This is the fourth in a series of posts on the professional status of teachers. The series is non-contiguous—i.e., I’ve written other, unrelated posts in between installments of the series—so I figure only my most faithful readers are up to date on the whole thing. For everyone else, feel free to catch up here:
Part 2 – autonomy, not incentives: unpacking the conflicts between teachers unions and school authorities
Expertise in Education
In part 3 of this series, I wrote about the difficulty of establishing a consistent, identifiable expertise among teachers. The key word here is consistent: expert teachers do exist, they’re just rare. Now great doctors are rare too—and the same probably goes for excellent plumbers and electricians—but everyone who gets a license to practice medicine—or to be a master plumber or electrician—has a high baseline level of expertise. Most doctors have had over 10,000 hours of experience practicing medicine by the time they finish their residency, not to mention thousands more hours of academic coursework.
The baseline competency among teachers, on the other hand, is very low: first-year teachers generally have only a few hundred hours of classroom teaching experience and relevant coursework, often less; and as discussed previously, much of that coursework is of low rigor and uncertain value. That’s a big problem because teachers, like doctors, do a job that’s too important to screw up. (Click here for a more detailed discussion.) Without sufficient training and support, many of them burn out before ever attaining expertise, and many of those who remain learn slowly in the absence of guidance, mentorship, and any clear model of excellence.
We all know what expert teachers are like, though, because we’ve all had one or two in our lives. They have a way with kids—not only a capacity to charm or quiet them, but an ability make difficult concepts approachable, strange ideas interesting, narratives and facts unforgettable—and anyone who sees them interact with children recognizes it. That ability, like the dog whisperer’s, appears almost magical; like the doctor’s, it comes with a decisive, authoritative sense of what should be done in a given situation—how a disease should be treated, how a wayward child should be handled—and the lay-person—the non-teacher, the exasperated father, the worried mother—defers naturally, automatically to that authority. Just as the sick person is relieved to cede authority over their health and body to a competent doctor, the parent is relieved to cede authority over their child to a competent teacher. Authority, power, and autonomy are not things we resent giving to trusted experts; they’re things we want to give them—after all, we pay them to take them from us.
Leadership in Education and the Broader Role of Professions
In most professions, the ceding of authority to the professional occurs not only on the individual level, but also on the level of the society. We look to doctors to advance the practice of medicine, to find new cures and develop better methods of diagnosis. We look to lawyers and judges to advance the practice of law, to interpret our laws and define their scope.
This does not mean we always agree with their methods or applaud their results. Maybe we think doctors focus too much on extending life and too little on making it pleasant; maybe we think our courts give corporations too many of the rights of people. As citizens of a democracy, thinking critically about key elements of our society—our laws, our medicine, our schools—is not only our right and our habit; it’s our duty. If we don’t like how our courts are doing their job, however, our solution isn’t to supplant them with lay people, who will “think outside the box.” If we don’t like our doctor’s attitude, we still wouldn’t ask a person with no experience in medicine telling her how to practice it. We recognize that law and medicine are extremely complex fields and no lay person is competent to practice them. Expertise trumps philosophical alignment.
Education is an extremely complex field as well, but because we don’t think teachers are experts (because many of them are not) we don’t treat it the same way. When a school system is underperforming, we bring in outsiders who often have little or no experience in education (Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Cathy Black, etc.) to run the system; we develop exams to determine whether teachers are teaching well and what they should teach; in extreme cases, we develop scripted curricula to tell them exactly how to teach. The result is an endless cycle of ineffective and incoherent reforms. Read any writer on education who’s been in the field long enough, and you will read about these cycles: how a new reform comes in like a fad, glorified in the media, touted by politicians; how, after a few years, its amazing results prove illusory, ephemeral, or un-replicable, and it fades into oblivion, to be replaced by another new reform.
That’s not to say that real discoveries have not been made, but we have rarely been successful at determining what about a successful school or school system makes it successful. We find a model that appears effective, school authorities replicate what seem the salient features of it, tout the project a success, make some political enemies, are replaced by new school authorities. Scholars of education analyze the results statistically and invariably disagree in their conclusions. New iterations are conceived by new school authorities in other districts with different conditions, implemented differently, analyzed by other scholars. The result is a chaotic, aimless evolution: random variation without natural selection.
The problem is a lack of qualified leadership. The project of education reform, like the project of education in general, should be in the hands of experts, people with thorough knowledge of the history, structure, and practice of education, people who can maintain an ongoing, thoughtful, coherent dialogue about what schools and children need, and whose decisions will therefore not be haphazard and chaotic.
