Cathie Black, the controversial choice as New York City's schools chancellor, hasn't been saying much lately about her theories of education. But in her 2007 book, "Basic Black," she had this to say about what makes a good teacher: "The best educators bring an instant smile to your face." The worst ones, she went on, "were the ones who seemed to be on automatic pilot, teaching out of a sense of duty rather than joy, and just counting the months or years until retirement. These teachers lacked authenticity in their work ..."
Sounds right, don't you think? Black's common sense observations are repeatedly borne out by data. Good teachers, studies show, hold the key to learning. A student with a good teacher will learn up to three times as much as a student with an ineffective teacher. Good teachers figure out how to hold student interest, climb over hurdles of incomprehension and inspire students to believe they can succeed. Harriet Ball, a teacher in Houston featured in the movie "Waiting for ‘Superman,'" achieved skyrocketing results by turning her lessons into rhymes - and her success was part of the inspiration for creating the KIPP network of charter schools.
How do we get good teachers? Here are recent suggestions: 1) train teachers better (Melody Barnes, President Obama's head of domestic policy); 2) attract smarter people to teaching (a new McKinsey study shows that most teachers come from the bottom third of their college class); 3) pay good teachers more (Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates); and 4) get rid of bad teachers, who are protected from accountability by the teachers unions ("Waiting for ‘Superman,'" and many others).
But none of these ideas - not even the indispensable element of accountability - capture the essential ingredient of good teaching.
Inspiration is what makes a good teacher. Just as Black remembers, the good teachers are the ones who have that spark, that spontaneity, that essential honesty. The good teacher inspires her students to respect her and listen to what she has to say. These traits of personality cannot be taught.
"The remarkable thing about great teachers today," Bill Gates recently said, "is that in most cases nobody taught them how to be great. They figured it out on their own."
But why aren't there more good teachers - or at least as many as there were in past decades? Good charter schools seem to have a healthy supply of inspiring teachers. What do those schools have that seems to be missing in most public schools?
I submit that schools with good teachers have one thing in common: The teacher feels free to teach in her own way. Inspiration requires spontaneity and originality. Teachers must own their classrooms. This is the secret of every successful school.
Deborah Kenny of Harlem Village Academies, some of the city's very best schools, recently attributed the phenomenal academic achievement by their students to "one core idea: belief in the power of teachers." "The solution is … [g]iving teachers choice, freedom, support and respect. And then holding them accountable for results."
An Esquire reporter noted: "Her staff exudes a kind of joi de education - many had taught in schools where bureaucratic malaise stifled their ambitions. Kenny gives them a remarkable amount of freedom, tied to rigorous accountability. She wants her staff to shine as brightly as her pupils."
At TEAM Academy in Newark, the teachers and principal get together to agree on what the students should learn, but then the teachers are free to do it their way. "Letting the teachers decide for themselves how to teach, even what books to use, means they can innovate," founding principal Ryan Hill noted. "When they invent the program, they're invested in it. It's also more interesting for students."
"Remember, classrooms are most effective when students have strong feelings about their teachers," said Jacki Pons, an award-winning principal and superintendent from Tallahassee: "It's the engagement! We have traditional teachers who are very successful. And we also have younger, innovative teachers trying and succeeding with a whole range of different techniques, different styles."
Teacher freedom does not guarantee success, of course. But the lack of freedom is a formula for failure. Teacher inspiration can be readily killed. That's what has happened in America.
An evil villain could hardly have invented a school system more destructive of the human spirit. Instead of letting teachers inspire students with their passion and spontaneity, America has organized public schools as bureaucratic assembly lines. There is a rule for everything - so many rules that no one can know them all. The most cited reason good teachers quit, according to a 2007 California study, is the frustration with bureaucracy:
"There is no rhyme or reason for many things we are asked to do," said one teacher in the survey who quit after eight years because of the "wasted time and energy" caused by "many silly procedures." Diaries kept by teachers in New York in 2006 as part of a project led by my non-profit organization, Common Good, reflected the frustration of not being able to be themselves. As one teacher put it: "Sometimes I feel like a robot regurgitating the scripted dialogue."
There are plenty of top graduates who are interested in teaching - Teach for America attracts the cream of the crop. But most abandon public schools after their two years of service. It's too frustrating. "I can't even go back and observe at my old public school," Hill, an ex-teacher, told me. "It's too exhausting, watching the teacher try to follow all the rules. Even the smallest choice is a struggle. It's as if the teacher is tied in knots, struggling to get out."
America must abandon the bureaucratic structure of public schools. We'll never inspire students with good teaching until we provide the conditions under which the teachers can be inspired. Bulldoze the government and union bureaucracy. Liberate teachers and principals to act on their own initiative. Let them be themselves.
Accountability is key, but not for the reasons generally argued. Accountability works only if it replaces bureaucracy. There's no need to tell people how to do their jobs when they can be accountable when they fail. The main villain is not bad teachers (although no healthy enterprise can tolerate malingerers), but bureaucracy, which supplants human instincts with artificial forms, rules and processes. Bureaucracy is death to the human spirit.
The union's view of accountability - that teachers should have due process - also guarantees failure. How do you prove who tries hard, or who inspires the students? We want schools and teachers to aspire to excellence. But due process is a concept of the minimum standard - is this teacher so bad that she should lose her job? We want teachers to strive to be the best, not just go through the motions.
The union's legalized view of accountability starts a downward spiral. When you can't be judged by whether you did the job, before you have time to spell b-u-r-e-a-u-c-r-a-c-y, rules will be instituted telling you how to do your job. Accountability is the price of teacher freedom.
There's a deal to be made here, a kind of mutual disarmament. Both teachers and principals should be liberated - so that teachers can strive to inspire students in their own way, and principals can make the countless other judgments, including about accountability, needed to build a healthy school culture.
Distrust is the sticking point, driving all sides to huddle inside their bureaucratic fortresses. But there's no need to give anyone arbitrary power. For example, schools can have site-based committees of parents and teachers with veto power over firing decisions.
Safety nets can soften the fall of teachers who, for whatever reason, aren't doing the job. But bureaucracy should be banished from most choices in running a school.
Only people, not rules, have the judgment needed to make anything work properly.
The missing element in America's public schools is the human spirit. Schools are profoundly human institutions, not assembly lines producing widgets. We must abandon the bureaucracy so humans can take back control, school by school, classroom by classroom. Not everyone will succeed. But many will, and probably much quicker than imagined. There's nothing so contagious, the saying goes, as enthusiasm.
Howard, a lawyer, is chair of Common Good (www.commongood.org) and author, most recently, of "Life Without Lawyers: Restoring Responsibility in America."