Professionalism, Virtue, and Education: Ravitch meets Brooks meets Murray

Diane Ravitch’s recent two-part essay on education in the New York Review of Books is a must-read, beginning with “Schools We Can Envy” (on the model of Finnish education) and culminating in “How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools.” While Ravitch can be polarizing, the quarry of her concerns–the dismal state of public education in the United States–deserves the attention she gives it. Disagree if you want, but you only get to disagree after reading Ravitch.

Her target over the last several years is “GERM”–the “Global Education Reform Movement,” which includes agendas such Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ and Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ (in other words, like Obama’s foreign policy, his educational policy differs only in degree, not kind, from his predecessor). GERM assesses teaching and learning on the basis of standardized tests and assumes that the failure of American public education is primarily an ‘internal’ problem–and more specifically, is the effect of lazy, incompetent teachers who now need to be held accountable by producing results measured by standardized test scores.
As you might imagine, many teachers (rightly!) balk at this analysis and diagnosis. The real problem with GERM, they argue, is that it fails to take into consideration the ‘external’ factors that impact educational success: adequate nutrition, stable family environments, pre-school intellectual stimulation in the home, etc. In short, the elephant in the room that GERM wants to ignore is poverty. Or, actually, GERM doesn’t ignore poverty, it just sees it as irrelevant: if Ravitch and others argue that it is poverty that prevents educational success, the heart of the GERM movement is to suggest that the “right” teachers can overcome poverty. This is the myth purveyed by the Gates Foundation, and in her second essay Ravitch documents how “Teach for America”–that domestic peace corps that is the idyll of so many of our liberal (and liberal arts educated) young people–is one of the primary drivers of this “poverty-is-not-the-problem” ideology. (How many of those Obama-supporting TFA teachers would be surprised to learn that their two years of public service are made possible by $50m from the Walton Family Foundation? Would it give them pause to realize that what they sign up for as an expression of left-leaning noblesse oblige is funded by the Wal-Mart empire?)
False dichotomies abound here. GERM effectively says, “It’s not poverty, it’s schools (or more specifically, teachers).” So we don’t need to worry about income inequality or the systems that foster poverty; we just need to fix schools and teachers. In contrast, ‘liberal’ responses flip the dichotomy: “It’s not teachers, it’s poverty.” So leave schools and teachers alone and attend to the socio-economic conditions from which students come.
These are, as I say, false dichotomies. Clearly we have a both/and problem here. Unfortunately, Ravitch is usually taken to be a proponent of the “It’s-not-teachers-it’s-poverty” dichotomy, but I think that’s an unfair assessment. Read closely, I think Ravitch is a both/and reformer. For instance, while criticizing Bill Gates for purveying the “it’s-not-poverty” ideology (decrying what Gates sees as “the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education”), Ravitch pointedly remarks: “Gates never explains why a rich and powerful society like our own cannot address both poverty and school improvement at the same time.”
So Ravitch is not saying that there is no need for school reform or modes of teacher accountability. In other words, she is not guilty of what her “conservative” critics fear: that she is out to simply protect incompetent teachers as the darling of “the unions.” To the contrary, in these most recent essays I think she puts her finger on a crucial issue that deflects this criticism: teaching as a profession, and hence the nature of professionalism.
The theme arises from the model of Finnish education (celebrated in Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?). What drives Finnish teachers is not the stick of testing or the carrot of incentives, but a sense of responsibility, a “moral mission” that comes from an important sense of their identity: “they are professionals.” So the Finnish system doesn’t need to be driven by (external) testing precisely because teachers have been inculcated into a profession, which is to say that they have been habituated to a “moral mission” and a vocation such that they now have an (internal) professional compass that guides their work. The absence of testing accountability can only work, however, where this internalized sense of “profession” is operative. (Conversely, the externalized accountability of testing becomes increasingly necessary where the internal compass of professional commitment is absent. It is on this point that TFA comes in for critique. Teach for America is the “short-term missions” of American education, a bit of a socially-conscious sojourn for well-educated elites who, after two years, go on to other work. As Ravitch notes, in 2007-2008 the majority of teachers were in their first year of teaching. That is not the demographics of a profession. And yet TFA holds itself up as a model for educational outcomes: “they believe,” Ravitch wryly comments, “that a steady infusion of smart but barely trained novices will change the face of teaching. In no other field but education would such judgments be tolerated, because they reinforce the low status of education as a profession, one where no prolonged preparation is thought necessary.” This stands in marked contrast to the standards upheld in the Finnish model.
Summarizing this point about professionalism, Ravitch observes in the second part of her essay:

In Finland, the subject of the first part of this article, teachers work collaboratively with other members of the school staff; they are not “held accountable” by standardized test scores because there are none. Teachers devise their own tests, to inform them about their students’ progress and needs. They do their best because it is their professional responsibility. Like other professionals, as Pasi Sahlberg shows in his book Finnish Lessons, Finnish teachers are driven by a sense of intrinsic motivation, not by the hope of a bonus or the fear of being fired. Intrinsic motivation is also what they seek to instill in their students. In the absence of standardized testing by which to compare their students and their schools, teachers must develop, appeal to, and rely on their students’ interest in learning.

I think Ravitch’s focus on professionalism in these essays blunts David Brooks’ earlier criticism of her work (in a July 2011 column). I think Brooks, like other conservatives, worries that Ravitch’s argument gives comfort to incompetence–that she is merely the voice of teachers’ unions which, according to this argument, largely function to protect incompetent teachers. (And whatever your view of organized labor, it won’t help your cause to ignore the evidence that this is, in important cases, all too true.)
But in fact that I think Brooks and Ravitch can actually come to agreement around this theme of professionalism, precisely because such professionalism is really about the dynamics of virtue (which is also why, contrary to all other intuitions, I actually think one could build an argument that brings together not only Ravitch and Brooks, but Ravitch and–gasp!–Charles Murray).
What we need in this country is a renewed sense of “professionalism,” not as the glint and polish of expertise but as the vocational commitment to mission. (I remember first thinking about these matters when I used to teach engineering ethics, prompted by Michael Davis’ book, Thinking Like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession.) We need a renewed conversation that solidly locates professionalism in its proper heritage of virtue formation that inculcates in professionals an inner compass of affection that then guides action and nourishes a commitment to mission irrespective of external sticks and carrots. Only then will we get beyond the false dichotomies inherent in current policy and pursue a holistic vision for reform that might actually improve education for the public good.