I’m hardly original in suggesting that the haphazard course of school reform is the result of inexpert leadership. In her recent book on assessment and the new school reform, Diane Ravitch makes the case in no uncertain terms:
Our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators. Congress and state legislatures should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations. Nor should the curriculum of the schools be the subject of a political negotiation among people who are neither knowledgeable about teaching nor well educated. Pedagogy—that is, how we teach—is rightly the professional domain of individual teachers. Curriculum—that is, what to teach—should be determined by professional educators and scholars…. (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 226)
Addressing the AFT at a recent union conference, Randi Weingarten was even more direct: “Let’s refuse to be defined by people who are happy to lecture us about the state of public education — but wouldn’t last 10 minutes in a classroom.” (Reported in the Times)
Ravitch and Weingarten want to put school reform in the hands of experts; their mistake, I believe, is to assume that teachers are those experts. (The transparency of that error may or may not explain why their arguments have had so little impact on the current education reform movement.) The mistake is understandable, though. As the professional practitioners of education, teachers should be the experts that schools are looking for. Because our training is insufficient, our expertise is inconsistent, and our field lacks a paradigm for rigorous production of knowledge, we are not those experts.
Of course, we also need other types of experts (education historians, experts in policy and financial management, etc.) working on the problem of education reform, but without professional educators at the center of the discussion, the conversation will inevitably be disconnected and inconclusive, because it is the expert teacher who understands how all the policies and curricula and incentives and philosophies will play out in actual classrooms. It’s as if a bunch of scientists and war historians and diplomats were to plan an invasion without consulting anyone who’d actually fought in a war.
So, how do we get experts in education? As those who have been following this blog for a while know, I think the answer is to drastically change the training process. As I discussed in my post on teacher training, that can happen gradually, but in the long run, the change will need to be drastic. American educators have been talking for over a century about the professionalization of teaching. It’s long overdue.
Teachers, like doctors, do a job that’s too important to screw up…
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Professions are able to maintain their exclusivity and thus their monopoly on their field of expert knowledge, because society needs this guarantee of expertise. You can hire a programmer, a graphic designer, or a marketing consultant based on reputation and portfolio. If they don’t work out, it’s a pain, but you can go hire another one. That’s not true when you’re hiring a doctor, a plumber, an electrician, or a lawyer. If they mess up, you will have serious problems; you could end up with sewage flooding your house, or in jail, or dead. What’s more, it’s difficult for a lay-person to assess their competence on his or her own: without licensing, it would be hard to tell who was a snake-oil salesman and who actually knew how to install a toilet, defend you in court, or diagnose strep throat.
Both of these conditions apply to teachers. If you hire a bad one, you not only have 100 to 120 kids who make minimal academic progress in a particular subject for one year, you also have a weak link in your school’s culture, an opening for disorder, frustration, and mutiny to seep into the school-day. When students come out of a poorly managed class, they tend to be harder to manage in their next class. When a particular homeroom has two or three mismanaged classes during the course of the day, the overall behavior and mood of the group begins to erode. I’ve seen this problem; indeed, I’ve been part of it.
The assessment of teachers is a much more fraught issue, and I don’t want to delve into it too deeply at this juncture. I’m convinced that neither raw exam scores nor value-added assessments are reliable means of assessing teacher quality—at least not on their own. (What’s wrong with quantitative teacher assessments?) Classroom observations give better information, but obviously their worth depends on the competence of the observer. Schools with the luxury to select from a number of applicants often use sample lessons to assess a candidate’s abilities, since they can’t feasibly travel to all the schools that job applicants are coming from in order to observe them, but sample lessons are not nearly as telling as regular classroom observations. A teachers’ students usually have a very good gauge of how good (or bad) she is, but for obvious reasons, assessing teachers based on student reports creates problematic power-dynamics.
What’s wrong with quantitative assessments?
Raw exam scores are not considered a valid measure of teacher quality, because the main factor affecting exam score is family income, so looking at raw scores mostly just tells you who’s teaching higher-income kids. Value-added measures are currently in vogue, but they have several problems. They have been shown to be highly unstable over time—i.e. a teacher who scores high one year often scores low the next (I need to dig up the relevant study). They’re affected by a host of non-teacher factors, like test recalibrations, school culture, and class assignment. Even the demographic factors they’re designed to ignore may not actually be factored out, because behavioral and attitudinal differences among different populations can affect not only students’ knowledge coming into a class, but also their tendency to progress in the course of the year.
Value added measures are also subject to various critiques relating to the validity of the exams themselves. The exams may not—indeed, as currently designed, they surely do not—measure everything that we want students to learn, so assessments based on them can’t tell us everything we want to know about a teacher. For the same reason, value-added measures can be skewed by heavy emphasis on reductive test-preparation, which will produce a bump on this year’s exam but a dip on next year’s, because this kind of instruction leads to low rates of retention—not to mention jumbled and unusable knowledge. (Exam scores from the year after a teacher has a group of students can’t be factored into a value-added measure because it’s too heavily dependent on the teacher they have the following year.)