By James Kwak
“The testing mandates in No Child Left Behind had generated a sea of data, and researchers were now able to parse student achievement in ways they never had before. A new generation of economists devised statistical methods to measure the ‘value added’ to a student’s performance by almost every factor imaginable: class size versus per-pupil funding versus curriculum. When researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school’s control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to.”
But who is a good teacher?
As Klein says, “There’s a tendency to let the conversation over teachers become a conversation over replacing the current crop of assumed mediocrities with highly-educated professionals. This is particularly prevalent when the conversation is being had by highly-educated, high-achieving media and political professionals who are not actually teachers, but quietly think that if they were teachers, they’d be doing a bang-up job.”
But, as Green writes, “Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try.”
This is an important point. When I was a management consultant, I was part of a team that worked with the administration of a city school district in an attempt to improve student performance. That was hubris enough. But to our credit, we didn’t think we knew anything about teaching; we worked on issues like recruiting, data analysis (test results came back as a pile of floppy disks that no one ever even stuck into a computer), and setting up internal mentorship programs.
You see, by that point I already knew I wasn’t a particularly good teacher. I had taught a music class of junior high school students and two seminars of Berkeley undergraduates (which is a piece of cake compared to primary or secondary school), and once you do that it becomes obvious pretty quickly that the ability to absorb information, follow directions, work diligently on your own, meet a standardized set of expectations, and generally conform to an existing validation system will not get you far in a classroom. Of course, there are people from Ivy League schools who also have the skills necessary to be a good teacher (whatever those are), but that’s an accident, not a result.
This should be obvious to anyone who’s been to a top university, where most teachers range from the pretty good to the abysmally bad. Would you want them teaching your own kids in elementary school? I didn’t think so.
Green’s article is mainly about people who have been studying what those skills are and trying to train teachers in those skills, which is an interesting story.