Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Economist Gets Everything Wrong

One of the peculiar side features of the reformster movement has been the elevation of economists to expert status on the subject of education. This makes precisely as much sense as the White House calling me to hear my advice on How To Fix the Economy, and yet it keeps happening-- almost as if reformsters are more interested in the economic benefits of ed reform than any educational ones.

So when The Economist (the magazine) decides to explain how to get Great Teachers, we can rest assured that we'll be treated to an inexpert amateur-hour collection of thoughts about teaching that are just as valid and accurate as Justin Bieber's thoughts on third world monetary policy. And the magazine does not disappoint.

"Teaching the Teachers" apparently cobbles together the work of several amateur, but offers no specific writing credit (or discredit).

It starts with an anecdote, as we watch Jimmy Cavanaugh working a classroom. Cavanaugh "seems like a born teacher. He is warm but firm. His voice is strong. Correct answers make him smile." But this isn't the result of his "pep."

Mr Cavanagh is the product of a new way of training teachers. Rather than spending their time musing on the meaning of education, he and his peers have been drilled in the craft of the classroom. Their dozens of honed techniques cover everything from discipline to making sure all children are thinking hard. Not a second is wasted. North Star teachers may seem naturals. They are anything but.

Just two paragraphs in, and we have already established a high level of dumb. We have a false dichotomy-- proto-teachers can study the philosophy and principles of education, or they can study the craft. But not both? And there isn't a clear and necessary connection between, on the one hand, knowing what you're doing and why you're doing it and, on the other hand, actually doing it? And understanding what you're doing and why can be dismissed as "musing"? And traditionally trained teachers apparently do waste all sorts of seconds? And nobody ever thought of teaching teachers the craft thing before? Nobody learns classroom discipline in teacher school? And please-- do show me the technique for making sure that all students ar thinking hard. Telepathy?

But what, you may ask, is the source of this brilliant new method of teaching teachers?

Why, it's the Relay Graduate School of Education-- a teacher farm system set up by three charter school operators with barely a couple of years of actual teacher experience or training between the three of them. But the economist is, like my chocolate lab waiting to chase a tennis ball, just about to pee itself with excitement.

Along with similar institutions around the world, Relay is applying lessons from cognitive science, medical education and sports training to the business of supplying better teachers. Like doctors on the wards of teaching hospitals, its students often train at excellent institutions, learning from experienced high-calibre peers. Their technique is calibrated, practised, coached and relentlessly assessed like that of a top-flight athlete. 

Which "similar institutions" around the world? Where else can we find teachers being "trained" by amateurs in the education field? Like doctors in a teaching hospital? No, no no, no no no NO no no. Relay is like a bunch of people who always liked watching ER, so they figure they'll just start training brain surgeons in their garage because really, how hard can it be and besides, the whole medical field is clogged up with so-called experts who think they're just sooooo smart and we know we could do surgery just as well as they can without all their stupid rules and regulations and "training." Plus, we have some rich powerful friends who will cover our backs while we launch this con. That is the kind of doctors in teaching hospitals that Relay GSE resembles. "Experienced high-calibre peers" my ass.

But that is to set up the central baloney-fed fake conceit of this article-- that teaching is not a natural born gift, but a finely honed craft. There is no such thing as a natural-born teacher-- any person can become an awesome teacher just through careful craft training.

Teaching Is Super-Important

Because this is The Economist, we mean that teaching is super-important in an economic sense, and sure enough, here come our old buddies Eric Hanushek and Thomas Kane to argue that if Chris has an awesome teacher at age 6, Chris will be wealthy at age 66. I've addressed their arguments before, and if you really want to get into, read a real expert like Audrey Amrein-Beardsley at her blog Vamboozled. But to grossly simplify Hanushek and Kane's arguments for laypeople, there are basically two points that their work rests on.

1) People's show size correlates with their height. Therefor, if we want children to grow taller, we should make them wear big shoes.

2) Chris grew five inches between age 13 and age 18. Therefor we can conclude that Chris will be about ten feet tall by age 66.

