It’s Not That Easy

By James Kwak

Elizabeth Green (hat tip Ezra Klein) discusses the importance of teaching techniques. Here’s one key passage (at least for people like me):

“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.

53 thoughts on “It’s Not That Easy

  1. So maybe we should measure good teachers by their results and reward them for that?

    What a bizarre concept.

  2. I suspect that there are different teaching skills depending on what is being assessed. Teaching someone how to give the right answers is different from teaching them how to ask the right questions. :)

  3. I wish we could just get rid of teachers as soon as they proved incompetent. Forget 3 years, why not 3 grading periods?

    But after you fire Ms. Krabappel,
    1) Where is her replacement? What about her colleagues?

    According to the Census bureau, there are 6.2 Million teachers in America. Wal-mart has 1.6 Million.

    What percentage of teachers are great? Maybe 10%? Maybe 20%? Definitely not half. So where do you find those 3 million or so GREAT teachers?

    2) What do you do with the mis-educated children in the meantime?

    I’m all for destroying teacher’s unions that don’t put the needs of the students first, getting rid of tenure, more vouchers and charter schools – but the scale is enormous

    3) And even if we got out school system into shape, where are the jobs for those students?

    That’s the issue no one ever wants to deal with. Unless you’re one of those leather elbowed professor types – the only point in getting an education is to feed yourself and your family.

    If you can’t get a job with a degree in science or engineering (Hi Eastern Europe, i’m looking at you), what’s the point of education?

    There are plenty of better educated populations than ours, and they deal with double digit unemployment as a way of life.

  4. The skills needed to be a good teacher are the ability to handle multiple simultaneous activities, a thick skin impervious to insults and indignities from students, parents, and administration, an understanding of human nature and ability to discipline kids, a love of and wide knowledge of your subject matter, and the ability to impart that enthusiasm to children and teens.

    Being highly educated will make you less likely to put up with indignities and less able to present knowledge at the appropriate level. Being outgoing and a leader is less important that being able to project authority and understanding. And nothing is more important than having a dedicated and skillful principal, because without him or her, any individual’s ability will be utterly wasted.

  5. “teaching them how to ask the right questions”

    That sure aint in any teacher’s job description. Come on, we don’t want anybody really thinking independently, do we?

  6. Green makes clear in her article that it is NOT POSSIBLE to find enough “really great” teachers, or to pay them enough to make it worth their while to teach rather than do something else. She says that our focus should be on institutionalizing the behaviors of great teachers so that average, competent (but not spectacular) teachers have no choice but to do those things — at least, it should be the path of least resistance.

    This effort may be a pipe dream, but it seems that even you would agree that it really is the only way to raise performance everywhere.

    (Note that this is not different from many other disciplines, where encapsulated knowledge allows many workers of lower skill level to produce at a level previously attained by only a few very talented ones.)

  7. Watch out for using test results to determine who the good teachers are. Apart from the more subtle questions of what is being tested and how to adjust for student factors, there’s a little issue of cheating. Here in Atlanta, we’ve just learned that 67% of elementary schools had a statistically impossible incidence of wrong-to-right changes on answer sheets. Unless test conditions are well controlled, good results may signal good cheaters, not good teachers. How many research analyses of what makes a good teacher are tainted by this?

  8. Mr. Kwak wrote”

    “Elizabeth Green discusses the importance of teaching techniques. Here’s one key passage…. ”

    Here is another passage regarding financial education.

    “We are here to make limbo tolerable,….To ferry wounded souls across the river of dread to point where hope is dimly visible, and to stop the boat, shove them in the water and make them swim.”

    Up In The Air

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  10. James, as with almost everything in life, desire to succeed is most important. And, in teaching, a desire to succeed is the desire to find ways to help students learn. Note I say help. Teaching is not, as you and I have both experienced in our attempts to teach, simply imparting knowledge of a subject. It is about getting the student committed and involved in the learning process. Which means challenging them, putting them in charge of learning, keeping their attention and desire to learn at a high level, which means finding ways to engage, to make the subject matter clear and interesting, etc. And then, let them learn. In school, up to at least the collegiate level, that is a challenge, because there are so many extraeous factors (parental involvement and commitment, general learning capability, intelligence, the ability to focus, peer motivation, etc., etc.). At the very least, teaching is the single most difficult and challenging job in our culture to do at anything resembling a high level.

    I am thankful that I was educated in the 50’s and 60’s. This educational era was, for many reasons, far simpler than today’s environment. I still retain a fair proficiency and knowledge in areas that I have never used in my adult life, including math and languages. But, I would say that more than anything that education from that era gave me was a desire to continue the learning process as a lifetime experience. I read books in wide variety of subjects, both fiction and non-fiction, and write also on these subjects regularly. I can honestly say that the best teachers I had (about 4 were absolute gems) made me want knowledge addictively. They challenged me, they had great senses of humor, and every word they said was interesting. They kept me on the edge of my seat. I owe them much.

    Lastly, it is a disgrace that we undervalue teachers as much as we do. We must pay them in accordance with their value, which means that they should be paid very well if they are successful, and be strongly supported by our society in every way.

