(I find the faux-familiar thing people do with “open letters” really grating, so I’m not going to presume to call you “Neil” through the following…)
First of all, I should probably say “Thanks,” because I’m using some of your material in my class this term– I had them read Stick in the Mud Astronomy, and contrast it with wacky Ancient Alien stuff, and gave them a second assignment based on Manhattanhenge, so that stuff’s great. And I’m psyched to hear you’ve gotten your own talk show. So, you know, that stuff’s awesome. Thanks.
And I should also note that while I haven’t always agreed with you about stuff you say in public, even that has been pretty productive. My new book, Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist has a complex origin, but one of the big starting points was when I disagreed with your comments about scientific thinking back in 2011. So, um, thanks for being interestingly wrong.
But, you know, the last little while has been kind of rough. I wasn’t all that distressed about the whole “misquoting George Bush” thing, and while I did tweet Thony C.’s rant about your infamous Newton tweet, I wasn’t that bothered by it. It was kind of amusing, and God knows I’ve done my own “Newton’s Birthday” jokes about Christmas.
I have to say, though, that this one kind of crossed a line:
Students who earn straight "A"s in school do so not because of good Teachers but in spite of bad Teachers.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) January 10, 2015
I mean, what the hell is that? I’ve been staring at this for a while, and really can’t find an angle from which it doesn’t look insulting to a whole bunch of people who don’t deserve your scorn. Are you trying to say that bad teachers are so common that every good student has had to work around them? That only bad teachers give A’s? That no student is so good that a good teacher would give them all A’s?
On the student side, I’m now in my 14th year of teaching college, and I’ve seen a few students come through who got all A’s in their time with us. And I have to say, every one of them deserved every A they got– they put in a huge amount of effort. So the idea that nobody could possibly deserve all A’s just doesn’t fly. I suppose all my colleagues could be “bad Teachers,” but that’s a little hard to believe.
On the teaching side, well, I will admit that I’m not entirely unbiased on this subject. Not only am I a college professor, but I’m from a teaching family. My father taught sixth grade for thirty-mumble years, and two of my aunts and one of my uncles were also public school teachers. And the educational bug continues on to my generation– I think I have four cousins (a couple by marriage) working as educators of one sort of another. Might be five– I have a lot of cousins, so it’s easy to lose count.
And, you know, in all my many years as a child of teachers, a student, and now teaching myself, I’ve never seen anything that I can really match up to your tweet. There just aren’t enough bad teachers out there to be in the path of every A student. I say that not because I had exceptional advantages– I went to high school in small town in a rural area in central New York state (you probably drove through it en route to that interview with Carl Sagan you talked about in Cosmos)– but because the teachers I’ve dealt with down through the years have by and large been smart, hard-working, and dedicated people, who help their students learn. Yeah, I can think of a few duds in my old school, but not even the worst of the teachers I had was an impediment that I had to work around to earn an “A” in spite of their efforts.
You speak eloquently about the lack of public respect for science and scientists, and I fully support that cause. But you know who comes off about as badly as scientists in terms of public understanding and appreciation of what they do? Teachers. And it saddens me that you’re using your incredible media platform to add to their troubles.
We regularly ask teachers to do incredible things with inadequate resources. Not that long ago, I had the pleasure of visiting my daughter’s first-grade class to do liquid nitrogen demos. It was a lot of fun, but at the same time, it was about all I could handle to keep those 20-odd six- and seven-year-olds focused on what I was doing, and I had a bucket full of liquid nitrogen to wow them with. Their regular teacher has to keep them in line for 4-5 hours a day, every day, with nothing but a chalkboard and photocopied handouts.
And she does. Those kids barely noticed me leaving the room, because they were so wrapped up in what she was saying to them. You talk at length about how space is awesome, and you know, the universe is pretty cool, but that kind of control over a room full of first-graders is absolutely astonishing (you have kids, you must know what I mean…). And that happens every day, in schools all over the country.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems with education in the US– there are. But for the most part, those have remarkably little to do with the men and women doing the hard work of being in front of a class day in and day out. Really, given the obstacles they face– kids with terrible home lives, the absurd iniquities of our local funding system, active interference from political and religious interests– it’s a miracle anybody learns anything at all. And yet, they do– every day, our kids learn and grow, largely thanks to the efforts of their teachers.
And in spite of that, teachers get dumped on constantly. All of the ills of education, even the ones way beyond their control, get laid at the feet of “bad” teachers. They’re constantly portrayed as lazy, featherbedding, incompetents, despite the fact that they are, by and large, doing a great job with the resources they’re provided.
Even actions that are supposed to be an improvement often blow up on teachers. Something like Common Core, for example, on paper ought to be a clear improvement over the patchwork of state and local standards that preceded it. (Seriously, check out the split between scores on state tests and the NAEP sometime for some low-performing states. It clearly shows the need for better national standards.) But Common Core has been implemented incredibly badly in far too many places, imposed on short notice, with no resources for the professional development needed to help teachers understand how to use it, and no resources to help students in higher grades get caught up on stuff the new standards expect them to have learned already that wasn’t part of the prior curriculum. Much of the ire about this has been correctly directed toward state education departments, but the day-to-day grind of dealing with bewildered students and angry parents falls on classroom teachers. They’re the ones of the receiving end of all those pissy notes everybody’s re-sharing on Facebook, and they have to smile and make nice, because they have to live with these kids and their parents for the rest of their career.
So, teachers have it bad. Given your stature as a public figure, there’s a lot you could do to help education in America (beyond, you know, making Cosmos…). You could’ve used your public platform to praise some of the teachers out there doing great work finding innovative ways to teach students how to think, and lifting them up toward straight A’s– seriously, check out folks like Frank Noschese, Kelly O’Shea, and Dan Meyer, they’re awesome. You could’ve encouraged students to go into teaching– we could really use more future teachers drawn from students who have a good understanding of math and science, the very population with whom you carry the most weight– or parents to provide more time and resources for their kids’ education. You could even talk up charities like Donors Choose, which helps provide resources to teachers in needy districts.
Instead, you posted a cryptic tweet that’s really difficult to interpret in any way that’s not actively insulting to teachers. And that’s deeply disappointing, especially from someone whose reputation is built around trying to inspire and educate the next generation.
So, you know, great job with the essays and the tv stuff. And I’m even okay with the jokey tweets about religion. But think a little more about what you’re doing before you dump on teachers, okay?
(P.S.: When you get your TV show going, I’d be more than happy to come on and tell you where you’re wrong (and, incidentally, I have this book…). But on the subject of education, you’d probably do better to have Frank or Kelly on instead…)