Christmas is a time for rejoicing and reflection. Both are manifest in one of the last poems written by T. S. Eliot, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” a majestic work that deserves revisiting every Christmastime.
“The child wonders at the Christmas Tree,” the speaker of Eliot’s poem observes, recalling “the glittering rapture, the amazement / Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree” and “the surprises, delight in new possessions” found beneath it. The speaker wishes for the child to “continue in the spirit of wonder”—to hold tight to these moments, to the happiness and hope that accompanied them. In so doing, even when the innocence of childhood is inevitably replaced by the travails of adulthood, “the reverence and the gaiety / May not be forgotten” and “the accumulated memories of annual emotion / May be concentrated into a great joy.” Through the remembrance of Christmases past, joy can be kept evergreen.
Behind that message, there is a simple but significant truth: our experiences as children can affect us in profound ways as adults. And so, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” provides insight into something outside of Eliot’s aim but of perennial concern to the people of Alabama: the cultivation of our children.
Children learn sequentially and cumulatively. A child’s readiness to learn in second grade is dependent on what was learned in first grade; a child’s readiness to learn in third grade is dependent on what was learned in first and second grade; and so on and so forth, onward and upward, from primary school to secondary school to college (consider this datum: 84% of Alabama’s high-school graduates in 2015 were unprepared for college-level coursework in English, mathematics, reading, and science, according to the ACT). As the complexity of the curricula increases, so too does the difficulty of catching up. Thus, a child’s future can be threatened by having a single bad teacher, and devastated by having several bad teachers.
There can be no doubt that the public-school system of Alabama has myriad excellent teachers. (This conclusion is not conjecture but a matter of personal knowledge for the author, who graduated from a public school in Alabama.) It does those teachers no disservice—indeed, quite the opposite—to admit that our state also has an overabundance of bad teachers. Why quite the opposite? As one teacher was quoted in a survey of educators: “Teachers pay the greatest price for incompetent teachers. Year after year, [other teachers] pick up the slack.” Incompetence can have many causes, some willful and some not, yet the effect is equally pernicious. Both the person who is earnest yet unable to become a good teacher and the person who is indolent and unwilling to become a good teacher deprive children of their future—and should be removed from the classroom.
That the quality of a child’s teachers is consequential to the child’s life should be self-evident, but academic research provides us evidence. For example, in a paper published last year in the American Economic Review, one of the most prestigious journals in the field, Raj Chetty of Harvard University, John Friedman of Brown University, and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University studied the impact of teachers on long-term student outcomes. The authors found that, for students, better teachers mean “substantial economic and social benefits,” which begin in adolescence and continue through adulthood. Students with good teachers are less likely to have children as teenagers, more likely to attend college after high school, and more likely to earn higher salaries as adults. Moreover, replacing the worst 5% of teachers with average teachers—nota bene, not good or even great teachers—would increase students’ lifetime income by approximately $1.4 million per classroom, or $50,000 per child. Another scholar, reviewing the study, concluded: “These figures indicate that eliminating bad teachers may be the quickest way to improve the job prospects of low-income Americans, reduce income inequality, and boost our future economy.”
Education should not, of course, be understood merely in terms of economic outcomes or social ideals. The purpose of education is a number of ends, among them to equip young people to be responsible citizens in a democracy and indefatigable seekers of the good. Yet, in the case of all of its ends, bad teachers are bad for education.
Years ago, the education establishment in Alabama turned its back on the children of our state. Its focus fixated on protecting the adults—the teachers, collectively and unconditionally—über alles. The result is a public-education system where bad teachers are protected with extraordinary job security and good teachers are frustrated from fulfilling their calling, all at the expense of schoolchildren—especially the most vulnerable schoolchildren.
For the people of Alabama, one New Year’s resolution must top the list. Let us resolve, in the year 2016, to stop tolerating the status quo and to start putting children first.