Friday, September 2, 2011

Education Reform and Teacher Professionalism
(Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching, part 4)

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:

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.

Additional Details

Teachers, like doctors, do a job that’s too important to screw up…
(back to text)

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.)


  1. You are always shockingly down on new teachers, and I can't figure out why. It's as if you think teachers, and only teachers, aren't outstanding the first year. We don't ask first year lawyers or doctors to create the standards for the profession.

  2. I agree with you that training needs to be dramatically revamped if we want more teachers to be viewed as experts. In the meantime, I think we should also find ways of recognizing, elevating, and networking those teachers who currently are the experts and leaders in the field. One of the methods I've considered in terms of creating a coherent curriculum based on the Common Core is through utilizing the open-source process of software development. My thought is that if we can somehow decentralize the sharing of expertise and pedagogical knowledge while still unifying it, we can draw from a pool of disparate and eclectic experts in the same manner that open source software does.

    I think we should also be seeking to place such expert teachers into positions of leadership within their districts, as well as seeking their input in policy decisions.

    Great posts in this series, by the way, you are articulating concepts in education that should be heard and applied more broadly.

  3. Cal,
    I'm not down on first-year teachers. Some of them are quite good, but the baseline is low-- not because there's anything wrong with them, but because they're simply inexperienced. That's hardly true of doctors. They've been practicing medicine for a minimum of four years by the time they become fully licensed doctors, not to mention two years of clinical study in med-school.

    That's totally different from the situation with teachers, who walk into a classroom after a year or less of university courses with a couple hundred hours of clinical practice.

    Lawyers get less clinical practice, it's true, but many of them go straight from law-school into a clerkship or into a large firm where they're getting a lot of support from more experienced colleagues and may not even be handling their own cases. Those that go into more independent working environments are usually drowning for the first couple years. There's a big push in law schools towards so-called clinical semesters to try to address that problem.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Bubbler. I'm glad you're enjoying the series. I think there are some people working on wiki-esque systems for sharing lesson plans & materials. Some kind of rating system that makes better materials rise to the top seems like it would be necessary. Still, it's important for teachers to actually observe each other in action; there's so much that one gets from an observation that one can't get simply looking at materials & lesson plan.

    I'm definitely with you about putting expert teachers into positions of leadership. One challenge is identifying these teachers. Value-added assessments won't do it; we need richer metrics.

  5. Those that go into more independent working environments are usually drowning for the first couple years.

    Exactly. So why get so fussed about teachers? Many teachers are effective, if not as good as they will ever be, right out of the door. Others are bad at first and get better. Still others never get better, and they quit. That makes it pretty much like every other profession.

    And doctors start working on actual patients--with supervision--very, very soon. If you're one of those early patients at a medical training hospital, you are not getting a doctor working at the top of his form. You're getting an intern, who will be supervised with varying levels of effectiveness. If you get a good intern, great. If you get a bad intern, hopefully someone will be around to clean up the mess he or she made.

    The early years are a crapshoot in almost every job you can think of--and in fact, most people early in their careers do a good, but not great, job. Some do terribly; others are stellar.

    And the fact remains that teaching is far, far easier than either lawyering or doctoring. While not anyone can do it well, the vast majority of individuals with or without training can do it adequately. Everyone knows this--*that* knowledge, not all the things you write about, is the source of the disrespect for "teacher training".

    We always compare teaching to lawyering and doctoring for reasons I'll discuss in a bit. But in fact, teaching is more like sales, or computer programming, or management--or even professional writing. The profession involves talent, but all you really need is above average intelligence to do it reasonably well. Some people do it for life, others do it for a few years. Because it involves intelligence but doesn't havea clear knowledge base to be instructed in, there's not a clear educational path--and any attempt to create one generally leads to the occasional snicker.

    So when you look for "experts in teaching", you will inevitably run into controversy. There are no "experts in sales" or "experts in the perfect way to write code" or "experts in the best way to write".

    Teaching differs in one key way, which is that the teachers are involved in a mandated state activity overseeing children. This puts them in a similar path as lawyers and doctors, in that their credential must be approved by the state. But the required state approval shouldn't confuse us as to the real nature of teaching.

    The other problem with teaching is assessment. The government nature of the job, and the fact that teachers don't have a lot of flexibility in changing jobs, leads to a situation in which assessment per se can't really matter. We'll toy with other sorts of assessment, but ultimately we'll get back to seniority and education, like it or not. (And I don't, not really.)

  6. I want to get back to this statement, which opens your post and spurred my first remark about your low regard of beginning teachers:

    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.

