4th! Preorder now!) goes something like this. Among many other things, my book argues that teachers and schools have far less ability to produce changes in quantitative educational metrics than is commonly assumed. This is particularly true of relative metrics, that is, the rank order of students compared to their educational cohorts. Most students separate themselves into ability bands very early in life and remain in those bands for the entirety of their educational career. There are exceptions, of course, but at scale the dynamic is unmistakable. Third-grade reading group is a powerful predictor of whether someone will go to college. Etc. See the book for more.

Some have taken this to mean that teachers “don’t matter” in my world, that to believe this is to undermine the value of the profession. As a one-sentence GoodReads review puts it, “if I agreed with the conclusions here I’d have to quit my teaching job.” Is this true? Does a belief in the predominance of intrinsic academic talent demean teachers? No.

Judith Rich Harris, the author of the classic The Nurture Assumption, got hit with this kind of argument a lot. As I understand it, her response was usually something like this: you don’t expect that you can change the quantitative educational outcomes of your friends and lovers, and yet it would be bizarre to suggest that this means it doesn’t matter how you treat them. How you treat those around you matters profoundly even if that difference does not show up on someone’s SAT scores. Teachers have a profound duty in how the interact with their students emotionally and socially. To a child, a teacher’s behavior and demeanor matter tremendously even if they don’t make a struggling student into a star. Surely you’d rather be around someone who models compassion and emotional intelligence than not. It happens that I also don’t think a teacher can make a shy student into an outgoing extrovert. But a teacher can treat that shy child in a way that honors their personality, recognizes the potential for them to be emotionally harmed, and make their classroom into a space that is safe for both shy and outgoing children alike. That matters!

Indeed: in suggesting that how well teachers change quantitative metrics is the sum of their quality, this argument runs counter to the basic argument of my book. In calling to tear down the Cult of Smart, I am asking for our society to stop seeing the purpose of teaching as moving children around on the ladder of educational success. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the incoherence of asking for great educational mobility. (Every positive change in rank for one student necessitates negative movement on the hierarchy for others.) Freed from the assumption that academic performance is the sole criterion for a child’s worth, teachers would be free to devote their energies to inculcating values that are not graded on quantitative scales, such as empathy, the ability to listen, respect for other races and cultures, creativity, self-knowledge, and patience. Teachers are already expected to instill these values in children, but now they are expected to do so with the threat of being fired over test scores hanging forever over their heads.

Someday, I believe, it’s possible that we will dismantle the Cult of Smart and in so doing decouple our perception of a teacher’s worth from the quantitative outcomes of their students. In that world, every child can learn and play with the freedom to fail and be respected even if they never become a star student. It’s a world worth fighting for.