An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson

Dr. Tyson:

(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:

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...)

More like this


I'm sure there are some bad teachers out there; you're bound to get some in a profession that big. But for every genuinely bad teacher out there, there are several good teachers who lack resources and/or institutional support to work miracles. Often it's the principals, or even more frequently the school boards, that are bad. Those are the people with the power to make sure teachers get adequate resources, but all too often do nothing about those problems. Or worse, the school boards cater to the faction of voters that doesn't want to pay taxes, because they (reasonably) fear defeat in the next election.

One of the fundamental problems underlying our society's problems with education is the sad fact that too many voters do not value education. And there is no easy solution to the problems of our education system when the voters don't want to put even minimal effort into solving them. It's no coincidence that the best schools in this country tend to be the ones with the highest degree of parental involvement.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

The "disagreed with tweet" link is broken :(

I'm sure the proportion of terrible teachers to great teachers is likely no different than the proportion of terrible X to great X in most other professions, but one of the differences is how difficult it can be to fire incompetent teachers. That exacerbates the problem of poor performance in the teaching profession versus other professions, which is why I think teachers get a lot of hate.

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

The explanation of the tweet that might be the most charitable is that every child starts out with the potential and interest to be a "straight A student", but that (a few) bad teachers drum it out of many. Therefore, the students who are straight A students achieve what they do despite the fact that there are certain teachers (not all) who might have otherwise dissuaded them from it. -- It's along the lines of one of my favorite Tyson quotes (cribbed from elsewhere): "We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk, and the rest of its life telling it to sit down and shut up."

It's probably a perspective coming from the experience of a lower/middle class African-American student who went to New York public schools in the 60s/70s, who had to deal with a large number of people who looked at him and said "You want to be a scientist? Get real."

That said, I agree that it comes off a rather harsh to teachers. Yes, there is a lot of "in spite of bad teachers" to successful people, but there is an equal or greater amount of "because of good ones". From what I can tell, having just one teacher who believes in you can make up for many who subtly dissuade, or even one or more who actively discourage. I'm not sure where people would be if they had only mediocre teachers - I'm guessing society's slight anti-intellectual bias would show up. So in the end, good teachers probably do more to encourage students than bad teachers do to dissuade.

*rolls eyes* My mom is a (now retired) high school teacher, and she's been fighting most of her life the trend of good grades getting easier and easier to get. There are many teachers who like to be liked. What's an A worth? The meaning of grades depends on the teacher and the school, always has, still does. This statement doesn't make any sense whatsoever. My worst teachers gave me Fs for telling them they were bad teachers, essentially. I'm very cynical about grading and I'm glad I don't have any business with it at this point in my life.

There is another side from which that tweet is unfortunate...Is he even trying to say that not A's student can NOT get A's?That A-students are always A-students? I was an excellent student BEFORE university and I loved physics, chemistry and mathematics even much before high-school or going to the university or doing my Master Degree. By the way, I was not a too remarkable student in "normal education" despite my high IQ due to personal instabilities I will not discuss here (not a thing a like to discuss with people either). There are LOTs of students who are VERY BRIGHT and that not get A's not due to the teacher or their aptitudes, but due to the rigid system and the non-originality of their methods. It is not even the method but the grading system. Be aware, traditional teachers ARE NOT BAD, students that are bright (at least potentially) and don't get A are not bad...In fact, sometimes, and that is what I think (maybe) Neil is trying to say, perhaps in "some cases" (not all, I guess), people get A's due to "ther trajectory" or perhaps he is saying other thing...We see that type of people even in our current jobs. I am a high-school professor and I can see much of all this. Neil has committed a mistake with that tweet, from every side is not polite what he seems to say, but, by the other side, I see that he neglects other effects and casuistics...In my case, I can tell I have learned much more non excelling sometimes than acing a subject...When I aced a subject, specially in High-School (I didn't tell my experience in pre High-School), and in some examples in the University. When I got an A, I was NEVER given any credit or aid. When I got any other good score, I obtained interesting bonuses...Question (to think): should a researcher select only A-type students in order to get "grants" even when they have (I know some examples) they got that scores going to private academias or tutors to prepare the exams or are non-A students better if they prove their aptitudes? The problem is money and grants, at least to the research level...I think...With respect to the teacher, I think the key is the "grading system"...And a right valuation of the students abilities...The system is too often "mechanic" and some good people are expulsed from Science and other less prepared get it in and stay. At least, this is my personal experience and opinion. Perhaps most of you have different perceptions about what Neil was saying...He should explain himself better...In order to judge a very unfortunated sentence...

