Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Teacher Myth

A lot of high profile people have been saying some things about teachers in a lot of high profile venues that I think are based on a main faulty assumption with some therefore faulty corollaries. (If, for some bizarre reason you don't care about K-12 education and think that this has nothing to do with you, I'll get to that in a future post on the trend toward online teaching. For now, humor me.) I'll call this set of faulty beliefs "The Teacher Myth" and attack them point by point below.

The Teacher Myth in Education Reform:
Teachers are the problem. - In an effort to believe the best in everyone, I believe that this negative statement actually comes from a positive belief: "Teachers are the solution." I do believe that. (Of course, they're not the only piece of the solution, it's a multi-part problem that many people/communities need to work together to solve.) Teachers are the main point-of-contact between students and schools. They're the public relations department and the product of a school. And a few remarkable teachers have the amazing ability to single-handedly save a bad situation. That may sound like I'm saying that teachers are the problem, but having the ability to solve a problem is not the same thing as having caused it.
  • Unions are the problem. Teaching is a field dominated by women, so it has traditionally been paid as if it is a second income job. In other words, less. In fact, if I'm remembering the stat correctly, teachers make less money than any other field with the same education level. (For more accurate stats and general explanation about this point see Teachers Have It Easy.) Teachers also work longer hours under harsher, more critical conditions than most other professional fields. Even finding time to use the bathroom can be challenging in a teacher's non-stop day. This is precisely the type of job that needs a strong union. Unless you don't believe in unions? That's a different issue.
  • Tenure is the problem. There's a bizarre idea that many people hold (and that many teachers perpetuate) that teaching is a calling - as if it were the priesthood. Teaching is a job. It's a job that requires a high level of education, doesn't pay very well, and has long stressful work hours. It does have one important perk - job stability. That perk "makes up" for some of the lack of pay. People operating under the teacher myth believe that we have a shortage of good, qualified teachers. Removing one of the main job benefits of teaching is not a good way to get more.
  • Anyone can teach. Teach for America and other similar organizations have done a great job perpetuating this sub-myth. It's great that these organizations are convincing more people to go into teaching in the short term, but their goals aren't to create professional teachers - they expect recent college grads to teach for two years and maybe stick around for a year or two after that. It's something to do before going back to law school. But teaching is a profession and teachers, yes, need to learn how to be teachers. It takes time, skill, training, and effort. Just like all professional jobs.
  • Paying good teachers more is a solution. Paying teachers more is great. Teachers should be paid more! But this also implies that bad teachers should be paid less. Who are "bad teachers?" Have they been branded as such permanently? I believe that no-one goes into teaching, or any profession for that matter, trying to be bad at their job. The "bad teachers" want to do a good job! Why not focus on training them to do that? I just started as a Software Engineer at Google. I got 2 weeks of intensive training at the beginning. I'm still in the middle of 10 weeks of at-my-own-pace online lessons. And I have an assigned mentor who sits near me. This is all despite the fact that I have a Ph.D. in Computer Science. Don't teachers, starting jobs after their own academic training programs, deserve at least as much before they're permanently labelled as failing?
  • Bad teachers can be easily identified. Or, restated, bad teachers are like porn, you know them when you see them. One commonly encouraged way to identify "bad teachers" is to use standardized test scores - the bad teachers will be the ones with the low student test scores. But what are the students like in their classrooms? What are the students' home lives like? How long has the teacher been teaching (they do get time to learn themselves, right?)? And, the biggie, who says that standardized test scores actually measure anything relevant? If they don't, then do we trust principals to evaluate teachers? Will superintendents step in to evaluate the principals' evaluations, etc.? To use the "you know it when you see it" metric, someone besides the teacher will need to take the time to show up in the classroom regularly and give thoughtful, constructive feedback. This is all too rare. And obviously, bad teachers aren't like porn. It's much more complicated.

So please, before you jump on the bandwagon of some reform idea (or movie) or another, stop to think about it's underlying ideas. Is the teacher myth one of its axioms?


Arvind Narayanan said...

This is an interesting and thought-provoking post. However, you have not done much to explain why the "faulty beliefs" you call out are in fact faulty. May I point out that rely on unsupported assumptions of your own?

For example:

"I believe that no-one goes into teaching, or any profession for that matter, trying to be bad at their job."

That may be true, but a lot of people are indifferent to their jobs, so the effect is the same.


"who says that standardized test scores actually measure anything relevant?"

God I'm tired of hearing this. Test scores might not perfectly measure your favorite desired outcome of education, but they are a whole lot better than no measure at all, because they at least correlate with every desirable outcome.

Arvind Narayanan said...

I should add that I know next-to-nothing about K-12 education in America. I just wish that your post had more data-supported arguments; as it is, it didn't change my mind very much because I disagree with many of the assumptions you start from.

Greg said...

Bad teachers are easy to identify. The problem, though, is that the people who may need to know who the bad teacher are often do not. However, that may not be because they can't see it ... they may just not be looking. Different schools have very different administrative ways of dealing with teacher quality, and some work much better than others.

sorelle said...

Arvind - True. I knew I was playing loose with the stats/citations, but the post was so long already! Still.... you say:

"That may be true, but a lot of people are indifferent to their jobs, so the effect is the same."

