Review: The Influence of Teachers by John Merrow

President of Learning Matters, Inc. John Merrow, who is best known for covering education at NPR and PBS for more than 30 years, released his new book The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership this Spring.  The Influence of Teachers examines how to transform our schools and empower teachers in order to help all students succeed.
“But what’s most striking about this bitter battle is its irrelevance. The adults in charge are fighting the last war, and whoever wins doesn’t really matter to the millions of young people now being denied on a daily basis the learning opportunities that modern technology affords,” says Merrow in his introduction. Merrow sets the tone for the book with one quote. He argues we should no longer debate and battle over unions, contracts, charters and investments, but have a total and complete focus on uplifting the teaching profession and therefore reducing the drop out rate (6,000 students a day).
Merrow’s book is broken in to three sections:

  1.     Follow the Teacher – an in depth look at the teaching profession
  2.     Follow the Leader – a reflection of education leaders Merrow has spent time with
  3.     Final Chapter – Merrow’s own hopes and suggestions

During his chapter on learning to teach, Merrow examines the Teach for America program. Often cited by the President and education advocates as an amazing value add. While Merrow has praise for the TFA program and its focus on improving and enriching the lives of students, Merrow is also a bit skeptical. He highlights that the TFA teachers are often fun to be around, optimistic and engaging but after all are first year teachers will little knowledge or orientation about the teaching profession.

“Have we forgotten that kids are people, too? That they enjoy what we all enjoy: the thrill of independence coupled with meaningful, healthy social interaction with others, the opportunity to know they are learning, to be able to monitor their own progress, and meaningful work that is neither too easy nor impossibly hard?”

Merrow points out that the fun has been taken out of many American classrooms. His chapter on teacher evaluations in insightful and well researched. He concludes that ultimately student learning will have to be an indicator of teacher evaluations and unions will need to discover that as well. “If unions are telling us that there’s no  connection between teaching and learning, why support teachers, or public education for that matter?” states Merrow. The old days of a principal sitting in on classroom once a year to evaluate a teacher’s performance are gone. In subsequent chapters, Merrow also thoughtfully examines teacher pay and the hot button issues of tenure and seniority.
The next section in his book follows two leaders and their journey to reform their school systems:

  1.     Michelle Rhee, Former DC Schools Chancellor
  2.     Paul Vallas, Recovery School District (NOLA) and Former CEO of Chicago Public Schools

In his final chapters, Merrow focuses on the four major gaps in American education today:

  1. Opportunity gap
  2. Expectations gap
  3. Outcomes gap
  4. Leadership gap

Merrow’s conclusion suggests that the world and our education system is changing and we must adapt to succeed. Teachers need to arm students with skills needed for the 21st century, and we need to support teachers to do that. Instead of continuing a tired debate that has gone on for too long, with no clear winner, we need to empower teachers to be leaders by elevating their career and restructuring how they are paid, evaluated and supported.
Throughout the book Merrow tries to examine the real challenge facing American education and teaching. Is it we are faced with mediocre teachers or has the low pay, and lower prestige turned people away from the profession? Do we need better people or a better job? I hear this debate frequently in education circles. Teachers feel under valued, but administration has a hard time justifying paying teachers more, when student achievement is not improving. Merrow seems to settle on the fact that providing a better job will ultimately lead to long term success in education. By adapting or removing union contracts, giving principals hiring (and firing authority) and paying (at least in part) based on student achievement, Merrow thinks the profession will become “better”.
The Influence of Teachers was provided complimentary to Getting Smart for this blog review.

Caroline Vander Ark

Caroline is President of Getting Smart.

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