By Amarashiki (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

I agree with NGdT, if I understand him correctly. This tweet is saying that students who get all A's will invariably run up against a teacher who does not teach them well. The work ethic and intelligence of these straight A students gets them over the hurdle of the poor teaching.

This is not an attack at all teachers, nor their resources, nor their work ethic. This is a comment about a specific instance where strong student meets bad teacher. We know what happens when strong student meets mediocre to superb teacher. What happens when a straight 'A' student meets a bad teacher? They get an 'A' "in spite of bad Teachers"

#2: The broken link is now fixed, thanks.

#3: I don't really buy the "it's too hard to fire incompetent teachers" argument, for several reasons. One is just that it overstates the ease of identifying and firing incompetents in organizations where it's nominally easy to fire people. Almost every organization contains people who seem to be incompetent, but just hang on forever for no reason that's obvious to the people who have to deal with them. Contrary to what you might expect from Usenet-level economics, firing is not something that's taken lightly. And frequently people who appear to be incompetent at what you want them to do turn out to be very good at something else that people above you find valuable.

This is also the situation in teaching-- a lot of what's perceived as "bad teaching" by people outside the system is not, in fact, incompetence. It's a personality clash, or a style mismatch, or a curricular dispute with parents, or an unruly student disrupting class for everyone. Even the best measures of teacher performance turn out to be pretty noisy, and that's with using large samples and sophisticated statistics; the anecdotal experiences of particular students or parents have very little value.

More than that, though, I would say that when there are incompetent teachers in a particular school, you can bet that the other teachers working there are well aware of who they are, and would generally be perfectly happy to see them gone. They are not, however, happy to throw official procedure to the winds just to get them gone-- there are specific procedures to be followed to get rid of people who can't or won't do the job, and those exist for a reason. Those procedural protections are also one of the very few genuine perks of the job, partially compensating for the relatively low salary of teachers compared to other professionals with similar levels of education. Complaints about the difficulty of firing bad teachers mostly originate with administrators who don't want to do the legwork necessary to fire people, and politicians who are just generally interested in union-busting.

#4: That's probably the most charitable interpretation, yes. Which is still a pretty awful way of looking at the world.

But then, that's the same basic form as the disagreement that led to Eureka. So I guess I'm just a more positive kind of guy across the board...

I respectfully disagree with your letter. I think either you are reading it wrong or your perspective is narrow.
I don't think the tweet is about good nor bad teachers, not even about teachers themselves, it is about students who have to overcome a lot of adverse circumstances (social and educational) to excel at school and in life.

A lot of us often make the mistake of advancing jugdgements based on our own narrow set of circumstances. Particularly, it is very easy to believe that, because we are surrounded by mostly good teachers, it is the same all around the country, or the world. It is also easy to believe that because we had access to a good education, everybody does.
I had a lot of excellent teachers, but there were some that had to cut corners and that sometimes had a negative effect on all students. That said, in my home country good teachers are not as common as you might want to think.

The tweet is a compliment to good students, it is meant to credit good students for their success rather than their teachers or the educational system. It doesn't downplay teachers, nor the educational system, it simply stresses that good marks are the result of hard-work.

I don't see how this is offensive or diminishing in any way to anybody.

By Edgar Acosta (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

Yeah, I don't really like that interpretation, either. I'm seeing this elsewhere on social media, too, the idea being that good students would do well regardless of instruction, because they're just innately awesome. Thus, the good teachers don't matter, only overcoming the bad ones.

This is a popular attitude with a certain subset of successful people, but it never sits well with me. It's a little too Mitt Romney for me-- blithely waving off the many contributions of people who made it possible for the successful to succeed.

I also find this attitude highly problematic when it comes to thinking about biases. It's far too easy to slide from "The best students will make it no matter what" to "These students who aren't making it must be inferior in some way," and that way lies a whole mountain of awful stuff.

There are probably a few truly self-educated individuals out there, raised by wolves in the deep stacks of the New York Public Library, or whatever. The rest of us benefit from the underappreciated contributions of a whole host of other people, including good teachers.

As primary/secondary education likely involves more than 30 teachers, NGdT: P(BT) > 3% CO: P(BT)<<3%
Even no more than 3% would seem very good in almost any profession.