So, anyway, who is it that says that great teachers are born, not made. The authors point to popular culture and examples like Professor McGonagall. Also, some unnamed survey found that 70% of great teachers were born, not made. Of course, if the authors wanted to really make their point, it would help if they showed this assumption was held by people who are actually involved in preparing and educating teachers. After all, many folks may believe that economists are just nerdy guys hunched over abacuses (abucci?), but as long as actual trainers of economists don't think so, it doesn't really matter, does it?

However, the authors are on the verge of making a useful point, because one influential group that does believe in the Myth of the Hero Teacher is reformsters themselves, who have been insisting for years that god teacher or bad teacher are permanent solid state conditions, and as the article here says, "Such a belief makes finding a good teacher like panning for gold: get rid of all those that don’t cut it; keep the shiny ones." The Myth of the Hero Teacher has, in fact, been a damaging feature of reformsterism, and if the Economist is about to call shenanigans on it, I might--

Well, no. The writers almost denounce trying to fire your way to excellence, but then-- "There is a good deal of sense in this. In cities such as Washington, DC, performance-related pay and (more important) dismissing the worst teachers have boosted test scores."

After some hemming and hawing, we tack back to our original point, now stated in a somewhat more direct manner:

Education-policy wonks have neglected what one of them once called the “black box of the production process” and others might call “the classroom”. Open that black box, and two important truths pop out. A fair chunk of what teachers (and others) believe about teaching is wrong. And ways of teaching better—often much better—can be learned. Grit can become gold.

Got that? Most of what teachers believe about teaching is wrong. Of course, most teachers actually believe that ways of teaching better can be learned. So we have a bit of a paradox here. Or would, except that the Economist clearly believe that teachers are unaware that we can learn more about teaching better. Makes me wonder what they think we do throughout our careers. Just sit and shrug? Pray to fairy godmothers for more magical teaching skills? Imagine that our first year we are teaching as well as we ever will? Just add that to the long list of things that The Economist does not know and gets dreadfully wrong about teaching.

So, How Do I Teach Gooder?? (Please Tell Poor Dopey Me)

Are we going to look at all the research ever on good teaching? Of course not-- just one guy will do. Here comes Rob Coe of Durham University (England) who made himself a report in 2014. Coe went to school to become a math teacher, and then went straight on from those studies to becoming an education professor. He "discovered" that some techniques taught in ed schools don't work ("work" as always appears to mean "raise scores on a narrow math and reading test"), and he discovered six factors involved in Being an Awesome Teacher

1) Motive
2) Getting on well with peers
3) Use time well
4) Foster good behavior, have high expectations
5) High quality instruction
6) Content knowledge

Excuse me a moment. I just smacked my forehead so hard that my eyeballs flew out onto my keyboard. But wait-- just in case you didn't get the last two, The Economist kindly provides a quote from Singapore super-teacher Charles Chew: “I don’t teach physics; I teach my pupils how to learn physics.”

Good lord. This story was supposedly reported from New York, Newark, and Boston, and I have to assume that the reporters could not find an actual real live traditionally trained teacher in any of those cities. How else can you explain presenting six "revelations" about teaching that are known to every single person who ever took an education class, and then wrapping it up by going all the way for a Singaporean version of  a amazingly cliche so trite that I have an actual man purse from umpteen Teacher Appreciation Days at my small, rural school that says on the side "We teach students," because I worked for a man who asked in every job interview "What do you teach?" where the incorrect answer was "math" or "science" and the correct answer was "I teach students." Honestly-- Columbus claiming to have "discovered" a  new world was not a clueless as these folks "discovering" the secrets of good teaching or a arrogant as them thinking that teachers did not already know all of this.

But the article will continue in that same vein:

Teachers like Mr Chew ask probing questions of all students. They assign short writing tasks that get children thinking and allow teachers to check for progress. Their classes are planned—with a clear sense of the goal and how to reach it—and teacher-led but interactive. They anticipate errors, such as the tendency to mix up remainders and decimals. They space out and vary ways in which children practise things, cognitive science having shown that this aids long-term retention.

Probing questions??!! Short writing assignments??!!!! The only new idea in this whole paragraph occurred in the split second that I thought teachers like Chew occasionally spaced out.

