Can American teachers truly be ‘nation builders?’

In his State of the Union speech in January and in subsequent appearances, President Obama has likened teachers to ‘Nation Builders.’ Here’s what he told Congress and the American people:

“…(A)fter parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders.'”

But are American teachers “nation builders?” Could they be? What tools does a ‘Nation Builder’ (or any other builder) need to be able to get the job done?

I know a little bit about building because years ago my brothers and I built a house by ourselves — and learned some lessons about construction the hard way.

I assure you that builders have five basic needs:

  • Raw materials
  • Tools
  • Time and decent working conditions
  • Know-how
  • Blueprints

Does teaching provide these so that teachers are equipped to become “Nation Builders?”

Raw materials

In education terms, this must mean the kids themselves. There’s no question that the building blocks are vastly different from what they were 40 — or even 20 — years ago. Pre-1975, handicapped kids were simply excluded from school. The vast influx of what are called English Language Learners (ELL) has transformed school districts, some of which are now ‘majority minority’ (which the entire country will be in 2050). But while some teachers complain about having too many kids who are not ‘ready for school,’ children are ‘ready to learn’ and capable of learning. Parents are, as always, sending their best kids to schools, not keeping them home. Teachers must work with the hand they’ve been dealt, and if they’re not willing or able to do that, they belong in some other line of work.

I’m not calling that one a ball or a strike. (My rules)


In education, this means curricular materials. 93% of teachers spend their own money on school supplies for their classrooms. The National School Supply & Equipment Association reported that public school teachers last year spent $3.1 billion of their own money on classroom supplies, according to the trade organization’s annual market survey. Teachers surveyed said they spent, on average, $940 apiece in 2007-08. (Only $250 is deductible on a federal tax return.)

So the system is not providing adequate tools. That’s Strike One!

Time and working conditions

Today’s teachers work more hours (and earn less, in adjusted dollars) than teachers did 20 or 30 years ago. Moreover, American teachers spend more time on instruction than their peers in other OECD countries, meaning they have less time to help develop curriculum, watch each other teach, or engage in what is called professional development to improve their own skills and knowledge. The late Ted Sizer likened this to ‘crowd control,’ not teaching. In many other countries teachers are given time to prepare — and expected to use that time wisely.

(Teachers on average earn about $50,000 per year, which is less than other professionals, saving only social workers, and in 2005, the last year I could find information for, nearly half of teachers were holding down other jobs during the school year to make ends meet.)

That’s Strike Two!


Do today’s teachers have what it takes to be ‘Nation Builders?’ By one measure — Masters Degrees — our teachers are pretty well prepared. In 1987 only about a quarter of teachers had earned a Masters Degree; by 2007 more than half had. (Most of these data come from a forthcoming book you will want to read, The American Public School Teacher, by Darrel Drury and Justin Baer, coming from Harvard Education Press.)

Obama Classroom
Can President Obama's promise of 'nation builders' be realized?

But is that adequate, given that no research convincingly connects teachers’ advanced degrees with improved student outcomes?

Here we begin wandering into the swamp of education research. While everyone believes that having an ‘effective’ teacher adds years of learning and having an ‘ineffective’ teacher subtracts learning, few in positions of authority agree on the characteristics of an effective teacher — except that she ‘moves the needle’ on test scores.

Parents are divided on this. The Gallup Poll reports that 71% ‘have confidence’ in those now teaching, but when asked to identify education’s biggest problem, 44% select “improving the quality of our teachers.” Go figure!

Teachers complain about their own training, just as they have for years, and doesn’t that open the door for doubts about their skill level?

As the teaching profession expands, most of the new hires are coming from the lower quartile of college graduates. Moreover, of the roughly 200,000 new teachers being hired, about 30% come from ‘alternative certification’ programs, meaning they have had just a few weeks of summer training before entering the classroom. How much know how can they possibly possess?

For know how, I am calling Strike Three. But since this is my game, my rules, I should explain it’s “Four strikes and you’re out.”


This leaves us with blueprints — an absolute necessity in any building project. That’s the grand vision of what the finished project will look like as well as clear step-by-step directions. Does public education have either? It seems to me that we have too much of the latter, and nowhere near enough of the former.

Teachers report that they are forced to ‘teach to the test’ or focus inordinate amounts of time on test preparation. In fact, 60% say that’s their biggest problem.

In construction terms, that would be a little like having the foreman paying close attention to how you swing the hammer without much regard for the overall design of the house.

Telling teachers to get those test scores up is not the same as having blueprints. In fact, the absence of a national dialogue about the goals of education, the lack of clear national standards, and our foolish obsession with bubble tests say to me that we are a nation without a blueprint for education.

(Yes, we are developing common standards, and that’s progress, but we aren’t talking about the purposes of schooling. And sooner or later, someone somewhere is going to have to say ‘No Mas’ to so much testing.)