BTW, my estimate at the collegiate level would be around 25%

It's poorly worded at best. Good, and pithy, is hard.
I know in my high-school geometry class, if the other students really got much from it, it was cause I was essentially teaching the class rather than the teacher (who welcomed my help). Earlier in life I was chastised for daring to think that whether the earth spun "clockwise" or not depended on whether one looked at north or south pole, since that's obviously not even worth thinking about it's so silly. Those were the old days when students would sometimes think about why, and even brazenly ask why, a thing was true.
The more usual observation is that a highly rated high-school with successful students may be so for reasons having almost nothing to do with the quality of the teachers but much to do with the privilege of the students (not that he's saying that).

Yeah, I don’t really like that interpretation, either. I’m seeing this elsewhere on social media, too, the idea being that good students would do well regardless of instruction, because they’re just innately awesome. Thus, the good teachers don’t matter, only overcoming the bad ones.

There are some students in the right-hand tail of the bell curve who will do well even with mediocre teachers. There are some on the left-hand tail who are unlikely to benefit from even the highest quality teaching (many of the latter group are special needs students who really shouldn't be in a mainstream classroom; to the extent that private schools are better than public schools, it's because the private schools can kick these students out but public schools can't). In between you have the vast majority of students, for whom the quality of teaching can make a big difference. It is important for measuring the quality of a school system to determine how well this middle group does.

It is an indictment of our educational system that the performance of the middle group is such a strong function of the school's location. Even within a nominal school system, this variation is visible: in Florida, where I grew up, public school systems cannot cover less than a full county, but in my county, certain high schools--identifiably white, or occasionally (middle to upper class Cuban or Central/South American) Hispanic--had much better reputations than other, identifiably black (one high school had a student body more than 99% black, while mine was about 70/20/10 white/Hispanic/black). That makes it easier to systematically move the better teachers to the "good" high schools, leading to some of the "awful stuff" you mention happening to students stuck in the "bad" high schools.

There is a risk in aiming at the middle that the high achievers lose a bit. Some big city school districts, including New York (Stuyvesant and Bronx Science) and Boston (Boston Latin), solve this problem with magnet schools or exam schools to concentrate the highest achievers throughout the city in one or two schools. But that's not an option in small town districts like where I currently live (our one high school has a total four-year enrollment not much bigger than the per-year enrollment at the high school I attended, and there were more than two dozen other public high schools in that district). The best one of these districts can do is make sure there is a well-stocked library (in town, if not at the school) and encourage the high achievers to use it.

The question of what you do with the special needs students is a hard one. These students soak up a disproportionate share of resources--I have heard anecdotally of some parents gaming the system by getting a special needs designation for their special snowflake(s). In some cases, the intervention works reasonably well, and the student goes on to succeed in high school and college. In others, the student becomes disruptive to the other students in the class who are trying to learn--as I mention above, the chief advantage of private schools is that they can weed such students out. In this country, we generally don't allocate enough resources to deal with such students (there are a handful of local exceptions).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

My take is different. He is clearly not saying that "only bad teachers give As' Because he says "IN SPITE of bad teachers", not "BECAUSE"...

My take is that he is saying that a bad teacher is way more harmful than a good teacher is helpful. I'm not sure if this is true or not... So, something like "every bad teacher undos the work of 3 good teachers" or something...

By Brian Postow (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

I suspect the tweet format causes a lot of misunderstandings, because the tweeter can rarely provide sufficient context/background or explanation.

I read his tweet as, out of the dozens of teachers any particular student had, its unlikely that he didn't have any that weren't helpful to him/her. I think this is particularly true, because there are vast differences in teaching technique and learning styles, and no teaching style can be good for ALL the students in the class. So the teacher has to choose some style that hopefully in some average sense is best, but clearly would be suboptimal if all the students had the same learning/skill profile.

Maybe one lesson is. Avoid tweeting. The odds of beimg misunderstood, or having something come out wrong are high.

BTW, I thought Neil's Christmas quip was perfectly OK. He wasn't dissing religion in my opinion, just stating that other things also happened on that day. Again the brevity of twitter, may be to blame here.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

Thanks for sticking up for teachers (which includes me.)

By Neil Bates (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

I agree with your post. I like Tyson when he's not trying to be an epigram factory. Examples like this show the perils of trying to speak in soundbites (and therefore the inherent flaw of twitter).

By Douglas Natelson (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

If you don't understand that tweet, you are clearly part of the problem.

By Andrew Murphy (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink

In my personal experience, Sturgeon's Rule applies to teachers. Not all are bad, just about 0.9. Admittedly that is my experience based on a sample size of a couple of hundred, but I have to admit that there is merit to Tyson's observatioon.

