An Email With a Friend

A friend of mine (outside of education research) sent me this Economist article and asked for my opinion. Poor guy, I sent him a super long email that he probably wasn’t anticipating. Here is the text of my response:

Thanks for sharing. I think issues with teacher quality are a lot more complex than this author suggests and they depend greatly on local context. In other words, a situation in Washington DC has a much different set of problems than Rumson, NJ. So when the author makes broad sweeping statements about everyone, he is wrong about many of them. I would say that in some areas he has somewhat of a point, but in others he is a bit off. I should also note from the start of my writing here that my expertise is not in teacher quality, it is related to issues of technology and education (diffusion of innovation, effective use of programs, etc.) but I still can pick this apart a bit:

The first main assumption the author makes is that the driving motivation of teachers is wages. While this may be true in some sectors of the working world, my experience tells me that most teachers do not go into the profession for financial incentives, so I feel like they tend to be less motivated (or de-motivated) by these incentives. On this point, the author sort of undercuts his argument when he brings up Finland’s success because he states that the country does well even with moderately paid teachers. Thus, the rationale that assumes “if we just get our teachers to work harder our students will do better” is misleading because it tends to only hold weight in an environment when it is clear that the main variable limiting student success is a lack of teacher motivation. This is certainly not true in a great deal of environments (has the author been in many schools?). As a side note, I’d highly encourage you to watch this ted talk about motivation, as it seems psychologically like motivation is a trickier subject than free-market economics suggests (this is generally speaking, not necessarily only related to teaching).

That being said, there are environments where it seems that one of the factors of poor student success relates to teacher motivation, such as Washington DC.  The city ran an interesting experiment (you can read about some of the data here) and did see a slight uptick when they put more forceful incentive structures in place. However, they haven’t moved much beyond this uptick and drastic achievement gaps still persist, so make of that experiment what you will. My read on it is that the experiment helped a little bit, but certainly did not do enough. There was much more to the problem than incentivizing teachers.

I also thought it was really interesting that the author chose Finland as a model example. This is interesting because the Finnish model actually does the exact opposite of what the author proposes. Consider this from Linda Darling-Hammond’s Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: “In fact, high-achieving Finland does not do what these advocates propose. Rather than focusing on firing teachers, it has one of the strongest initial teacher education systems in the world, and leaders credit that system with having produced nationwide improvements in student learning. There is relatively little emphasis in Finland on formal on-the-job evaluation, and much more emphasis on collaboration among professionals to promote student learning. In truth, we cannot fire our way to Finland. If we want to reach the high and equitable outcomes it has achieved in recent years, we will have to teach our way to stronger student learning by supporting teachers’ collective learning.” Morgan Spurlock did a piece on this and goes to Finland. You can watch it on Netflix. It was pretty good.

What is also a bit off is that the author’s pargon model for his idea is Teach for America, which does very little in terms of training. TFA outcomes are not as rosy as he suggests, and they show that TFA teachers do not do as well as experienced teachers. The program was originally meant as a “something is better than nothing” option (addressing teacher shortages) and now districts are using it as a way to get cheap labor from essentially “gap-year” college grads who want to do a good service and then move on with their careers. I am not sure how that shows an effective model of hiring a motivated staff.

That being said, I am not opposed to the following statement he makes: “That may well mean higher pay—but also less generous pensions and holidays. Why not encourage teachers to use the long vacation for catch-up classes for pupils who have fallen behind? Stiffer entry requirements would raise the job’s status and attract better applicants. Pay rises should reward excellence, not long service. Under performers should be shown the door.” I do think many high quality college grads avoid teaching because of the low salary. If a 4.0 student knew he’d make 100K a year to be a teacher, then he might jump ship. I know this moves away from the altruism statement I made above, and it’d be something I have to think through more if this salary realization came to fruition (maybe if this high salary staff were the population of employees we were dealing with than an incentive system would add some extra points to student scores because these teachers evidenced that they were incentivize to begin with, I don’t know…). I also think you solve pension problems if you give no pension and a much higher salary to teachers to invest their own money, but that is an argument for another day (it is like front loading money you do have instead of back loading money you are not sure if you will have).

I want to finish with one concluding thought: While high quality teaching is an important subject, I think it is essentially a red herring argument when it comes to issues about student outcomes and achievement. Research evidence upon research evidence shows that the most important variable in student outcomes is not teaching, rather it is the socio-economic status of the learner. Students in poor neighborhoods come to school with an exposure to language that is thousands of words below students who are not poor, students who are in unstable home environments cannot concentrate on schoolwork, and students who are malnourished and hungry cannot develop cognitively the way other students can. I say the teacher quality argument is a red herring because if you look at the PISA scores (the international test that everyone loves to hang their hat on) the countries with low amounts of poverty (the Scandinavian ones typically) do exceedingly well. The U.S. states with low poverty (like Massachusetts) perform about equal to these countries. The US scores are dragged down by students who are from poor home environments and by states with limited supports for these students (like those down in the deep South). If you want to truly achieve educational outcomes, I wouldn’t start with dumping resources into teaching (although it certainly would help some) I would dump it into supports (nutrition, health care, psychological services, mentorship) for students who come from poor, broken homes.

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