The absence of blueprints really is Strike Four, but it’s not the teachers who are being called out here. It’s our national failure to provide them with the tools — including the leadership — that would allow them to be ‘Nation Builders.’

14 thoughts on “Can American teachers truly be ‘nation builders?’

  1. The question isn’t whether or not teachers and schools are nation builders but what kind of a nation are they building. If they don’t teach problem solving and creativity, where do future citizens turn when there are problems to solve and alternatives to create? If they don’t teach the values of empathy, resilience, self-confidence, honesty, and collaboration, what takes the place of those qualities of good people and a healthy society? If the value of diversity and the imperative of inclusion isn’t part of the school day, what does that say about kids’ abilities as adults to care about whether society works for all?

    My quarrel with John’s analogy to a house is that a house has a preordained structure. School is much more dynamic, has a structure but it’s a fluid one, and is as much about the ecology of growing up as it is about the ecology of knowledge,

    By paying insufficient attention to the recruitment and cultivation of teachers, providing curriculum standards that don’t have multiple paths to meeting them, by narrowing assessment to test that are easy to grade, average, and report, we are hollowing out what school can and should be.

    William James once said that we can’t decide not to decide, because that in itself is a decision. We need to think about the irrevocable truth of that and keep asking what sort of a nation are we building.


    • Both questions are important, but Ray’s (what sort of nation?) takes precedence. I thought I made that point in my final graf about the lack of a debate, but Ray makes it better. If you think a house has a preordained structure, I invite you to visit the house that my brothers and I built on Nantucket in the mid 70’s. We had a blueprint, but we also changed and adapted as we went along. It’s still standing, by the way.


  2. A slight correction, John. You wrote “Teachers surveyed said they spent, on average, $940 apiece in 2007-08. (Only $250 is deductible on a federal tax return.)” That is not quite correct. The $250 limit is above the line, as a reduction to adjusted gross income. The remainder can be included in the miscellaneous category for those who itemize. The total of that category has to be offset by 2% of adjusted gross income, but if someone is already over that 2%, the entire remainder, in this case of $690, is still deductible.


      • Dear Shri.John Merrow,

        Greetings from our M.T.S.Academy for expressing thought provoking views about the Teachers as Nation Builders keeping in view of American condition. I congradulate for the same.

        I started my career as a teacher in the primary school in the year 1975 and then working All India Radio for more than 33years. But still I am a teacher be taking classes on Personality Development, Thirukkural – 1330 couplets written by a Divine Poet Thiruvalluvar which has been translated into more than 90 languages and have the third place in the world next to BIble and Kuran.
        Being a Mass Communication Expert I am still teaching for school teachers, college and university Professors in different perspective. I have been awarded twice by conferring a title Kalaimamani and Thiruvalluvar Awardee -2013 by the Government of Tamil Nadu, India for my yeoman services to the society through media and schools. I am to my credit more than 60 books. My Ph.D. thesis is on Mass Media only.

        Once again I appreciate your article. The way in which you approach the title and elaborated the same to register in the minds and hearts of the readers.



  3. Good for you, John. Send this to the Dept. of Education, and to the President’s speech writers. One more quibble to add to the above, if I may. Don’t trust that research about degrees/training not mattering, for it is crude in it’s measure of education. To do such studies right, you’d need to examine the kind of program, its curriculum, its philosophy, how much supervision is involved, etc. The same problem exists with studies that claim to show experience beyond a few years doesn’t matter; most of those studies simply count years in the profession, a pretty thin measure of “experience”. It’s remarkable: The many different ways so-called reformers work to undercut and narrow the profession they claim to want to improve. Can you think of any other profession–masonry to internal medicine where we wouldn’t value experience and training?


    • It’s my fervent hope that someone inside the Department reads this stuff, including the comments (which are often the best part).


    • It is going to happen in medicine when Health Care Reform takes full effect. Anything the Feds touch becomes chaotic. Lawmakers think they know everything. Soon they will narrow the medical profession by handing down unreasonable mandates. They will call medical professionals incompetent, just as they do educators. Look at education! All major decisions are made by those who have never stepped into a public school classroom since the day before they graduated from high school. This will happen in medicine, as well.


  4. Sorry, John, but blueprints are not step-by-step directions but the detailed layout of the item to be built. The video showing the use of the blueprints would be step-by-step. In education terms, the experience with effective learning provides the capability to use the plans (blueprints) developed by the appropriate and motivated education community to address identified concerns. But since the grand vision is indeed not well developed and accepted as you say and since the blueprints are at best prescribed from above, it’s still strike four!

    In response mostly to Ray, in spite of the title, TEACHER, I maintain we educators are at best FACILITATORS if we strive for effective learning. The analogy I often use is riding a bike; noone can teach someone to ride a bike. We can facilitate this by observing what the issues are, helping to stabilize the start position at first, etc. Likewise unless a student is motivated to learn, we cannot teach them anything really; at best they will commit facts to short-term memory. If we work to provide a supportive environment, we can expect increased motivation AND can hope to facilitate the effective learning associated with your very good list of items in your comment.