By Bruce W. Fowler (not verified) on 13 Jan 2015 #permalink

My take on it is simple. Good teachers aren't teaching to the A students, because they cannot. They have to teach to the whole class and unless grade inflation is truly rampant, the A students will always be a small minority of the class. Thus A's come from students themselves, not their teachers. I think that is what he is getting at.

My experience though supports the more...uncharitable...interpretations of his statements. I went to a highschool that is consistently ranked among the top 20 in New Jersey (which consistently comes out pretty well in national educational state-by-state rankings), and I can categorically say that I got my As despite my teachers. Many of whom were/are perfectly nice, decent people. But, they were, by and large, simply stupid. I do not say this to be insulting or flippant, but these were theoretically highly educated, very well paid for civil servant, people with large amounts of experience teaching at one of the better high schools in one of the better educational systems in the US and they were mostly simply mediocre minds or were completely out of their depths. As a case in point, the honors geometry teacher had been teaching that course for about a decade and simply didn't know geometry, to the point that each year at least one student would keep track of her basic mathematical or geometric errors and my year they were in excess of 10 per class session (approx 2100 out of 180 days). She was simply a bad teacher and any student in that class who did well did so in spite of her. Conversely I cannot think of a single instance where I would ascribe my or my fellow's good grades to anything in particular any teacher did. My experience very much is that bad teachers can mess up an education and cause someone not to get As but good teachers merely don't mess anything up. Now it could be that my experiences are entirely a-typical, but considering the theoretical quality of the school in question, I really must wonder what the 99% of schools in this country that are supposed to be worse were like.

One of the big honking elephants in the room to me is always that the assumption is that anyone who is a teacher is automatically lazy. Because reasons. Usually it comes from the idea that a government job is somehow easier.

Now, I won't deny there are problems in the profession-- one small recommendation I have seen is to make tenure harder to get and harder to keep. Fine.

But we all hear all day long about how talented those billion-dollar CEOs are and how high pay attracts talent. But evidently we don't expect this to apply to the people who EDUCATE OUR KIDS. Holy stinking hell, what is wrong here?

Oh, I get it. Working in the private sector making apps to find a better sushi restaurant is worth a zillion dollars, but the people who teach your kids to read are worthless! Oh, that must be it!

I mean, that's the basic assumption I see. If you teach, you must take a vow of poverty.

If we take the people who think high pay attracts talent at their word, then they should all be for front-loading the contracts more than they are; the reason teacher contracts get back-loaded is that nobody wants to be seen raising taxes so you have every incentive to kick the can down the road. But it saddens me that citizens are often willing to bow to any demand cops make -- two million for that helicopter? Sure! -- and treat teachers like dirt.

Pensions, by the way are essentially deferred salary. If you add up what a lot of teachers get -- even accounting for the lifetime nature of a pension in many districts -- you end up with about what they might have earned in the private sector over the same 30 or so years, and much less in many cases. $12,000-40,000 a year isn't exactly rolling in it, and a quick look at the NYS retirement system database is instructive here -- the people with the famously large pension packets are almost never actual teachers. (All of them are political appointees, which says a lot right there).

I mean, one of the most ridiculous things I read from the Heritage foundation (Yeah I know) was the lament that a teacher might -- might -- make it to six figures. A person with a masters, who take care of your kids for six plus hours a day, grades papers and provides help on their own damned time, and politely listens to a parent who complains that little Johnny didn't get told he poops roses. Such people are obviously worth nothing, right?

I have some suspicions as to why we devalue teaching, but one of them is simply that it's largely women who do it, and we all know that nothing a woman does could possibly be worth as much as what a man does, amirite?

Sorry for the rant. But I spent years covering local school board and town budget meetings. And the straight up unwillingness of largely wealthy people to chip in really irks me -- no, it enrages me*. Because it speaks of a deep contempt for fellow human beings.

Tyson's tweet doesn't help here, IMO. The fact that we can all interpret it rather differently speaks to the inadequacies of Twitter; but either way, I don't see it as helpful to go after the people who sacrifice so much so our kids can succeed. The plain English is that straight A students will make it anyway, and that feeds right in to the same narrative that says we should ditch public education altogether.

*I always thought one good solution is to use property taxes in every town in the state for schools, and pay out the money per student, statewide. You want more? Then you have to raise the taxes and the money goes to everyone. So you can't have a rich district essentially opt out. But I don't know of any states that do anything like it except Michigan and New Jersey, and they do a per-student system based on something else I think -- if anyone knows, do tell.

