Elementary school library

Speaking to the American Federation of Teachers on Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "Great teachers are performing miracles every single day." Later on, when asked during a press conference about what makes a good teacher, he replied, "An effective teacher? They walk on water."

On the surface, Duncan's "miracle" ideology might seem like an innocent pander to teachers, akin to saying, "You guys are awesome!" But in actuality, the concept of "good" teachers as miracle workers has long been one teachers' unions have resisted. Why? Because their ideology tends to push back against the notion that given just a few hours each day with a child, it is a classroom teacher's responsibility to undo the effects of a student's background, which might include poverty, hunger, domestic violence, cramped quarters, and families that do not emphasize academic success. Just because some teachers are successful at turning around the lives of a small number of impoverished children, the thinking goes, it doesn't mean that it's fair to ask all "good" teachers to perform such "miracles," especially in a society without universally affordable health care, child care, and housing.

While acknowledging that social problems enter the classroom, folks like Duncan and D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee are far more optimistic than unions are that teachers can counterbalance them. Because they believe "miracles" are necessary for poor kids, they want to set up salary reward systems for teachers that incentivize 24/7, passion-driven work. For young elites choosing a profession, that is very attractive. But to many veteran teachers, it seems naive.

The jury is still out on merit pay. But the bottom line is that debates over the very nature of teaching -- not just debates over how teachers are compensated -- are at the heart of all the education policy differences roiling the Democratic coalition.

--Dana Goldstein

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