“What Is the Matter, My Lord?”

The virtual connectedness of the Internet era—through the magic of blogs, online publications, Twitter, and other social media—I often find myself in discussions by email, Twitter, or online discussions with advocates for and leaders in the corporate education reform movement, what I have labeled “No Excuses” Reform.

A disturbing aspect of that reform movement is that an inverse correlation exists between expertise/experience and power/influence in education: Those with the most power and influence have the least expertise and experience; those with the most expertise and experience have the least power and influence.

In my soul I remain an English teacher so when I find myself in these debates and discussions, I cannot avoid thinking of one of my favorite characters and scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a clash in Act 2, Scene 2 between Hamlet and Polonius:

Polonius. How does my good Lord Hamlet?

Hamlet. Well, God-a-mercy.

Pol.  Do you know me, my lord?

Ham. Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.

Pol.  Not I, my lord.

Ham. Then I would you were so honest a man.

Pol.  Honest, my lord!

Ham. Ay, sir. To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man

pick’d out of ten thousand.

Pol.  That’s very true, my lord.

Ham. For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good

kissing carrion,—Have you a daughter?

Pol.  I have, my lord.

Ham. Let her not walk i’ the sun. Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive. Friend, look to ’t.

Pol.  [Aside.]How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. Yet he knew me not at first; he said I was a fishmonger. He is far gone, far gone. And truly in my youth I suff’red much extremity for love; very near this. I’ll speak to him again—What do you read, my lord?

Ham. Words, words, words.

Pol.  What is the matter, my lord?

Ham. Between who?

Pol.  I mean, the matter you read, my lord.

Ham. Slanders, sir; for the satirical slave says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber or plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with weak hams; all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for you yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.

Pol.  [Aside.] Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t—Will you walk out of the air, my lord?

Ham. Into my grave?

Pol.  Indeed, that is out o’ the air. [Aside.] How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sainty could not so properously be deliver’d of. I will leave him, and suddenly contrive the means of meeting between him and my daughter.—My honourable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.

Ham. You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal,—[Aside] except my life, my life.

This scene, setting aside that the scene and characters are far more complicated than this, highlights for me that in education, we are being driven by Polonius, someone with authority built only on his connection with arbitrary power, the king. Hamlet, we must remind ourselves, is an academic, scholarly, articulate, although clearly driven away from his intellectual faculties by the events of the play.

In the education reform debate, “What is the matter, my lord?” is a question that must not be ignored, and it can be traced to one central point manipulated and distorted by the Poloniuses, forcing those of us with expertise and experience to attempt some sort of clarity: Do teachers matter?

The crux of the matter is here, identified by Matthew Di Carlo:

“But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998Rockoff 2003Goldhaber et al. 1999Rowan et al. 2002Nye et al. 2004).” [1]

Offer this evidence, and what do the Polonius reformers say?

“So let me get this straight,” they feign that they are trying to understand, “in your opinion, you are saying that teachers cannot impact some children’s learning?”

And our response is always, of course not. We are simply offering a fact, a statistical reality bound to the conditions the reformers have created and perpetuated.

As Jersey Jazzman has explained at Diane Ravitch’s blog:

“Yglesias’s premise is fairly simple: teachers should not be pointing out the other factors that influence student achievement, because that diminishes their own importance.

“But what if those factors are a necessary precondition for good teaching?”

While many educators, scholars, and academics are found of pregnant replies, let me be straightforward here in reply to those who both pretend not to understand the facts of teacher quality and genuinely don’t understand what the data tell us.

First, as long as the reform and evaluation gazes remain focused on test scores, student learning and teacher quality will be misunderstood, masked as they are by test scores more strongly correlated with out-of-school factors than in-school quality.

Second, as long as education reform remains solely dedicated to school-only reform bound to accountability paradigms and idealistic claims that schools alone can overcome social inequity, the conditions of living, learning, and teaching will remain ignored and thus will continue to mar the potential for schools and teachers to accomplish what those reformers claim they are seeking, schools as mechanisms of revolutionary change.

And finally, teachers and schools do matter, and they both can and do often have profound influences on all types of students, including students who live and learn in conditions that they did not create and that they alone cannot overcome.

But the way to know what that influence is does not lie in test scores because test scores lie.

So let’s return to Hamlet, a bit later in Act 2, Scene 2, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but think “poverty” or “education reform” when Hamlet says “Denmark”:

Rosencrantz. None, my lord, but that the world’s grown honest.

Hamlet. Then is doomsday near. But your news is not true. Let me question more in particular. What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Guildenstern. Prison, my lord?

Ham. Denmark’s a prison.

Ros. Then is the world one.

Ham. A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

Ros. We think not so, my lord.

Ham. Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

[1] For additional examinations of out-of-school factors compared to teacher quality and in-school factors see Berliner, 20092014Hirsch, 2007Rothstein, 2010Traub, 2000.

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