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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

Capturing a Teachable Moment ... for Readers

July 31, 2006|Bob Sipchen

I don't do a very good job of explaining how and why we school children. Neither do most of America's newspaper, magazine, radio, TV and Internet reporters and opinionators.

If we did, more of you would attend back-to-school nights, vote in school board elections and notice how much of your money is spiraling down the pedagogic sewer pipe at this dangerous moment when nations worldwide are radically rethinking what to do with young minds.

Concern about this journalistic failing led me to New York a couple of weekends ago, where I joined three dozen or so neophyte education reporters from around the country at Columbia University's Teachers College. Our mission: to spend three days listening to a couple of dozen education wonks in hopes of getting a grip on what's happening in education and figuring out better ways to interest you in it all.

For me, the challenge begins with the nature of the subject. Education is so stunningly simple that sometimes writing about it seems pointless. And it's such a convoluted subject that I sometimes think "Why bother?"

The simple part is visible on the faces in any classroom.

At the Columbia conference we saw it in a video of a little girl with anxious eyes and a growing frown. Her task: Double the number 8. The Cotsen Family Foundation shot this and similar classroom scenes, and Columbia's Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media presented them to us in hopes that they would help us understand what makes a great teacher.

They did. As the little girl struggled with the math problem, her teacher crouched and kindly prodded this young intellect from one angle, then another.

The teacher's face shifted only slightly during the process, reflecting the myriad nuances of the near bliss that comes with total immersion.

For several long beats, the girl's expression drifted toward panic. Then her cerebral cortex aligned itself with the answer. Her face instantly relaxed into a show of triumph. The roomful of reporters relaxed too, letting out a collective "Oooh!"

How simple. Yet simplicity is out of sync with society.

That single scene could keep a room full of education specialists talking for the length of a long dinner (trust me, I know) about funding streams, curriculum, technological tools, school preparedness and a dozen other matters.

The teacher alone would spin off countless questions:

Who should be a teacher?

How do we create good teachers?

How should schools recruit good teachers?

How can schools retain good teachers?

Who should judge a teacher's performance and how?

Who should decide if and where teachers work?

It wouldn't stop there, either, as any one of those questions reverberates with so many other issues that education aficionados worth their salt would be duty-bound to retreat to a local pub to keep yakking.

Take the last one:

Few would disagree that one way to close the so-called "achievement gap" is to move a district's best teachers to the low-performing schools where they're needed most.

So what's the problem?

For one thing, the parents of those relatively few middle-class students left in urban districts' good schools could be counted on to throw a fit. Also, as one speaker noted, studies have confirmed the obvious: Teachers are more effective when they're working in a place they want to be. Which is one reason why many teachers unions fiercely resist poor schools' efforts to nab good teachers. Meanwhile, unions make firing bad teachers so hard that administrators often shift bad teachers from campus to campus -- and guess which schools usually wind up with the lemons?

It's not as if all this is without consequence. As the executive director of the Cotsen Foundation in Los Angeles noted at our seminar: "Children with poor teachers three years in row never recover."

Simple and sad.

Not to dodge responsibility, but one problem is that education is a cult. The indoctrinated, particularly the politicians and bureaucrats who have their hands on the cash boxes, often don't mind if outsiders think what they do is too esoteric to understand, let alone explain.

That's why the mainly young reporters from cities and towns in Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Indiana listened so closely as the seminar's insiders tried to demystify education. These reporters seem intent on wrestling with the complexities and then simplifying them, in an effort to make you see matters clearly.

I'll keep trying, too. Because it's fun. And because the answer to "why bother" really is a simple one.

To discuss this column or the question "How could the media do a better job of covering education?" visit Bob Sipchen can be reached at bob.sipchen@

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