Thursday, September 17, 2015

WSJ on Teacher Quality

Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal convened a trio of educational experts to discuss the question "How Do We Raise the Quality of Teachers."

I'm not sure what got into them, exactly, but reporter Leslie Brody actually included a teacher in her trio of experts. In fact, not just a teacher, but New York teacher, activist and writer Jose Luis Vilson. I have huge respect for Vilson for a variety of reasons (the man teaches math to middle school students!), not the least of which is his calm and focus and ability not to get caught up in opposing things, but always clearly articulating what he is for. It's a skill not all of us have mastered.

Vilson is teamed up in the conversation with Daniel Weisberg, honcho of the New Teacher Project (TNTP) and Kate Walsh of the national Council on Teacher Quality. So, well. That makes one more teacher in one of these conversations than we usually get. Brody edits the conversation by topic, so we'll do the same here.

What is the main obstacle to improving teacher quality in America, and why?

Walsh leads with NCTQ's standard theory that teacher education programs are too easy to get into and too easy to succeed in. NCTQ did a big research project on this very subject, and by "research," I mean they grabbed a bunch of college commencement programs and read through them. Really. I know I exaggerate for effect sometimes, but that's what they actually did.

That said, she makes a valid point about the need to look at the supply side of the teacher pool instead of worrying about making it easier to fire the mythical legions of supposedly terrible teachers. Weisberg chimes in, then ups the ante to beat his particular expired hobbyhorse, which is that becoming a teacher should be more like being a business executive, because smart people want to have a ladder to climb. Also, he wants to make the TNTP's favorite old widget point-- we treat all teachers as interchangeable widgets when we should be treating them as interchangeable widgets of varying degrees of worthiness.

But now Walsh has a cool moment of honest insight

Lately I’ve just grown weary of us all talking about how bad it is to be a teacher. I am not talking about “teacher bashing” but “profession bashing.” We’re all guilty of this profession bashing, everyone from education reformers to union leaders—spending a lot of time talking about all the reasons why no one who is sane should consider a career in teaching.

I am worrying a lot lately that our negative portrayal of the job may be doing more to dissuade people from considering it as a career than any of the other factors we have put on the table.

For those of us in the education-reform camp, we advance our agenda by reminding everyone about how broken the system is. 

And all I have to say is, "Well, yes." She goes on to say "the unionists" do the same thing, and I'm not sure Walsh is showing a great understanding of what different camps are arrayed, but I'm awarding bonus points for her previous moment of illumination.

But Vilson is batting clean-up here with what I consider the truest answer to the question. After noting that the bar on teacher programs has been low because people are reluctant to enter the profession because of pay and working conditions, Vilson says this:

This idea of “teacher quality” would be better served if we opened the doors for teachers to have more voice in advancing our profession. 

And it is Vilson FTW on the subject of exactly what professional development teachers need:

We know chefs can prepare easy dishes, but their courses will largely depend on the restaurant, locale and the restaurant’s theme. We know basketball players should know how to shoot and dribble, but their skills will depend on their position on the court and the coach’s playbook. Teachers should have a set of researched best practices, but we would do well to help educators learn how to be nimble as well.

Given the funding constraints, how would you attract more high-quality candidates to the field?

Weisberg demonstrates, for neither the first nor last time, that he doesn't particularly understand the job of teaching. He once again touts the notion that there should be specialization. After observing that teachers have to do many different jobs from day one, he suggests that this approach is wrong:

Most professions don’t work this way. For example, I was a lawyer in a past life. That is another multifaceted job, but there is no assumption that every lawyer is expected to be great at every part of it from day one. 

The suggestion here is that the way in which teaching is different from lawyering (and other professions he mentions) is a Thing That Is Wrong with teaching, and that the profession would benefit from being broken up into various bits and pieces, like lawyering (and McDonalds). These little pieces of teaching jobs, like data cruncher and lesson planner and "parent engagement specialist" would be way stations on the way to becoming a full-fledged teacher. Except that teaching is a many-jobs-at-once gig. You can't really be the person who talks to the parents if you don't know what's going on with the student, and it's hard to teach the students if you don't have the data, and the amount of time needed to communicate between the members of these various multi-function team would be like a whole extra school day, every day.

Vilson allows as how that approach might appeal to some, mostly you have to do the whole job, and coming in to just grade papers or call parents might not exactly fire the imagination anyway. On the other hand, I agree with Vilson's notion that teaching for 2/3 of a day and training fledgling teachers the other third might be cool.

Walsh agrees that teachers need more support, and theorizes that is why the better teachers gravitate to charters schoo---insert sound of needle dragged across the grooves of a record. Dying to see the data that suggest that charters are getting all the better teachers. Seriously. But she has talked to Fishman Prize winners, who get more support but are paid less, but they are totally cool with lower pay because of the lesser stress.

Well, it's the Wall Street Journal. I'm going to call the inclusion of a real live teacher and public education activist a win this time around, and the conversation published better for it.


  1. I dunno, I'm not impressed. All of them start with the assumption that the quality of teachers is, indeed low. Says who and by what measure? Because 70% of our students failed the PARCC, which was set up so that 70% would fail? Please.

    Low pay and bad working conditions doesn't necessarily mean that the people entering the field will be the lowest quality people. After all, we're supposed to assume that each and every one of our soldiers is a hero, and talk about low pay and bad working conditions. What about social workers? Peace corps volunteers, etc.? A lot of very motivated, caring people go into fields precisely because of the "toughest job you'll ever love" sort of mentality.

    And far too much is being assumed from teachers' own test scores, as if getting a 1500 on your SAT makes you a good teacher. I really don't know what the distribution of teacher candidate test scores is, but even if we buy into the notion that it's lower than for other fields (which I don't really believe), that doesn't mean that "low quality" people are going into teaching. People go into teaching because they want to teach. Someone who has struggled in school herself may very well make the best teacher because she understands that different kids need different approaches.

    I really wish we'd quit trying to solve a problem no one has proven exists.

    1. Thank you. More people need to question underlying assumptions.

    2. "Someone who has struggled in school herself may very well make the best teacher..."

      I was one of those...a student who struggled. I had untreated learning disabilities which I didn't truly understand until I had been a teacher for 15 years (and struggled with that as well). My goal has always been "to help kids who struggle in the I did." To that end I spent the last 2 decades of my career (and all of my new "career" as a volunteer) working with students who need extra help.

      I didn't score incredibly high on the SAT. My undergraduate GPA was just shy of a "B" average, but I understand what it's like to not understand. I know what it's like to sit in a classroom and feel lost. I know the feeling of thinking I learned something only to freeze up on the test and end up blowing it.

      I know I'm not the "best teacher" ever, but I do have an advantage when it comes to understanding a low achieving student's motivation for either giving up or misbehavior.

      We all have our strengths and weaknesses...and not all of our strengths can be measured by a standardized test. An SAT score alone doesn't predict a great teacher.

  2. Weisberg certainly doesn't understand what teachers do. Teachers specialize the same way lawyers and doctors do. Lawyers specialize in different types of law, doctors also specialize, and teachers specialize by subject and level. Tell me again why all these people who aren't teachers are considered "experts" in education?