  11. Something else I failed to mention. My base education was so strong, that even while I lettered in three sports and had a healthy social life, lots of hobbies, etc., was a B average student, I achieved a 1530 on the SAT’s in an era before there were classes to teach the test or crib books. I did no special studying, and simply walked in, sat down and answered questions as they came. That’s how good my basic education was. Sure, I was above average, but pretty much did what I had to in classes I liked, and the bare minimum in classes I didn’t. It all still stuck.

  12. Run this experiment: In one school district somewhere, ask students to “grade” their teachers at the end of every semester. Teachers will receive a bonus (in addition to their standard union pay) according to how their students rate them, on a sliding scale from zero to , say, $10,000. Big enough to matter. Motivate students to give a genuine evaluation of teaching performance, rather than rewarding their teacher for being “easy”, by giving the students an award according to how well the class performs on finals — a substantial award. Too expensive? Probably would pay for itself in the end — I’m sure the results would be amazing.

  13. The ‘problem’ is that the ruling class instinctively wants smart people who are also subservient to power. That’s very hard to achieve and the cause of the all the hang-wringing. Because it’s hard to keep smart people submissive.

  14. I found this article to be mostly a silly, feel good piece. “Stand still when giving directions to the class.” “Try to praise positive behavior as it occurs rather than punish disruptive behavior after it occurs.” Wow, thanks captain obvious. Did we really need a large multi-year study to tell us things like this? The notion that you can boil down effective teaching, or even just effective class-room management, into fifty or so techniques and then classify them in some “taxonomy,” is just the height of absurdity. Mr. Lemov should go back to poaching the best students and teachers for his charter schools and keep his advice to himself. But then he probably wouldn’t be able to get all that extra funding from private donations. Not that that matters anyway; we all know it’s those heroic teachers that improve student outcomes all on their own. I know because I saw that movie “Freedom Writers.” Money, class, parental educational attainment…nope, none of those things have anything to do with it.

  15. Yeah, while reading this I was thinking, this post and the article are still written from the point of view of the scam that this educational system has humanist intentions, when of course in reality it has only corporatist intentions.

    The Bush/Obama NCLB, the cult of standardized testing and the myth of quantifiable “merit” metrics for teachers, and of course the privatization offensive, are all clear indicators. We really are getting the educational system Ayn Rand wanted. Eventually big corporations will directly run all the schools, if they get their way.

    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.

    This is still part of the algorithm cult. They grant that the conventional metrics don’t work, and so the existing algorithm is false, but they still want an algorithm, just a different one.

    They don’t get (or pretend not to get) that the system’s purpose and intention are malevolent. So anybody who sincerely wants the kind of humanist education where, for example, students are taught independent thinking, but who goes looking for the right “algorithm” to achieve this within the framework of a system which is structurally dedicated to achieving the exact opposite, conformism and docility, is clearly tilting at a windmill.

    Here, as everywhere else, there can be no “reform” within the system. The whole system needs to be overthrown.

  16. First, having the data makes it possible to see that all the simple or easy solutions are no solutions at all.
    Second, it shows the human condition – not every problem is solvable

  17. “, , the only point of getting an education is to feed yourself and your family.”

    THAT is what is wrong with our education machine!!! Ideally, education should make us capable of living a satisfying life with or without a job. But our system is a worker-factory. Arts, sports and personal development subjects are sliced away in “budget cuts” — and guess what, the students are aware that they are in a corporate/government boot camp, with no “money” for “frills” — and aware the system gives them no guarantee of work after they have been processed into good citizens. Small wonder they resist.

  18. Education doesn’t happen in schools; it happens in spite of schools, colleges, graduate schools. The best thing we could do for children is make school optional, divide the education budget by the number of students and send each one a check. Public education was the first manipulative attack upon the free individual. Everyone knows the student’s primary job is to survive it without becoming hopelessly passive and a sitting duck for government and business propaganda.

    When we had a factory system in America, education was arguably useful to produce machine operators. The machines have moved to China. Today’s children learn whatever they know from the commercial video culture, against which nineteenth century classrooms are powerless to compete. Even forty years ago, only participation in athletics and romance provided any reason to attend high school. Smart kids today can learn everything they need to know in two or three hours per day before a computer screen, although whatever they know seems unlikely to help them unless it leads to an insider position in the casino economy.

  19. Russ, have you actually read Atlas Shrugged? Stop blaming Ayn Rand for collectivist idiocy. She was an individualist, not a corporatist.

  20. And just look at what it did for your self esteem! Still, I think Simon & Garfunkler put it more realistically:

    “When I think about the crap I learned in high school,
    It’s a wonder I can think at all.”

  21. My unscientific personal observations are that any time accountability metrics are used for punitive action or great reward the metrics will be gamed, i.e. rationalized cheating will take place. When metrics are used to establish a baseline from which the value of change can be measured, the metrics stay honest and there are much more creative and effective ideas for improvement.

  22. When I had a child in school I found the principal to be the determinate factor in the quality of the school. Good principals go after and get the best teachers, and support them and the students. You can pretty much tell the quality of the principal by walking around the school and measuring the level of civility of the students and staff.