Hey-- let's hold up China, the least innovative country on the planet, as an example of great strides forward in the field of soul-crushing test prep. For the debunking of this baloney I recommend Yong Zhao's book about China, or this great presentation from the 2015 NPE conference.

Oh, and here's David Steiner of Johns Hopkins saying that teacher education programs are really, really easy, and TE chimes in to say that ed majors have an easier time than college athletes. Let's throw in a quote from a grad of Sposato GSE,(part of the Match charter empire in Boston, so like Relay, not an actual graduate school) that she wasn't ready for a classroom.

And here's the most bizarre quote of the whole piece. After hearing that school teacher ed programs don't provide the level of clinical practice that they should, Thomas Kane reappears to note that beginning teachers are under-prepared. Skills that are now "haphazardly" provided could be more systematically imparted, says the article, and Kane backs that assertion up by saying (and I swear I am not making this up):

Surgeons start on cadavers, not on live patients.

Good Lord in heaven, what does that even mean? Student teachers practicing on dead students? If not, what would the classroom equivalent of a cadaver be, exactly. I'm not just being a snarky asshat here-- this is central to one of the problems that the article is trying to address, which is that somewhere along the way proto-teachers have to get practice, but nobody really wants their own personal young humans to be used as educational lab rats. So the article uses Kane to underline a real issue which they don't address except to suggest repeatedly that Relay GSE (and Sposato) knows the secret.

But if we're going to talk about long-known, well-established teaching techniques being marketed like they're new and amazing, you know who has to be lurking further down this page. And sure enough, here he is, Doug "Teach Like a Plagiarist Champion" Lemov, who is said to be an influence on these fake graduate schools for fake teacher training. Here's a good recent piece for debunking Lemov, who is making a fine career out of repackaging Things Teachers Already Knew and Things That Are Crap.

The article takes a side trip to the Sposato-Match Charter "partnership" which also seems like a great way to seriously lower your charter school personnel costs by using trainees to carry some of your workload while training pseudo-teachers who are prepped to teach in only one school-- yours.

Oh, and the parade of reformsters just continues. Here's TNTP (TFA's older counterpart and eternal purveyors of faux research papers), presented as experts in recruiting teachers (or at least people who would like to try their hand at teaching for a year or two) and talking about how teachers stop getting better after a couple of years, probably because the majority of teachers just don't understand how much they suck. Seriously, that's the point here. The vast majority of teachers grossly over-estimate how non-sucky they are. Of course, as always, I'll remind you that "suck" here means "has students who don't get great scores on a narrow bad math and reading test," because it's possible that all these deluded teachers are operating under the misapprehension that their job is bigger than test prep.

Parade still not over. Here's Roland Fryer, economist-cum-professor and ed expert who has argued for a two-tiered ed system and more effective punishment of teachers. And let's invoke Singapore and Shanghai some more, though not to point out that you can be a much better teacher if the government only lets the best students into your classroom.

Also, Test-Driven Merit Pay

Invoking Fryer again, the writers point out that teachers ought to be paid based on whether or not they can raise test scores, and that in fact Relay and Sposato won't let somehow have their fake teacher credential until they have demonstrated effective test prep. Do you get the feeling that somewhere after those six traits of great teaching back at the top, we just sort of slid sideways, like badly anchored fondant on a busted birthday cake? That somewhere in this article we stopped pretending that teaching was a big profession with a huge skill set and deeply challenging craft, just threw up our hands and said, "Well, actually, we just need some people who can do test prep with these kids and get those scores up. Screw the rest of it."

But we do have some concerns about programs like Relay.

Mr Steiner notes, though, that it is not yet clear whether these new teachers are “school-proof”: effective in schools that lack the intense culture of feedback and practice of places like Match. 

In other words, they don't know if their faux teachers can function in the real world, or only in the carefully controlled charter school bubble. The writers note that schools are really hostile to innovation; it's not clear if that means that they are hostile to amateur asshats who think they have invented teaching and who are proud to mansplain to the rest of us that they have discovered the wheel. Still, their day could come:

If the new approaches can be made to work at scale, that should change.

Yup. And if pigs had wings, they might be able to fly out of my butt. If roses can grow in carefully controlled hothouses, we should be able to plant rosebushes in Antarctica.