    This is just off in many, many ways. Baseline competency among teachers is NOT very low. While first-year teachers only have a few hundred hours of classroom teaching, it's irrelevant, since teaching isn't that hard to do adequately. First year teachers are no more or no less qualified at their craft as first year lawyers or doctors at the point that they first see patients without qualified doctor in the room.

    And in comparing teaching to doctoring, you overstate its impact. Teaching is nowhere near as important as medicine. Countless studies have demonstrated that teacher quality is not anywhere near the most important factor in student outcomes. And while it is the most important factor in school, the data shows that overall, teachers do just fine at teaching kids. Bad teachers have an impact, but that, again, is true everywhere. It's not a huge problem, it's just a normal problem.

  7. Thanks for your comments, Cal. I think they nicely bring to the surface some beliefs that underlie many of the disagreements you and I have discussed on this blog: you believe that teaching is easy, non-learnable, and not terribly important; I believe that it's quite hard to do well, that you can learn to do it better, and that it's extremely important.

    Regarding the ease and learnability of teaching, the difference must one of experience. When I first started teaching, I was working at a private school with small classes and high-performing, affluent students whose home culture was similar to my own. I thought I was good at it from the get-go, because the kids liked me and, for the most part, did their work. I wasn't good at it.

    When I taught charter school in Central Harlem, it became obvious that I didn't know the first thing about managing a classroom. I learned a lot that year and continued to learn over the following year and a half.

    When I taught my precalc class this past spring, I was back at the same private school where I'd taught straight out of college. This time around, I was vastly more competent: I had full control over my classroom, and the students worked hard, were excited by the class material, and obviously put extra care and effort into their assignments. I was thrilled-- I'm still happy with the success-- but I could have done better. There are many things I wish I'd done differently, and if I keep learning and practicing my craft, I'll be that much more competent a few years down the line.

    Now, I assume that you've had a very different experience of teaching, that you feel that you were good at it from the get-go and that practice has not significantly improved your teaching abilities. I can't speak to your experience, of course, but it's widely accepted within the profession that teachers do not become highly competent until about five years into their careers.

    I know that part of your objection is that we expect teachers to do the impossible when we ask them to produce high levels of achievement in low-achieving students. The data I have on this issue (I'll present it soon) shows unequivocally that, as a nation, we're doing a mediocre job of educating almost every segment of the population, not just low-achieving kids. Managing a classroom full of 30 kids is hard, no matter who those kids are. Inspiring those kids to work hard, to love what they learn, to pay attention in a more than cursory way, and to develop a personal relationship to the course material so that they still remember it six months down the line-- that's extremely difficult. If you could do it your first year teaching, you should be proud, but you're extremely rare.

  8. To Cal (continued)

    Regarding the importance of teaching:
    you're right that a single teacher does not have a huge impact, but cumulatively the effect of multiple bad teachers can have a major impact on students' lives.

    Regarding comparisons to other professions:
    Med students spend two years in rotations, during which they are closely supervised and have very little responsibility. The residency is then another 4-7 years, but those in their first year of residency do not usually get a lot of responsibility. Residents work in teams, lead by more experienced residents, and responsibility is accorded gradually. Are there slips, in which someone with too little experience is given too much responsibility? Of course, but these are embarrassments to the hospitals where they occur; they're not standard fare.

    As a writer, I can tell you that writing is not something you can do well just by being talented and intelligent. Yes, brains and talent play a role, but there's a hell of a lot of practice involved, too. The same is true of computer programming. The difference is just that a bad writer or computer programmer does no more harm than wages or salary lost employing them. Their work can easily be done over.

  9. I know I sucked when I started teaching (with zero experience), and I'm not sure if I'm getting any better. I know I sucked when I started writing fiction and I know I'm getting better. I'm practicing both of them, but I'm practicing the writing with a real idea of what a good writer sounds like. I read good writers, I study them, I steal their tricks. I don't get to observe good teachers doing what they do. New doctors also get to observe experienced doctors. Though my dad always said that it was his time as a resident at the worst inner-city hospital with no supervision that turned him into a great doctor. It was only him so he HAD to be good or people would die. Not sure there's the same motivation with teaching (nobody dies) or with writing (nobody dies). Bad teaching messes up our minds, and bad writing does damage our souls. Back to syllabus hell!

  10. Thanks for your comments, Rebecca. These are some really interesting reflections. Clearly the issue is quite complicated: a lack of mentorship, oversight, or example of excellence can leave us without a way forward in a field; but a high-stakes sink-or-swim environment can cause us to progress quickly. The conditions that lead towards excellence will differ from person to person and from field to field.