"I mean, that’s the basic assumption I see. If you teach, you must take a vow of poverty."

For some it's even simple (and more stupid) than that: My wife has her master's in statistics, I have my Ph.D.. Almost every effing time we see one of her nieces and her husband one or the other of them says "Neither of you know what it's like to have to work for stuff - you took the easy ways out and got your degrees"
---> in short: not only is teaching an easy job, becoming educated is trivial.

Suggestion for interpretation:

Students who get straight A's are highly intelligent, and will earn their grades independent of the teacher (a good teacher does not improve their grade, a bad teacher cannot make it worse).
With the unsaid consequence that such students cannot be used to evaluate teacher performance. Or whatever he wants to say.

By Ulf Lorenz (not verified) on 13 Jan 2015 #permalink

As a straight A student, my first reaction to the tweet was that I knew exactly what he was referring to. It has nothing to do with good teachers not being able to teach A students. My personal example is I had a very bad Calc teacher in high school. I studied on my own, managed an A, and got a 5 on the AP. But I was only memorizing. When I got to college and got a really good, motivated teacher for Calc 2, I found that her baseline expectations for students entering her class were far from where I was. Other students were much more prepared than I. By scheduling office hours with her and regularly visiting the academic support tutoring center, I was able to get an A in the class. I got that A from a great Calc 2 teacher in spite of my poor Calc teacher. It's as naive to think every teacher is good as it is to think every teacher is bad. We all have had some of both. Straight A students overcome the bad by working hard when they meet a good one who expects a certain level of preparation.

Juice-- the reason for the pushback isn't that we thing the teachers are all from Lake Wobegon ("where all the students are above average"). It's that too often there is a dominant narrative in pubic policy circles that teachers are all a bunch of layabouts, and the plain English of the tweet feeds into that.

Also being an A student is more than just being awesome at what you do or even your effort that you put in. You put in a lot of effort, and that's to be commended. Now think of all the people around you who helped you do it, besides the calc professor in college.

Did you have a supportive family? Friends? The ability to get to and from your classes without a major hassle? A job that allowed you to study? (i.e. not full time). A study buddy who was really helpful? A place to do your schoolwork?

All these things go into making good students, and they do not appear out of nowhere just because you are a good student. They are a function of many things (see Eric Lund above). Only some are related to the teacher, or in the teacher's control.

And usually, Neil deGrasse Tyson shows a keen awareness of such things, and this tweet was a bit tone deaf in that regard.

Maybe I read 140 character communications too literally. All I see from Tyson's tweet is a simple logical argument. Straight A students get As in all their classes. Not all teachers are good. Not all teachers are bad. As a result, it is a fallacy to argue that students earn straight As "because of" good teachers. Straight A students most likely had good teachers and bad teachers. Ergo, the quality of the teacher makes no difference to the student's outcome (i.e. an A in the course). It is likely that the student had bad teachers along the way and kept earning As regardless, even in classes that built upon material the student failed to learn in a prior bad teacher's class. That's where the "in spite of" comes in. Obviously, other factors go into making a straight A student (i.e. family, friends, financials, etc.), and it is the sum of those factors that more directly correlate with straight As than a highly improbably 100% exposure to "good teachers". Judging from Tyson's history of tweets, I really don't think he was making any kind of comment about teachers, good or bad. I think he was just making a simple logical point, as with all of his movie tweets. He never comments on the quality of the film. He just points out simple scientific irregularities and simple logical inconsistencies. Why he chose to make this particular tweet is anyone's guess. It could be as simple as someone saying to him recently "I got straight As because of all the good teachers at my school," and he thought it would make a good tweet. I don't think it was particularly insightful, but it's obviously generated controversy.

Good students LEARN in spite of "bad" teachers.

A's are often just a way to keep score of one's superiority to others.

Kids are learning machines. They are learning all the time in class. Quite often, they are learning things that the teacher did not intend. There is much to learn in a class... even with a "bad" teacher.

"Straight A" students learn exactly what the teacher intends. They are the pinnacle in conformists. They know how to "do" school.

Thanks Chad. That was articulated very well.

I should note that I have also posted a follow-up article responding to some issues brought up by others. In comments there, someone has provided a link to an interview which places Dr. Tyson's cryptic remark in a fuller context; I still emphatically disagree for reasons outlined in that post.

Andrew Murphy - Okay, so I'm part of the problem. Are you going to do anything to actually address that, or will you simply compound the problem by just making statements which are pithy and vapid?