Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Great teachers

Charlie Rose interviewed Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system, last night. Charlie, using a grant from the Broad Foundation, has been exploring education lately; I wrote about his interview of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp a couple of weeks ago. Rhee is a graduate of the Teach for America program and was mentioned in the Kopp interview, but her interview was superior in that she actually is involved with some aspects of education.

However, there were some curious notes. Rhee tends to lapse into corporate-speak, explaining that the key to everything is "accountability." If you can just get everyone to take responsibility for what they do (apparently with punishment if they don't), anything can be improved. This is fairly unremarkable, and I certainly agree that teachers need a little more downside potential than they have. Tenure is useful in a higher-education context where academic freedom is an issue, but it seems less justifiable when it props up people who shouldn't be teachers in the first place.

Let me take issue with one thing Rhee talked about. Her contention is that you can't have great education without great teachers, and told a lengthy story about Mr. Wallace, a beloved teacher who holds court at McDonald's every afternoon, buying the kids hamburgers and tutoring them until they get the material. Of course, the other teachers criticize him, and he's thinking of leaving the profession. If we could only get more teachers like Mr. Wallace, Rhee tells us, our problems would be over.

Here's my story: I spent a year as a mathematics substitute in one of the finest high schools in the country, and helped to coach the math team for a total of eight years. I got a pretty good look inside a vaunted math department. What I saw were several teachers who were exceptional, who went the extra mile for their students; several who were blitheringly incompetent, whose major objective was going down to the teachers' lounge for a smoke; and a huge group in the middle who were solid, competent, but not particularly outstanding. Overall, there was contempt for teachers who "worked too hard," and there was a tremendous sense of protectiveness over the lifestyle they had "earned."

Having been a student in that same high school, I was not particularly surprised to learn any of this, but seeing it up close, day after day, made me despair that we would ever fix the problems of public education if this "great" high school had these issues. You see, I'm not convinced that you can just create great teachers out of nothing more than a good training program, or mentoring, and certainly not by throwing money at them. One of the best teachers I ever saw was a 16-year-old tutor - he just "got it," and his current college students are undoubtedly profiting from that.

Greatness in teachers, just as in artists or athletes or anything else that requires skill, is a mix of natural endowment and training. Most of the remedies of the education do-gooders comes down to giving more, more money, more recognition, merit pay, awards, and so forth. It simply isn't clear to me that any of these more's translates into more great teachers (excpet in a population sense; it's possible that attracting larger numbers of people into teaching would create a larger pool from which to find greatness, but I'm uncertain as to how many we'd get, and what would we do with the discards?).

Mr. Wallace may be great because he's willing to devote more unpaid hours to his work, or willing to pander to the teen obesity problem, but it's not at all sure that his philosophy is the road to success. I've known teachers who were so uniformly uninspiring that they could offer free tattoos to the kids, and wouldn't attract a single acolyte.

And it seems that, at least at some level, Rhee understands that. She's trying to get better principals, not by going through the difficult process of identifying and training those teachers or lower-level administrators who have potential, but by "poaching" those who are proven winners from other systems. This might be fine for her own narrow objectives, but it doesn't make the overall system better. If she finds a way to up the salary ranges for teachers in D.C., she'll get tons of applications from across the country...and her gain will be some other system's loss.

I'll have more to say on this topic tomorrow.

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