Richard DuFour’s Praise of American Educators

In Praise of American Educators 
And How They Can Become Even Better 
By Richard DuFour
(Solution Tree Press 2015 – Learn more)

jenni miller 11 15Reviewed by Jenni Miller

One truth that I have learned over my 20+ years of being in a classroom is this: Nearly everyone who attended school – with their vivid memories of both good and bad experiences – somehow believes that their experiences make them experts on how to fix schools.

It’s a fascinating concept, but the inherent problem with this way of thinking is: experience as a student does not translate to being an expert on education today. (For example, think about a belief you had when you were a child. Haven’t you learned as an adult that things are always more nuanced and complex than you first believed?) Childish thinking won’t solve adult problems.

inpraiseofamericaneducators millerIt’s nearly impossible to witness a conversation about education without someone referring back to the way things used to be with the implication that we must return to the so-called “good old days.” The clamor of voices claiming to be experts on how schools should be run is overwhelming and, frankly, exhausting.

The war on teachers

And yet, that’s what teachers face every single day. Because most people went to school, they think they have expertise in how schools should be run. And in a powerful new book by Dr. Richard DuFour, he rightly identifies the turn this nationwide debate has taken: it’s somehow, unfathomably, become a war against teachers.

DuFour’s book In Praise of American Educators And How They Can Become Even Better truly lives up to its title. DuFour has written a comprehensive look at today’s educational landscape and addressed some it its most pressing issues. He also offers concrete solutions that can be implemented at any school, the kind of solutions that will make teachers’ working lives better while simultaneously improving the education that students will receive.

DuFour begins the book by showing that the current war is being waged not against education or educational standards but instead against teachers themselves. Teachers are under attack from every side and held to nearly impossible expectations:

America’s teachers are being asked (in fact, directed) to do more than ever before and reach levels of student achievement that have no precedent in any country in the world while they confront increasingly complex and difficult circumstances. They continue to be besieged by hostile attacks while the unprecedented successes of our public schools are being largely ignored. With a nod to Winston Churchill, it could be said that never have so many been asked to do so much with so little – and then appreciated by so few.”

Overwhelming demands

Today’s teachers find themselves not just teaching students the expected curriculum standards, but also teaching – to name just a few: behavior expectations, digital citizenship skills, conflict resolution skills, interpersonal skills, character education, group collaboration skills – all while ensuring that all students have adequate nutrition so that they can focus while in the classroom. Sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it?

It is overwhelming, and yet DuFour posits that today’s teachers are working better and harder than ever and yet are less appreciated and more openly attacked. Even something like No Child Left Behind sets teachers up for failure. DuFour says:

No Child Left Behind guarantees that all schools will eventually fail… The law was clearly fundamentally flawed from the start. Because each state was free to establish its own standards, its own assessment, and its own definition of proficient, states that set high standards and developed rigorous assessments were penalized. For example, by 2011, 80 percent of the schools in Massachusetts where designated as failing under NCLB (Rich, 2012) even though the state’s students scored among the top five countries in the world in mathematics (Mullis et al., 2012) and science (Martin et al., 2012) on the TIMSS assessment administered that same year.

Particularly perplexing was the law provision that an entire school would be designated as failing because of the disaggregated performance of as few as 30 students in any one of the thirty-seven different subgroups of classification (for example, students with special needs, students with limited English proficiency, and so on.) If even one sub group failed to meet the proficiency standard for two consecutive years, all students in the school would be given the opportunity to transfer to a “successful school.” As education policy analyst Gerald Bracey (2006) writes, a “school might be doing well by 36 of its 37 subgroups, but in federal eyes it is uniformly failing.”

But perhaps the most damaging aspect of NCLB was its insistence that American schools suffer sanctions unless they did something that no nation in history has ever done or come close to doing: ensuring all its students were highly proficient. Not a single state came anywhere near achieving what the law demanded of schools (Welner & Mathis, 2015). NCLB, as designed, ensured every school in America would eventually be designated as failing and then punished schools when the inevitable occurred.”

NCLB fallout

After setting up a strong foundation for why schools and teachers are inevitably failing, he shows how low US teacher morale is, especially when compared to the morale of teachers in other countries where being a teacher is widely considered an honorable profession. I found myself wanting to stand up and cheer when I read things like this:

Our national policy has served to denigrate and alienate the very people who are most critical to improving achievement of our students: the educators who serve them. A 2013 report on teacher status around the world issued an ominous warning for those who continue on this path.

If teachers aren’t respected in society, children won’t listen to them in class, parents won’t reinforce the messages that are coming from school and the most talented graduates will continue to disregard teaching as a profession. Over time, this declining respect for teachers will weaken teaching, weaken learning, damage the learning opportunities for millions and ultimately weaken societies around the world.” (Dolton & Marcenaro-Gutierrez, 2013)

The myths, the truths

But as tough as these opening thoughts are – and facing them is a crucial part of changing the landscape of education today – DuFour does not leave the reader helpless and hopeless. He then proceeds to lay out a comprehensive look at not just K-12 education, but also pre-K (early childhood education) and even post high school education, such as teacher preparation programs. DuFour walks the reader, step by step, through the myths and then truths about such things as:

  • teacher unions
  • tenure
  • teachers policing themselves
  • how to create a real professional learning community
  • setting goals
  • teaming and collaboration (and the importance of it)
  • what a 21st century curriculum can and should look like
  • master schedules
  • special education students and teachers (and IEPs)
  • and the critical role of a principal – that of lead learner

And at the very end of this book, after offering many concrete and relevant solutions, DuFour issues the kind of statement that feels as much of a mic drop as anything could:

Educators have been accused of caring little about their students. Yet two different independent surveyors of retailers confirm that 92% of teachers spend $1.6 billion (or about $500 per teacher) out of their own pockets to provide their students with classroom supplies (Leinbach-Reyhle, 2014; Shepard, 2014). These figures do not include the lunches, field trips, coats, and necessities teachers routinely purchase for their needy students. Nine out of ten students say their teachers are willing to give them extra help when needed. Facts like these do not support the premise that educators don’t care about their students.

Teachers have been described as lazy, and their jobs have been dismissed as easy. I am certain, however, that at 8:00 p.m. on a weeknight in America, there are still more teachers working on behalf of those they serve – coaching, supervising, grading papers, preparing lessons, contacting parents – than all the other professions combined. American educators deserve far better than the incessant criticism they continue to hear. It is my sincere hope that policymakers will consider the information in this book and rethink our nation’s approach to improving schools.”

The road map to a better way

To put it another way, if demoralizing teachers worked, then our educational system would already have reached a state of perfection. But since that’s not working, why continue to beat up on those who are on the front lines of education, day in and day out? How will beating down teachers help them to become stronger and better in the classrooms with students?

The answer is – it won’t. Dr. DuFour’s book recognizes that and gives a road map that can impact every school, every teacher, every student. Putting this book in the hands of school leaders can truly transform the educational landscape today and, if his advice is followed, can create real experts on how schools can be more efficient, effective, and intentional at recognizing all the brilliant work done by teachers every day across this country.

Jenni Miller taught 6th grade Language Arts teacher for 21 years. Recently, she transitioned from being a classroom teacher to being an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, meaning that she helps teachers incorporate technology into their classrooms. She also loves Pinterest and frequently pins for teachers and students alike. She can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/tech4teaching/ and http://jennimiller.weebly.com/.

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