    To be nation builders, we educators need to understand that there are NO MAGIC BULLETS – prescribed or standardized within a community. We need to facilitate effective learning and promote motivation to use that learning (much more than facts as Ray points out) to want to and be capabile of doing the right things – as contrasted with doing the prescribed things right! That’s nation building.


    • Again, I thought I was saying that: the system micro-manages but lacks blueprints, a real and carefully thought out plan of action.
      I value blogging precisely because I get to learn in real time how effectively (or ineffectively) I am communicating.


  5. John, great piece, quibbles about the house analogy aside. I’d echo Mike Rose on the value of effective experience and credentials that mean something. A fifth strike against our education setup is the disdain for teaching as a profession, more virulent and viral than ever. A sixth would be the shock neo-capitalism that is taking advantage of financial crisis (caused by unregulated finance) to strip teachers of bargaining rights, pay, and benefits, slash school budgets, and generate a climate of fear in all public employees. After WIsconsin, who will dream of becoming a teacher in a public school? jf


  6. I wish I read the word democracy somewhere up there…given that democracy is not something that occurs willy-nilly. Part of the process of elevating the status of teachers is to link them to realizing and maintaining a more organic and participatory democratic social order…if that is what they are doing, and IMHO that is what they should be doing, it makes belittling teachers a little more difficult.


  7. Great post. You mention that no one is talking about the purpose of schooling. Isn’t that what went wrong when NCLB was created? Congress did not first ask “What should be the goals of America’s education system?” Surely the answer is not: America must be able to compete in a global economy. If parents and educators were to brainstorm answers to that question, we would hear goals such as
    Students should graduate
    o prepared to be responsible citizens in a democratic society
    o able to read critically and think critically – and think for themselves
    o with a life-time love of learning
    o ready to be creative problem-solvers
    o understanding that learning is not only about the answers; it’s about asking questions
    o able to put themselves in others’ shoes (empathy) and see from others’ viewpoint
    If these were our goals, NCLB would have been a totally different piece of legislation — and we would no longer have to worry about America’s ability to compete in a global economy. Ironically, NCLB, Race to the Top and Blueprint are having the opposite effect. That’s why so many teachers and parents, in their concern for our students and our country are joining with the grassroots movement Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action at and will be marching in DC on July 30. We will not put up with this craziness any longer.Congress, wake up and LISTEN. Thanks, John, for trying to get the message out. But if our policymakers continue to listen to the same old, same old, they’ll never “get it.”


  8. I’m sorry, but, in spite of the wisdom of your piece and of virtually all comments, I do believe in “magic bullets,” because I’ve seen them work. And when they work they put to rest loads of old and useless shibboleths used by teachers, administrators, parents and kids.

    One such bullet is a portfolio framed against those very skills Katherine talks about, but in terms closer to the old “soft skills” of responsibility, teamwork, listening, investigating, using information, and the like. If – and when – that portfolio is put together by kids themselves, to represent their best examples of their best work, and then revised, and revised, and revised, it teaches both the content and how to assess yourself in a real-world, realistic context of others doing similar work. That – online particularly – updates Dewey’s “Democracy in Education,” while it also – finally – realizes the Brunerian self-awareness and Langer’s mindfulness. It makes theory concrete, and drives student-centered learning wherein teachers watch and build on what kids do and think they do well.

    Another bullet is the way kids now enter adulthood. They are aware that it is important to access real and useful information, but also aware that you never begin a task with everything in place. Like your house, you change it to fit circumstances. That change is a lot smarter than Secretary Duncan’s testing obsession, which presumes right answers, and only one right answer, to most questions. Kids know better, even when their teachers don’t. And, when the teachers also are information-literate (way, way beyond tech literate, but way, way different from what most ed-schools teach and completely opposite to what most in-service stuff presumes), then, as colleagues, as co-investigators, teachers can really inspire.

    In other words, I really think your whole taxonomy is bent – bent toward more of the same rather than what is really going on in many, many classrooms. Building assessment – and evaluation – from the achievements of kids, rather than from presumptuous instruments of control; and organizing curriculum independent of “prerequisites” puts the responsibilities where they really ought to be – on kids, with help from teachers. Look at Olin College, where there are no pre-requisites at all, and it’s the envy – and, like flypaper, the magnet for the best from places like MIT. Look at New Tech and High Tech networks, where portfolios, albeit pretty bourgeois and unstructured, have displaced one-answer-fits-all metrics. Look at your own program through Learning Matters, where those skills were taught with some rigor and creativity, rather than through repetition and rote.

    There’s good stuff out there, and it’s very, very different from the list of stuff you needed to build a house 40 years ago. Maybe that’s what we call progress. In any case, it’s not the same building any more.


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