There's a lot to talk about, and I suppose we could get into deeper layers of pedagogy and practice, but when reading articles like this that breathlessly report insights that aren't insights and innovations that aren't innovations, all conveyed by people who are not teaching professionals-- well, put it all together and it's hard to see anything more complex than just a bunch of people with power and money and access who don't really know what the hell they're talking about. All of that reported by a magazine that appears to be uncritically passing along press releases (there's not a single solitary dissenting voice anywhere in this article). But hey-- The Economist and its army of anonymous scribes are welcome to give me a call at any time to talk to me about my ideas on how to fix the Greek economic crisis and how to solve the economic problems of Detroit.


  1. Could this be thought leadering at its finest

  2. Coe's 6 Commandments of Teacher Awesomeness could have been written by a thoughtful 8 year old. I hope your eyes are ok!

  3. "Surgeons start on cadavers, not on live patients."
    Good god. I have no words.

  4. Great post, as usual. You should clean this up and send it to the Economist as a guest column.

  5. "The article takes a side trip to the Sposato-Match Charter 'partnership' which also seems like a great way to seriously lower your charter school personnel costs by using trainees to carry some of your workload while training pseudo-teachers who are prepped to teach in only one school-- yours."

    You ain't kiddin'.

    One of the very first articles that Jennifer "Edushyster" Berkshire ever posted dealt with the financial exploitation of recent college grad "tutors" by the Match brass.

    The first person narrative of Match tutor Barrett Smith is riveting.


    "Add in the deductions that none of us was expecting—8% of our earnings was going to the Massachusetts public retirement system, while Corps members who needed health insurance were paying a full 8% of their earnings without the reimbursement that our contract promised—and our situation began to look desperate.

    "Some of our Corps were unable to buy food. Others were spending everything they had in savings and were still unable to make car, loan or other payments.

    "Action plan

    "When we spoke to our immediate supervisor, the Corps Director, we were told 'tough luck' —
    although she did offer to help us with budgeting.

    "But then some of us mentioned that we were talking to lawyers about a breach of contract. Within a week we had a memo from the Chief Operating Officer. No doubt he knew that one breached contract is a lawsuit; 150 simultaneously can sink the whole ship. The higher-ups had an offer for us: $1000 for each Corps member for what they called 'relief for lost public benefits.' But there was a catch: we had to sign on within four days.

    "Thirty of 50 middle school Corps members refused to sign within this short timeframe, asking to consult legal counsel. That really did it. The next week the CEO called the middle school Corps together for two separate group meetings.

    "In that first meeting, we were told by a man with an MBA and a JD from Harvard that he 'wasn’t interested' in the legality of our contracts. After all, we’re a family, as he put it. Let’s solve these matters internally, like a family. He balked several times when asked if we could have a new contract to reflect the changes that had been made. We weren’t satisfied."

    and it just goes downhill from there.

    The Boston Globe covered this as well:

  6. Two things:

    I asked my Econ professor at MI State (in a doctoral course on economics and ed finance) *why* the conversation in education has shifted, over the past decade, to framing economists as the ultimate experts in education reform. I expected an answer related to policy--the accountability movement buttressed by NCLB, etc.

    But he said it had more to do with economists themselves, and our growing respect for math we don't understand (that's my re-framing--he said something about turning social questions into data questions with equations that aren't understood by anyone but mathematicians and economists). Economists believe they're right, he said--and they amass data (much easier now, with a digital tools) to "prove" that they're right, and general audiences are blinded by the science.

    Also, he pointed out, economists have much better, tighter, older and more honed theories than educators, who tend to equivocate and layer nuances on research about their work. Economists love nothing more than big data sets--and education provides those. While teachers stand around wondering if those tests show anything useful at all about kids whose intellectual skills they actually know, economists rub their hands together and start constructing equations.

    Second--I am heartsick to see Charles Sposato's name being used on Match Charters' so-called graduate school. I knew Cholly Sposato from our days as MI's and MA's Teacher of the Year. His life goal was re-structuring education to help students in poverty regain their birthright: self-esteem (a word that we seem to be embarrassed to say any more). Cholly's been gone for several years--and there are dozens of great stories to tell about him and his work with kids--but I cannot believe he would endorse the crapola that Match is promoting.

