Monday, November 10, 2008


I know it's been a while (July, to be more precise) since my award-winning series on education (the last entry of which was here), and I've promised to continue it at some point, but I guess the election and the economy have simply proved to be too interesting.

So this post is not a continuation of that series, but actually one that reiterates my major point of the second in the series, the one written July 16. My point was that the emphasis on finding "great teachers" is a wonderful way of passing the buck, that there may be no good way to guarantee that any program will make superior educators emerge. I said this then:
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.
I went on to point out that every system, whether it be baseball or software development or education, would love to populate itself with a boundless number of superstars, but that's not how it can possibly work. As a result, the system has to constrain freedom, freedom that might be appropriate for the superstar (I'm not sure Michael Jordan needed to practice very hard, so great was he, but there are players at the end of the bench who need all the reps they can get), but will lead to chaos in the hands of the vast majority who are middling or worse.
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.
I would love to believe that my words rang across the land back in July, that everyone working in or commenting on education would have read them and taken them to heart and set more realistic goals for the educational system. There are an estimated 3 million teachers at high school level or below - think of that, 3 million, and they're all expected to be transcendent, life-changing, infinitely-giving. Obviously, I think that's self-evidently impossible.

But not everyone thinks so (actually, almost no one but me seems to think that, so caught up are we in the idea that improving education is the answer to every social and economic problem we face). Edward Glaeser has an op-ed in the Boston Globe titled, "Want better schools? Hire better teachers."

Glaeser is an economics professor at Harvard, and I would have been interested in what he had to say, except that it is just a rehash of every tired argument we've heard from years as to how we can improve our teaching corps:
My colleague Tom Kane finds that students who are lucky enough to get a teacher in the top quarter of the teacher-quality distribution jump 10 percentile points in the student achievement distribution relative to children who end up with less able teachers. Improving teacher quality has about twice the impact on student outcomes as radically reducing class size.

Just as the human capital of our citizens will determine the strength of our nation, the human capital of our teachers will determine the quality of our schools. The first step toward improving teacher quality is to attract more talented teachers. The second step is to improve teacher selection on the job, promoting the best and encouraging the worst to help society in some other way.

Yep, find better teachers and get rid of the ones who aren't so good. We've sure never thought of that before.

The only real reason for Glaeser's commentary is that he believes that Barack Obama is more likely to effect these changes; he will "exhort" young people to go into teaching, and that call to service plus a looming recession will make teaching more attractive. Of course, those two reasons won't be enough, we'll also need more money, much more than the $18 billion a year that Obama has suggested. And, as has been proven (??) by Teach for America, certification is a "bureaucratic barrier" that just gets in the way of finding these great people.

Here's the thing that ties into the beginning of this post; all of these suggestions will create more teachers. Some will be those inspired by a new young president, some of them will be those who can't find jobs anywhere else, some will be attracted by the dramatic new high starting salaries (sarcasm intended), and some will be those who are turned off by the hurdles of bureaucracy.

Leaving aside basic economics, which would suggest that the greater supply will actually depress salaries, not one of these things guarantees better teachers, just more of them. One might argue that having a larger pool will inevitably improve quality, and there is a point there, but will it really expand the number of truly great teachers?

Glaeser's second point, "keeping the best teachers and redirecting the rest," runs into objections as well. He believes that classroom performance, in particular student test scores, is the best way to determine teacher promotion and tenure (and how do we retain the notion of tenure in a relentlessly performance-oriented system? No answer from Glaeser). Even if we don't use test scores or other unspecified "formal performance metrics," principals "are quite able to assess pedagogical talent." Glaeser continues:
Let the principals choose better-performing teachers and require the principals to leave if their school doesn't improve. Principals have inside knowledge. Like CEOs throughout our economy, they need to have the independent authority to use that knowledge.
This seems like a curious moment in history to tout the infallibility of CEOs at a time when we can expect many of them to try the Enron "ignorance defense" to escape convictions for fraud. Throwing in America's new favorite buzzword, accountability, does little to improve the argument.

I need to write more on this subject at some point, but I will conclude in this way. Before we can determine whether or not our educational system is failing, we need to figure out what we want from it, what we can reasonably expect, and what other factors are coming into play. If we are to be a nation of home health care providers and wind turbine builders, vital occupations that do not require four years of high school English (and certainly not college-level courses in anthropology), then we don't need an educational system that "inspires" young people to learn those things. It is a luxury to put every one of our students through a college preparatory curriculum that is wasted on many of them, and it requires too high a price to divert educational resources toward pushing that curriculum. Until we understand the world our children will be living in, however imperfectly we can today, we cannot effect meaningful change, certainly not by holding a population of 3 million to fantasy standards.

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