Thomas Sowell

The next time someone receives an award as an outstanding teacher, take a close look at the reasons given for selecting that particular person. Seldom is it because his or her students did higher quality work in math or spoke better English or in fact had any tangible accomplishments that were better than those of other students of teachers who did not get an award.

A "good" teacher is not defined as a teacher whose students learn more. A "good" teacher is someone who exemplifies the prevailing dogmas of the educational establishment. The general public probably thinks of good teachers as people like Marva Collins or Jaime Escalante, whose minority students met and exceeded national standards. But such bottom line criteria have long since disappeared from most public schools.

If your criterion for judging teachers is how much their students learn, then you can end up with a wholly different list of who are the best teachers. Some of the most unimpressive-looking teachers have consistently turned out students who know their subject far better than teachers who cut a more dashing figure in the classroom and receive more lavish praise from their students or attention from the media.

My own teaching career began at Douglass College, a small women's college in New Jersey, replacing a retiring professor of economics who was so revered that I made it a point never to say that I was "replacing" him, which would have been considered sacrilege. But it turned out that his worshipful students were a mass of confusion when it came to economics.

It was much the same story at my next teaching post, Howard University in Washington. One of the men in our department was so popular with students that the big problem every semester was to find a room big enough to hold all the students who wanted to enrol in his classes. Meanwhile, another economist in the department was so unpopular that the very mention of his name caused students to roll their eyes or even have an outburst of hostility.

Yet when I compared the grades that students in my upper level class were making, I discovered that none of the students who had taken introductory economics under Mr. Popularity had gotten as high as a B in my class, while virtually all the students who had studied under Mr. Pariah were doing at least B work. "By their fruits ye shall know them."

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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