    The larger structure of a profession, with its standards for proficiency, excellence, and ethics, its structures for self-evaluation, and the prestige it accords its members seem to me to form a good basis for mastering a difficult field, even when not all of the support structures are properly implemented and the individual practitioner is out on his own a bit. But I've never studied medicine, and I don't know the details of your dad's situation. I'm just speculating.

  11. Hey Max,
    My dad was still a medical student for four years before the sink-or-swim residency, and medical students interact with patients with a lot of supervision. He's not alive anymore, sadly, so I can't ask him more about his experience. Wish I could.
    I went also to school for creative writing and had a wonderful mentor. I never studied teaching, and in my case, it would have been helpful. Going to school for writing also helps me take myself more seriously as a "professional" though publishing the damn book would really help.

  12. Update: I taught my first class today, and I think I am getting better! Who knew.

  13. I write--have had op eds published in the Post and the Merc thus far. I was a computer programmer for 15 years and have a master's in information science from Berkeley. And I have a Master's in Ed from Stanford, have taught in public school for two years and worked (and still work) as both a private instructor and a tutor for 8. My work in programming was done as a consultant, and I have been self-employed for most of my life, giving me a lot of experience in sales. In short, I know a *lot* about the world of employment for smart but not specially trained people in a wide variety of fields.

    You are incorrect--as are many others--about the intense importance of teaching. It has a low barrier to entry. The barriers that do exist were, for many years, ones of time and effort, not cognitive ability. Teaching as it has existed in this country for generations was something that, it was assumed, a well-educated smart person could do with minimal training. That our country succeeded as well as it did suggests that we were right.

    You and others don't really want to "fix" teaching, you want to redefine it. People who want to redefine it usually have one of two goals. One goal is to turn teaching into an entrepreneurial profession. Ha. Dream on, pups. The second goal--yours--is to transform teaching into a respected profession. You don't really want it to change, you just want people to trust teachers more so that others will listen to them, so that teachers as a group can keep on doing what they do and be trusted. The Linda Darling Hammond group. Your goal is to make teachers jump through more hoops, with one defined Way To Teach.

    Neither way is going to work, of course, because both goals ignore how many, many teachers we need each year. And they have to ignore that, because acknowledging how many, many teachers there are would make it clear how impossible (and, frankly, undesirable) the goals are. Teaching is one of the most common professions in America--up there with retail sales, store managers, truck drivers, and secretaries. It's a common job that requires more education than any of the other common jobs, but a common job it is. You don;t change America by declaring we need to make secretaries do three years as apprentices, or get truck drivers more respect by standardizing their training.

    People with your goal, or the one of making teaching more "entrepreneurial", simply don't grasp how many teachers there are, and how ordinary the profession MUST be, in its base form.

    The data I have on this issue (I'll present it soon) shows unequivocally that, as a nation, we're doing a mediocre job of educating almost every segment of the population, not just low-achieving kids.

    You don't have data that anyone else lacks, and this is simply not true. The fact that you want to do better doesn't mean we are doing a mediocre job. I am, as always, stunned by people who don't understand this.

    The difference is just that a bad writer or computer programmer does no more harm than wages or salary lost employing them. Their work can easily be done over.

    First, this is just as true of teaching. Second, I suggest you rethink your claim that bad writing or bad programming can't do damage.

    I genuinely believe that those who think of teaching as a calling, a devotional process, a special occupation would do the profession enormous damage if they ever got their way. (I think the same of the entrepreneur-nuts as well). I know they mean well, but the framework is simply wishful thinking. Fortunately, it will never happen. I love arguing about it, though.

  14. Cal,

    I'm not very familiar with Hammond's work, but you're wrong when you say that I "don't really want [teaching] to change," that I "just want people to trust teachers more so that others will listen to them, so that teachers as a group can keep on doing what they do and be trusted." I don't understand how you could get that from the last two posts. I believe that education to be vastly different and better than it is. I don't think teaches can do that on their own, but I think they should lead the effort. I realize you're not about to agree with any of that, but I don't want my opinions misrepresented.

    American education was fine 60 years ago because it's aims were completely different. Most kids from poor backgrounds were not expected to get past eighth grade. Many of them did not get that far. Numerous middle-class and sustainable working-class jobs were available to persons without a high-school diploma. Whether American education has been doing fine anytime in the past 60 years is open for debate. There's been widespread public concern over the issue on and off since 1957.

    And, yes, Cal, I don't have access to any data on international comparisons of student achievement that others don't have access to. I think you realize that I was not suggesting such a thing. I have, however, examined the data, which most people haven't. Maybe you have. Mediocrity will always be a subjective term. What I call mediocre, you may call fine. In fact, that's quite likely. I'll post my data analysis shortly.