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Scouting Great Teachers

In an article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell tries to equate finding good teachers with picking successful NFL quarterbacks and successful financial advisers.

The analogy doesn’t work as well as he thinks it does, but Gladwell’s essay does bring up some good questions about teacher quality.

After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.

So, is there a set of traits that make someone a good teacher and which we can scout like a potential NFL star?

It turns out that spotting those natural-born teachers is not all that easy, especially with the statistics most often used by schools.

A group of researchers–Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress–have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications–as much as they appear related to teaching prowess–turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

Gladwell’s conclusion is that the teaching profession needs an apprenticeship system similar to the process used by the financial advice company profiled in the essay.

A system which takes a lot of time and patience, not to mention money, to both identify the best people for the job and then train them to be great at it.

Unfortunately, time, patience, and money are three elements which never seem to be included in the school reform discussion.

What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?

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2 Comments

  1. And the money managers have been doing less well than the teachers of late.

  2. Dave

    Such an easy problem if we’re willing to adjust education (isn’t everything?):

    New teachers with no experience spend at least 1-2 years as teaching assistants with pay closer to what someone with a HS diploma makes…because we stop requiring bachelor’s degrees. Each new year, evaluate whether they’ve proven themselves to be a good teacher. If not, for the love of God don’t hire them as a teacher!

    We end up with better teachers, teachers get more help with paperwork and can focus more on actual teaching, teachers can be paid more because they’re actually accomplishing more teaching and menial tasks are more often given to the TA’s, and we help fix the problem with over-valuation of a bachelor’s degree by not requiring teaching assistants to have them and giving potential teachers a much more reliable way to show that they are worthy of being hired fulltime.

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