Monday, October 6, 2014

Should We Treat Teachers Like Software Engineers?

At TechCrunch, David Liu suggests the answer is "Yes."

That's kind of wacky, because Liu is the COO at Knewton, a data crunching wing of Pearson and previously notorious for imagining that data overlords could tell you what to have for breakfast on testing days. But Liu is a global data cruncher, and he wants to bring some of that globalism to the discussion.

Liu starts out with a perfunctory nod to one year's worth of PISA scores to suggest that it seems the US is falling behind (pro tip-- when charting "trends," more than one data point is useful). He recently spent some time in Korea and Japan, and that got him to thinking. He notes that those nations have super-duper PISA scores, and so he concludes, "Maybe we should only give PISA tests to our best students."

Ha ha. No, just kidding. He's going a whole other direction here.

It’s obvious that Korea and Japan both value education enormously. But so does the United States. We regard education as a basic human right.

Do we? Do we really? Is that why we have billionaire industrialists saying they can't stand to watch underfunded schools another second, so they're going to pay more taxes to help properly fund them? Or is that why we have hedge fund managers and their friends getting into the school biz in order t9o make a bundle of loot, and facilitating their marketing by booting out students who are too difficult or costly to teach? But hey-- let's move on.

So why is there a great test result discrepancy?

Some say it’s cultural. In America, we prize exceptionalism; in Korea and Japan, the focus is on raising the mean. Others point to socioeconomic inequality; schools can’t fix poverty. American K-12 education is controlled at the local level, making it difficult to implement programs widely. We’re paralyzed by politicized debates over standards, testing, and budgets.

We've heard that last one from technocrats before-- democracy is messy and slow and that's by and large because we let everybody have a voice when clearly some people just don't deserve to have a voice. In which case Korea would look pretty good to them (particularly the Northern one, although South Korea is a rather crappy place for teachers as well). Liu skips over the possibility that the testing instrument is a lousy, or that not everybody tests the same population. Instead, he lands on this:

But I think there’s something more important at play here: the way we treat teachers. In Korea and Japan, teachers are revered and paid accordingly. Top students aspire to the profession.

And then this...

In Korea and Japan, teachers are paid in accordance with their stature in society.A 2012 study found a correlation between higher teacher pay and improved student outcomes. Korea and Japan were at the top of the spectrum for both.

The study in question deserves its own dissection, but we can sail right past that to the larger question-- how can a guy who is the flipping COO of a major data corporation NOT know the difference between correlation and causation. I invite him to check out this awesome website, where we learn, among other things, that there is a correlation between people who die falling into swimming pools and the number of movies Nicolas Cage appeared in.

I mean, I am just a teacher, but it seems fairly clear to me that if a culture really values education, they spend a lot of money on it, including teacher salary money.

But do not give up on Liu yet, because he actually has some more useful observations in his article.

He gets points for the oft-noted but worth-repeating observation that teachers in the US, Japan and Korea work about the same number of hours, but that Japanese and Korean teachers spend far fewer of those hours in a classroom, whereas in the US, our default assumption is a teacher who's not in front of a classroom is slacking off, and we should get teachers in front of students as close to 100% of the time as we can get.

Liu argues for career paths for teachers, particularly creating roles for master teachers to mentor and lead. This was always a good idea, back before reformsters grabbed onto it as a way to cut staffing costs. Liu may or may not be imagining the reformster version of master teaching, but he definitely missed the memo on Burn and Churn. Several of his arguments come down to "good for retention."

The first step is providing teachers with the support they need: competitive compensation, growth opportunities, well-equipped schools, and enough time. Today, almost half of American teachersleave the classroom within their first five years of teaching. No industry can endure that kind of turnover and not suffer from it. 

He doesn't really need to argue for software engineer style rock star status. All he's really saying is, "Treat teachers like valuable high-skills, hard-to-replace employees." Who ever expected that there would come a time when that simple piece of business common sense would be a radical idea?


  1. OMG. That guy is an idiot. S. Korean public school teachers are treated like dirt. They're not even allowed to unionize. He's referring to the hagwon teachers, who are cut-throat brands in their own right--and students' parents pay through the nose to have their children attend top hagwons for 6 or 7 hours after school every day.

    1. Yes, I wrote a bit about their union troubles (damn unions are anti-homeland) a while back. Definitely not a teacher's paradise.

  2. Lol- Treat teachers like software engineers. They already are long hours, stagnant wages, replacement by H1B workers, job insecurity,...