Brooks & Books

David Brooks has two pieces worth checking out.

One is on the zeitgeist around teacher quality, good summation of the times and the evolution of the issue.

The second is his regular Times column, this one about the humanities. Unfortunately, what’s happening at too many public institutions is that as public funding declines and an “eat what you kill” ethos starts to define internal funding decisions among various schools, liberal arts and humanities are getting squeezed.   They can’t attract the big dollars the way more vocationally-oriented or applied schools generally can.   I don’t minimize the inefficiencies of universities and the need for real cost-containment and productivity enhancing strategies.  But, at the same time, we need some governors willing to stand up and point out that great states invest in great universities precisely because of the intrinsic benefits, the good or just society, and not because of any particular vision of economic returns, development, or competitiveness.

Preview: On my stack of books to read is this new one from Martha Nussbaum that discusses this issue.

15 Replies to “Brooks & Books”

  1. Thanks for pointing out Nussbaum’s book. It also got added to my stack of books to read. Especially with the recession and unemployment, I’m doubtful anyone will stand up for amorphous “intrinsic benefits.” I’m also sad to say that scientists generally contribute to this atmosphere.

  2. Well, yes edlharris and…? Your point is what? We all know Brooks sucks up valuable op-ed space for no discernible reason–was that your point?

  3. I think Brooks sets up a false dichotomy — students might be flocking to the lab, but that doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned humanities. I’d submit that many science, math and engineering departments help them become better writers, artists and philosophers than many English and Arts Depts in IHEs.

    I’ll take issue with another piece of Brooks’ op-ed. To say the Humanities are important and valuable is a bit of an understatement, no? The Greeks, the Romantics, our Founding Fathers/the Enlightenment and so on. So while I support Brooks’ sentiment, I lament that he reduces the pillars of modern civilization to: “You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.”

  4. Brooks writes, “Today, aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most….” Like many commentators, Brooks glosses over (or fails to realize) the studies show only that teacher quality is one of the most important IN SCHOOL influences on student achievement (compared to class size and similar in-school factors). However, the effect of the teacher’s quality is dwarfed by the effect of family SES and other OUT OF SCHOOL variables on student achievement. Once again, another commentator inappropriately puts all the onus on teachers for student achievement, totally missing the major causes of student failure and struggles in the U.S. school system.

  5. Some studies have shown that the effects of teachers are as large or larger than students’ SES and other of their demographic characteristics. Needless to say, there is a great deal of disagreement over whether these findings are robust or fragile, whether they are narrow or general, and what the right methods and metrics are for studying the effects of teachers in the first place. Still, these findings call into question the notion that demographics are destiny and that is the reason that they are driving a good many policy directions. And about time, in my opinion.

  6. Art,

    I can’t agree that it makes sense to focus on teachers rather than SES or other student/family characteristics (especially in the blame-game that education policy seems to have become). As a former teacher (and as a student myself), I routinely saw hard-working, motivated students do well even with mediocre teachers, and saw difficult students (often those with emotional or learning disabilities and/or troubled home lives) prove hard to educate, even with strong teachers. It might not be as narrow as “SES” (family structure, community, peer pressure, cultural norms, etc., along with personal factors such as IQ, motivation, and classroom behavior, all play a part). But you can’t deny that privileged students tend to do well even with mediocre teachers and, unfortunately, low-SES students (especially black and hispanic students) tend to perform poorly even with dedicated and talented teachers.

  7. Attorney DC:

    I am curious about something. Almost all the research states clearly that the teacher is the most important factor in a child’s SCHOOLING and yet so many highly intelligent journalists ignore this and state (falsely) that the most important factor in a child’s EDUCATION is the teacher. Of course, this is not true and most of the educated people I know seem to recognize this.

    My question: Do you think people like David Brooks are deliberately misrepresenting the research or do you think they are misinformed? Thank you.

  8. A child’s socio-economic status, their parents’ views on the importance of education, and time spent reading books at a very young age (under 5) are all issues that influence a child’s lifelong education. I have taught at the most wealthy (almost all white) school in my area as well as the 97% minority/ 98% free and reduced lunch school in the same county. At the wealthy school, I routinely saw parents who paid tutors to sit with their children every afternoon to make sure that homework was done and to re-teach the children all concepts taught at school that day. At the low SES school, many parents were absentee or in jail. Grandmothers were raising many of the students. When the parents were involved, they were often single mothers raising 3-4 children and working 2 jobs. One of my 12 year old students at this school was responsible for preparing dinner for her 3 younger siblings and getting them ready for bed until her mom came home from work at 9:30 pm. She would stay up late to do her homework and get up early the next day to begin the same routine again. At the low income school, teachers were frequently warned about losing their jobs due to test scores. At the wealthy school, teachers were praised for being so great due to test scores. We even received a bonus that year, again due to test scores.

