Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Great teachers (Part 2)

Picking up from yesterday's post, where I opined that the mania for finding "great teachers" may well be an impossible task, that there may simply be a certain number of these outstanding souls, and incentives may not have the effect that we believe. I don't mean to sound absolutist - I'm probably overstating the case somewhat - but I just don't believe that upping the average teacher salary by 20% (or whatever number you pick) will upgrade the profession that much.

And therein lies the problem. Every expert says the key is to attract better teachers to the classroom, but we clearly don't know how to make them (otherwise, every current teacher would already be great, we just wouldn't have enough of them) and we're not sure how to find them. The Teach for America approach is to get really smart people (even though once again we're assuming that an admissions decision at age 17 is precursor to your whole life) and send them into our schools for two years. I'm not sure that's guaranteed to work.

The reality may just be that there are not enough great teachers to go around. No matter how hard you look, no matter how much you pay, you may never have enough truly great teachers to fill every classroom and every mind. Being "great" may not be reducible to a defined process; I had only a handful of great teachers in my long school career, but I am certain that many others were caring and conscientious and hard-working, they just didn't have that spark of greatness within themselves.

And this shouldn't surprise us. Take baseball. Every team would love to have a five-tool player at every position, but, despite powerful incentives, every team comes up short, no matter how much money it throws around (see Yankees, New York). In my field, software development, there are stars and there are those who are more workmanlike. Human achievement is too variable to assume we understand how to create more of it.

The real point of improving education, then, is not to keep hammering on the point that we need better teachers, that we need to provide incentives for potentially great teachers to identify themselves and come forward (I'm deliberately bypassing the correlation problem, that anybody with the skills to be a great teacher would probably find other fields in which to flourish, making the attraction problem that much more difficult). Anyone can sloganeer and pontificate about that, but that's not how you create a functional organization. (People who go on talk shows and insist that all we need to do is pay more and wait for great teachers to show up are like the sports talk radio listeners who insist that, if we'd just trade two minor-leaguers for Alex Rodriguez, Lance Berkman, and the dessicated remnants of Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove, we'd be in business.)

The challenge is in taking the team you have and making it work better, with occasional shifts in personnel to support your longer-term goals. In software development, for example, you might have two stars who can do anything, and six other people with a fairly normal complement of strengths and weaknesses. The first two may need the barest of specs to get things done, a general goal, a couple of algorithm definitions, and off they go. The others may need incredibly detailed, click this and this happens type of requirements to spell out what happens in every possible situation. (And, given the nature of the work, the solution is not to replace all six, because there will never be enough "interesting" work to retain eight stars.)

What invariably happens, of course, is that people, status-conscious entities that we are, see and feel this different treatment, resentment arises, damages team unity, and the manager has a problem. So, instead, detailed specs are created for everyone on the team, and we have a lowest-common-denominator problem.

And this is what happens in teaching. Tell a great teacher, "we expect all the kids to be reading at or above grade level," and it gets done. No one method will be used, because every child is different, but, one way or another, all but the most recalcitrant child will get to where they need to be.

But the average or mediocre teacher hasn't the personal resources to make that happen. At that point, structure must be imposed to assist the teacher in getting the list of objectives met. That structure comes from reading lists, approved textbooks, centrally-created lesson plans, and all the other "creativity-killing" items that the vast majority of teachers need in order to get the job done. And the bureaucratic structure, coupled with normal human status-seeking, finds two sets of rules unsupportable, so the rules become applied even to the great teachers.

Understand that I don't see this as the desirable outcome. I would love to live in a world in which every teacher is great, understanding the dynamic of the particular classroom and the potential of each child, tailoring their lessons to optimize the learning experience. But that seems wholly unrealistic, given the number of teachers we need and what I consider to be the scarcity of those who rise to the top.

This phenomenon explains the current structure of education, "teaching to the test," rigid rules and roles. And it seems to be a natural outgrowth of the natural structure of talent, and I don't know what we can do about it except at the margins.


Citizen Carrie said...

There's no easy solutions to our problems in education, but a healthy dose of realism is a good start.

Androcass said...

Alas, it seems no closer today than when I was a kid. I've just been discussing one piece of the puzzle; there's a lot more in our system that makes little sense to me.

SharePoint Development - Softweb Solutions said...

Thanks for the nice information.

Best Regards
Arpit Kothari

Offshore Software Development

Greg said...

I've been thinking a lot about this post but haven't had time to comment. IMHO, there are three kinds of teachers today. The first kind is the passionate teacher, who devotes his/her life to teaching. For them, teaching is a calling - they feel like they are making the world a better place by teaching. Their passion and devotion is similar to an artist, writer or musician. The second kind of teacher is someone who just views teaching as a job. These teachers may or many not be competent, but they are not devoted to the job. The third type of teacher is someone who started out as a passionate teacher but, over time, lost the passion and now views teaching as just another job.

If my view is correct, then the issue is to attract better candidates for the "just a job" teacher, while re-igniting the passion for teaching for the burned-out teachers.

My hunch is that there are plenty of great teachers out there who have gravitated towards other, more desirable careers. Perhaps they are management consultants, corporate trainers or something else. If we can figure out what will make teaching more attractive, we may be able to get more of them into the field of teaching.

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