Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I've written before about Decidedly, the company blog of Dwaffler, which produces decision software. Greg Glockner has ably manned the blog-writing chores for quite a while, and has now been joined by Carol A. Burch (I believe she's the CEO, but I didn't do an exhaustive search for this piece of information). Her writing is different from Greg's, but she has so far proved to be an interesting voice, and I hope that having two writers will make the posts come more frequently.

Today, Ms. Burch wrote about a New York Times feature that discussed the idea that teaching could become a "fallback" career for displaced professionals. To summarize the thoughts of the five contributors (three teachers, a professor, and an economist), anyone contemplating moving to the world of education should check it out thoroughly and shouldn't assume that they'll succeed. There may also not be as many jobs there as we commonly assume (statistics here are difficult to clarify, as some factoids will tell you that there's a shortage, others that schools are having little trouble filling positions - here's an interesting study that discusses this complex issue).

Ms. Burch helpfully abstracts out the qualities of a good teacher:
  • Has depth of subject matter knowledge
  • Has the ability to transfer knowledge
  • Has a passion for the subject matter
  • Has a passion for teaching
  • Has a demonstrated ability to build trust in others
  • Demonstrates flexibility to adapt content to the learning styles of the students
  • Engages/impassions others to want to learn subject matter
  • Understands students holistically (maturity, issues, personalities)
This is as fine a set of qualities as one could put together, and anyone with all of them would probably be pretty good at the front of the classroom. Her post goes on to point out that all of these criteria, after being ranked, should be used to evaluate prospective and existing teachers, and not to encourage people without all of them to use education as a fallback.

[A note here: something I've probably pointed out before, but Decidedly is one of the better corporate blogs I've ever read. They make decision software, and their posts usually concern making decisions, but it's never so overt as to be obnoxious - "Every school system should buy our product" - and that's quiet appreciated by this reader.]

I have no issue with Ms. Burch's conclusions, but I wish to point out the impossibility of finding the requisite number of people who fit these criteria. Remember, there are more than 3,000,000 elementary and secondary teachers in the U.S., meaning that roughly 1 out of every 70 adults has to be a teacher. Look again at the list of attributes, and ask yourself whether we're likely ever to find the needed number who fulfill all of those.

Let's take one as an example, depth of subject matter knowledge. This is very hard to measure in a meaningful way. One might think that more is better, but a knowledge of, say, differential geometry is useless in any K-12 setting. I'd be surprised if even a small fraction of people who use mathematics in their jobs retain detailed insight into the ins and outs of conic sections. There is a mismatch between the skills that one uses on the job, and what needs to be imparted to the young. (Obviously, one would expect that someone with a knowledge of higher mathematics would have an easy time reacquiring "lesser" math, and that's probably right. Still, there isn't necessarily a perfect correlation.)

We could go through each of the other seven categories and point out problems, but I'll let the reader take that on. My point is that, even if we get the weights right (we want high school math teachers to have more subject matter knowledge than a third grade teacher needs), we still have the problem that we're not going to find 3,000,000 people who score 4 or 5 (out of 5) in every one of these criteria - that's just not going to happen.

So the initial question, how do we find people who are top-notch across the board?, morphs into, how do we manage the trade-offs that are inevitable? And that's the part that I never see discussed. The solution always comes down to: find good teachers, and break the unions so that we can get rid of bad teachers, and education will become great for every student.

We assume that the evaluation function is perfect, but let me pose it to you: how would you design an evaluation process that would tell you how well a teacher "understands students holistically"? I'm not ridiculing the concept, I'd like to see every teacher do that, I'm just wondering how we rate a teacher on it.

But, even if we somehow get past that problem, we're still left with the challenge of how we manage the reality that most teachers will come up short on one or more of those. There's some lip service paid to the idea of Great Teachers mentoring the newcomers, but I've never heard of such a system working totally well. And some of those attributes may be more genetic than malleable (I have no idea how you teach someone to build trust in others, at least not without a commitment to one-on-one instruction that is unlikely in cash-strapped school districts).

I don't want to be totally negative; we should be working to upgrade our schools because it's the right thing to do (I still have reservations about upgrading the supply of graduates beyond the real demand of the economy). But we need to be realistic about the likelihood that these steps will transform our schools.

In a subsequent post, I'm going to explore a possible solution to this problem, one with no chance of being implemented, but one which would at least make explicit some of the assumptions we're glossing over in our current "fix the teacher" mentality.

[Note: I discussed some of the issues in the latter part of this post in one from last month, OK, we're saved, which talked about Obama's educational initiative. I'll just recall one thing from the President's speech that has stayed with me: "By 2016, four out of every 10 new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training." The majority of new jobs, then, won't, so what is all this upgrading for, exactly?]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, let's just import trained labor for those new jobs, and keep the status quo for training here! Cost savings all around!


Clicky Web Analytics