    Something needs to be done about parent education, providing decent wage jobs for low income people, and quality supplemental tutoring for all low income schools. (The tutoring that is required by NCLB is half rate with non-certified “teachers” who often do not have the skill level to pull up the achievement for high-risk kids). This supplemental tutoring should be a requirement of all students at low income schools and should teach independent study skills.

  9. Linda/Retired Teacher:
    I am currently in the field of education (I teach 2nd grade in Washington County, Maryland). It is my experience in talking with people outside the field of education that the words “schooling” and “education” are interchangable. Many people don’t understand the difference, and therein lies the problem. “Schooling” is simply the facts and skills that are learned in the classroom. “Education” encompasses so much more, such as the application of those skills, and other social life skills.
    While the teacher is absolutely the most important factor in a child’s schooling, they are often one of the most influential in a child’s education. Teachers are many times the stable adult that a student can count on for consistency in their day. The reality is that many children come to school with very real stresses in their lives. Empty tummies and fighting parents (if they are even there) are distracting factors that inhibit a child’s schooling. But that teacher can influence their education by giving them skills to cope with the realities of their lives.
    Teachers go into the profession knowing that they are responsible for schooling, and assuming that they will influence a big part of a student’s aducation. Most of the stories teachers tell are often about the latter – the education of the whole student. Stories about math facts just aren’t that much fun to tell, or listen to. And so, the words schooling and education become interchangable because people listen to the stories and fail to realize the difference between the real responsibilities of the teachers, and the ones we take on ourselves because most people in the field of education truly care about the whole student, not just their accumulation of math facts.

  10. Linda: In answer to your question, I honestly think that many columnists (and other liberal-minded academics) morally shrink from the idea of assigning blame or responsibility to anyone in a ‘protected class’ (such as children, minorities, or low-income individuals). Therefore, it makes sense, from their point of view, to put the onus on the mostly white, mostly middle class, college educated teachers of the children, rather than on the children themselves (or their families, their attitudes toward school, or other factors). As a former teacher, I agree with you that it makes little sense to dump all the blame for the problems of underperforming students on their teachers, who are usually hard-working, well-intentioned individuals who could be making more money, for less work, in other fields.

  11. Thanks for responding. Actually I don’t see the need for placing “blame” on anyone either, but I think it’s critically important to be careful about the terms that we use and the truth as we know it. For over forty years we have known that the primary predictor of student achievement is the FAMILY of the child, (not the teacher) so why ignore this? If we recognize it, we can study the characteristics of the high-achieving family and then find ways to offer similar opportunities to each child. While it’s true that there is no substitute for a mom or dad who reads bedtime stories, there are many characteristics that CAN be applied. Instead of “no excuses” we can provide each child with

    health care;

    developmental monitoring;

    early intervention, if needed;

    parent education;

    high quality preschool;

    experienced teachers with proven records of success;

    public school vouchers;

    small charter schools managed by teachers (no profit-making, please);

    community centers;

    housing vouchers;

    jobs for parents;


    At the very least we need to stress the fact that the teacher is the most important factor in the SCHOOLING of the child, while the parents are still the most important factor in a child’s EDUCATION.

    It is difficult for me to believe that a word master such as David Brooks would confuse these terms, but equally difficult to believe that he’d deliberately lie about them. Therefore I think I’ll write and ask him about this. Journalists can do so much to help improve education for all children but they need to be careful when citing research. Right now we are on a misguided and expensive path, possibly because of the fact that many people do think “schooling” and “education” are interchangeable. They are not. There have been many people with little schooling who have gotten a superior education (Lincoln) while others have had many years of schooling but a poor education (many Americans).

    Colleen, I agree with you that in many cases, the teacher DOES provide the bulk of a child’s education, but research tells us that this is not the norm. Also, I agree that poverty does not determine a child’s destiny, by any means.

    In education, as in all other fields, we must first acknowledge what we know.

  12. Linda: Of course you make good points (as does Colleen). There is much more to learning than simply “schooling” and many factors (especially the home life and parental support, including attitudes toward school and education) are very important. Teachers (even high quality teachers) can only do so much to overcome societal problems. Pundits who imply that a teacher is the sole factor in a student’s educational achievement are being disingenous.

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