The effect may be the same, but the chance to change it isn't, I would say. Perhaps I have a naive hope, but I believe that even indifferent teachers would change if given a chance. Unfortunately, that's the kind of thing I don't think good stats exist on, so it's just my hope.


"Test scores might not perfectly measure your favorite desired outcome of education, but they are a whole lot better than no measure at all, because they at least correlate with every desirable outcome."

Is that true? Now I ask you for your stats. (; Specifically, have there been longitudinal studies about retention of important life skills and success correlated with standardized tests?

Greg - Why do you say bad teachers are easy to identify? How about teachers who are good for some students and bad for others, like the teachers who are great for struggling students but keep the gifted ones bored? I just don't think any of this is clear cut. And for that reason I agree with you that it's hard for schools to access teacher quality.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this post is not very convincing.

Sure, if we eliminated tenure and kept everything else the same, the job would be much less attractive. But why not move to a more corporate model? Eliminate tenure, raise salaries, and have higher accountability? At the moment, there are millions spent on keeping teachers in rubber rooms in New York, who are not allowed to teach because of various offenses, but who cannot be fired.

I agree with Arvind that test scores, although far from perfect indicators, at least -correlate- with success. (Do you think the average SAT scores among your grad school cohort were above or below the national mean?) Why not use the tools we have -- the alternative, of not evaluating teachers performance in any way, and guaranteeing their job security, does not seem like a reasonable way to encourage good teaching.

Since the career path of a teacher is distinct from most others, the onus seems to be on those who do not want reform: what makes teaching different from so many other jobs that necessitates such a drastically different incentive structure? Put another way, do you think that software engineers at Google should be granted tenure, in exchange for significantly lower pay, and significantly lower accountability?

Anonymous said...

Its a good thought experiment. You now work at Google, filled with very successful people. Consider the average SAT scores among the American employees. Do you think it is above or below the national average? How about at Yahoo or IBM? How about among the faculty at the University of Maryland? How about among the students in your undergraduate college (here at least, you should be able to get data!)

If you guess that the answer is "above" for each of these collections of people, then I do not see how you can be making an intellectually honest argument that test scores do not at least correlate with career success.

Do you guess "at or below" for any of these collections? If you are making an honest argument, then you might, in which case I encourage you to gather the data -- data like that would significantly strengthen the argument to do away with standardized testing.

Katie said...

Sorelle, I will say that I believed some of these myths (from my own experience in some awful schools) until I started working as a tutor in some inner city schools. Then everything changed. I now understand that many of the problems that I rail against and that I encounter in my students are systemic problems that have no easy solution. If they did have an easy solution they would have been solved. *sigh* Instead of looking at the big picture I changed my thinking. If I could just get this one girl to learn to multiply or this one boy to count to ten...sometimes the picture has to be smaller in order to accomplish something.

sorelle said...

Interesting that you're all most against my characterization of test scores as not particularly useful - I wasn't expecting that. Instead of thinking about them in a broad sense, humor me and think about them in a narrow sense (the one I actually meant originally): Can you use test scores of students to evaluate teachers? In the naive implementation, this would mean that teachers of predominately white middle class honors track students would be "better." Obviously, that's a poor use of test scores. (It's the basic model that NCLB operates under.) Ok, then consider a difference model - good teachers increase test scores based on the base test scores for students at the beginning of the year. But do all students accelerate at the same pace given the same teacher? My point here is that when measuring the teacher, it's not easy to create an accurate system based solely on test scores.

rebecca said...

The rubber rooms are definitely a problem. However, the problem is not the existence of the rubber rooms, but that the NYC department of education can't seem to go through the process of investigating the claims made against the teachers in them in any timely manner. While yes, corporate jobs don't have tenure, they do tend to have very fair processes for reviewing their employees, training them and working with them to improve if they aren't performing effectively, giving them fair warning if they don't improve, and then firing them. Unions are essentially there to make sure that teachers are treated fairly when firing decisions are made. I think we would all agree that a teacher should not be fired just because their principal doesn't like them. While tenure and firing practices are frequently implemented badly, they are there to protect teachers from firing without cause. Most effective principals are able to hire and fire. The problem is not that so many teachers are awful. Its more that we aren't doing enough to train teachers to help them improve (few teachers are amazing in their first few years), and then making teaching a job that they want to stay in. Charter schools aren't doing this either, even though they aren't tied down to the union. Schools like KIPP hire young teachers and make them work ridiculous hours (I'd say 12 hours a day is the minimum) until they burn out. A charter school that I worked at fired teachers mid year regularly only to replace them with people who were no better. Though there was technically a review process before a teacher could be fired, and a training program to help teachers improve, it was rarely followed. A good union would have made sure that these rules were followed. Yes, unions do bad things also, but we have to remember why they are there to begin with, and the good things that they do. Anyway, the point is that yes, teachers are important, but firing bad teachers isn't going to fix the problem. First of all, we have no one to replace them with, second, we haven't tried to help these teachers improve, and third, we haven't considered whether the problem is in fact actually the teachers, or that teachers performing poorly is just a symptom of some other problem.

As for tests, yes they tell you something, but what do they tell you? Sure, most of the people who work at Google probably had high SAT scores. They probably also had parents who cared a lot about their educations. They are also mostly white men.