    1. One reason that economists have become involved in the empirical analysis of education is that education data is filled with endogenous variables and economists are used to dealing with endogenous variables.

      Take, for example, the recently released paper about the impact of teacher experience on educational effectiveness. ( ) A correlation between teacher experience and lower absences for students might well be the result of a more experienced teacher having the skills to convince students to come to class, but there are a number of other possible explanations for the correlation. It might be the case that more experienced teachers are more likely to be found in districts/schools/classes where the students are more likely to attend class no matter who is teaching. It might be the case that individual teachers do not increase in their ability to get students to attend class, but that teachers who do a poor job of motivating students to attend class are more likely to leave the profession than teachers who do a good job of motivating students to attend class, so what we see in the data is teacher attrition, not more effective teaching coming from more experience.

  7. You mention Doug Lemov. Over at Schools Matter, there's an interview with a former charter teacher about the robotic teaching methods, and how teachers were strictly monitored and forced into using them.:

    R: " ... You had to go right from silent breakfast to silent reading, to the first lesson. Every single lesson had to be in the format of what's called I Do /We Do /You Do. You've heard of that probably?"

    INT: "No, I haven't heard of that."

    R: " 'I Do /We Do /You Do' is one of Doug Lemov’s techniques. Everything the lesson did had to be, first the teacher explicitly models how to do it on the board. Let's say we're learning, if it were math, how to write a fraction. You would say,

    "'First, I'm going to show you how to do it.'

    "Literally, we would have to say, 'First, I'm going to show you. Watch what I do. I'm going to write the number 1, and then I'm going to draw a line, and write the number two.'

    "That was the I Do. Then We Do would be, 'Now, can somebody help me do the next one?' We'd do it together. Then You Do would be we'd pass out worksheets, and the kids would do it on the worksheets. It was always, always worksheets. We did stacks, and stacks and stacks of worksheets. You wouldn't believe how many worksheets these kids had to do. It was crazy. It all had to be in that format. I Do. We Do. You do. Then You Do would be independent worksheet time. There was no pair work. Nothing."

    INT: "No group work, no cooperative group work?"

    R: "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Also, sometimes I would get in trouble because we got observed constantly. The impression I got was that they thought the reason the third graders hadn't done well on that original mock exam was because the third grade instruction was off. I was new to a charter school. In fact, actually all four of us were new to charter school that year. We were constantly being observed. We had to come in over Christmas break, and do this whole training, and it was all based on Teach like a Champion, which is the Doug Lemov technique. We were always being observed."

    "Our supervisor would come in and videotape, or check off that we were doing this, that and the other thing. I used to present a question for the kids to ponder. I like to start lessons like that from time to time. Not all the time, but some times.

    " 'Let's look at this problem on the board. Let's brainstorm some ways about how we might solve this.'

    "We were not allowed to do that. That was an inefficient use of the time. I had to go right from teacher shows the kid how to do it, to 'We Do, to You Do.' Which I hated. I couldn't get over how superficial it was. I didn't understand how no one seemed to be saying anything about it. It was like,

    " 'No. This is just how things happen here. We've got to get them ready for the tests.' "

  8. The Economist was 50% owned by Pearson. Need to know anything else?

    Christine Langhoff

  9. One way teachers are going to be trained in MA under the new emphasis on teacher prep is almost as good as cadavers: avatars. Pre service teachers will learn classroom management through computer simulations. Seriously.

    1. This is a must see!
      Pace University - Classroom Management Episode 2

  10. After reading the article, I am surprised that you find that The Economist got everything wrong. In particular, the article was arguing against the idea that teachers are born, not made (a belief apparently held by 70% of people in the United States).

    If The Economist is wrong and teachers are born, not made, there are several important policy recommendations that follow. First and foremost, specialized teacher education, advanced degrees, and experience are all largely irrelevant. We should not waste resources on trying to turn people who are not born to teach into teachers because it is not possible. If you believe The Economist is wrong, the key policy is to search out the teachers who are not born teachers and fire them.