16 January 2009

Teaching The Teachers

Malcolm Gladwell seems to have been all over the place lately, and he does seem to go on a bit, but as someone with a longstanding interest in education (had the music business turned out as poorly for me as it does for 90% of independent labels, for example, I probably would have ended up in that field mself), I was intrigued by his ideas on how to find and train outstanding teachers.

Through his extended analogy with NFL quarterbacks, Gladwell makes the point that training alone can not turn an untalented neophyte into a good teacher, any more than the best coaching and physical regimen in the world can make a successful quarterback out of someone who lacks the requisite mental and physical ability.

This flies in the face of the past several decades of doctrine, which hold that the key to every sort of improvement in education involves spending more money and implementing more rigorous standards. Gladwell, on the other hand, makes a very convincing case that replacing an average teacher with an excellent one costs essentially nothing yet achieves more than massive expenditures on new classrooms and equipment ever could:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.
But how, you ask, are these excellent teachers to be found, or distinguished from run of the mill ones? Not, he suggests, through an ever greater emphasis on "book smarts" or the teaching credential or master's degree courses that have become standard requirements for public school teachers, yet which many teachers themselves disparage as a waste of time or even as an insult to their intelligence.

It's been my own observation than many teacher credential are more about standardizing the quality and style of instruction than about cultivating natural teaching ability in those who possess it and winnowing out those who do not. Gladwell argues that while schools should attempt to attract many teachers, they should not expect or wish to keep most of them. Returning to his quarterback analogy, and then turning to a similar one about financial advisers, he points out that no one would be allowed to continue in those fields for long without producing outstanding results, yet the arguably more important task of turning children into useful and productive citizens is entrusted to anyone who's willing to hang around long enough and jump through the required bureaucratic hoops.

Any attempt to change the existing system would of course run head on into the system of tenure and the deeply entrenched teachers unions who fiercely resist any innovation that might impact on job security for their members. Ironically, despite the present system, turnover is enormous, especially in inner city schools, where wave after wave of teachers trained in suburban diploma mills find they are simply not equipped to cope with life in the educational equivalent of the big leagues.

But perhaps that is as it should be: just as far more young athletes aspire to be star quarterbacks than can possibly succeed, we might be better off if teaching became a vocation to which many more are called than can or should be chosen. How do we get from here to there? Good question, and I'm not sure I have any easy answers. But I'm optimistic about President Obama's choice for Secretary of Education, Chicago's Arne Clark, who shows signs of being able to oppose educational orthodoxy and institute reforms without unduly alienating the unions or the establishment. And I think that in several big city systems, New York among them, we're already moving in the right direction, no matter how painfully slow progress may appear to be.

If it were up to me, however, I'd start by completely abolishing requirements for special postgraduate education courses and credentials, and open the field to anyone with a college degree (I note that in my grandmother's day, a high school diploma was all that was necessary to become a teacher, though to be fair, most of today's college graduates - myself included - would struggle to pass a high school graduation exam from the early part of the 20th century). But they would be hired only on a trial basis, and would not achieve tenure for many years, if ever, because the whole point of attracting more potential teachers would be to get a better talent pool to choose from. Hell, there's a pretty good chance I'd try out for the job myself on those terms.

Think it's too risky hiring teachers who haven't been through the master's degree mill? Private schools do it all the time, those same private schools which manage to collect $20-30K in tuition payments from parents who think their kids will learn more there, and who manage to send a much higher proportion of their students to top-flight colleges. Any teachers or education professionals with a good explanation as to why public schools shouldn't follow suit, send it my way.

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