    I think we should spend as much time studying principals as studying teachers.

  23. True, Jake. But didn’t she think the ‘superior’ people should rule the inferior-types who would be the workers?

  24. Bayard, I really appreciate your comments. I’m a youngin myself (26), and even though I work in D.C. I live in Baltimore because my wife was placed as there as a teacher as part of Teach For America. I’m very sympathetic to all of the arguments about education reform & pay for performance. Trust me, we’ve had all sorts of encounters with people who should have nothing to do with educating the community’s children.

    On the other hand, people simply have to acknowledge that “performance” isn’t measured as easily as we want to believe. Yes, I believe teachers are the most essential ingredient in student performance. But how we measure that performance matters a great deal, and I’m frightened by how little we discuss those measurements. I work in politics, and I can tell you that most policy makers only know of one metric: standardized tests.

    Standardized tests have their place, but they’re incomplete, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. My wife teachers 10th grade government, which is a required class across Maryland. Students even have to pass a state standardized test in order to graduate, and the content covered is easily comparable to a college intro to gov class. The problem? Most of her students read at half their grade level, 4th or 5th grade reading levels on average. Now she’s helped raise test score performance, but should we pretend that her performance should be judged by a test that the average student can’t fully comprehend? Many of her students absorb the content, but they also get tripped up by words like “minimize” (i’m not kidding you) on standardized tests.

    I’m glad that we are paying more attention to our failure to provide adequate education to underprivileged areas in the United States, but I fear that we’re willing to demonize teachers and the entire profession. Not only that, we seem unwilling to admit that we often can’t comprehend the complexity or depth of the problem.

  25. You can comprehend the “complexity or depth of the problem” easily — if you step back and don’t buy into the unspoken purposes of the system. Try going into a neighborhood and asking the young people what they want to learn — I mean ANYTHING they are interested in learning — and set the schools up so the students have real democratic power. Empower them. Be strict in keeping order. Then give it some time and see what happens to ‘the problem.’

    The problem is the purpose and intent of the schools.

  26. I agree with Jake, a lot of what goes on in school is pretty useless. Education, at the high school level at least, should be about finding out what you like and what you’re good at. To that end, some sort of a “soft,” tracking system should be put in place where, outside of a very few core required courses, students should be allowed to take classes they are interested in. There should be multiple high schools students can attend (including trade schools) and credits they earn should be categorized into different classification schemes. At the end of their high school career students should get a diploma that corresponds to the kind of classes they took. There is no reason the only legitimate diploma in existence today is a liberal arts math and science diploma. I’m a social studies teacher, but I acknowledge that liberal arts is not the end all and be all of education. Unfortunately, this kind of plan goes against the whole every student should get an education that prepares them for a four year college liberal arts education meme that is so prevalent today. Too many teachers think that their students should just follow the same path they traveled as a child. It’s really shocking how arrogant some teachers can be.

  27. For a really good article about education (as opposed to this silly feel-good piece), I highly recommend this article:

    called “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” Just a fantastic piece. It won the Sydney Award for short essays in 2008 I believe. Or maybe it was a runner-up, I can’t remember.

  28. Here’s another novel concept. Why aren’t we doing research on what makes someone a good student? Or a good parent? Teachers are there to help us learn. A certain percentage of teachers are bad at doing that, but I would guess a substantially larger percentage of the student body is even worse at learning.

    You start to understand the difficulties of improving our educational system by focusing solely on teacher quality when you look at other developed countries and observe that, for the most part, they have poorly funded teacher-education programs, even less over-sight of teacher performance, and higher student achievement.

    Don’t ever foist the poor performance of your son or daughter off on a teacher. Teach them that even in the worst of circumstances you should still work hard and seek out your own opportunities to learn. Once you do that, no bad teacher will ever stand in your way.

  29. Friere did the research on what makes someone a good student. It is called empowerment.

    In those countries with less funding and better achievement, perhaps education is still seen as empowerment. Here, it is seen as disempowerment. Fix that.

  30. All the above are interesting and most likely valid and sometimes constructive comments. But…let’s all remember that in our peculiarly American form of a capitalist democracy, meaning everyone is valued first by their supposed status which is directly proportional to how much $ they make and how much good stuff they appear to own, teachers have very low status. If Generals, or CEO’s, or Congressmen, had similar status, they would not have such great compensation packages. A brilliant prospective neurosurgery hire once said to my wife in commenting as to why he would not be accepting a position at her hospital, “offer peanuts and you get monkeys.”
    Any teacher in math and science with 10 years experience and a new masters degree can up their salary 15-25% instantly by shifting to private industry. This should say something to the rest of us, but we don’t want to hear it. Dope dealers have lots of stuff and literally piles of cash, but low status, go figure.

  31. Past a certain level of competency of knowledge and delivery in the teacher, the failure is on the part of the culture and sub-culture students come from.

    America in general, has little repsect for knowledge, unless it results in income. Black and hispanic culture in the US, makes victims out of smart disciplined kids who try to learn.

    Do Asian/Oriental kids from good families need “personality” motivational teachers to acquire knowledge and do well academically? I doubt it.

  32. Art Garfunkel was not involved with the making of the song “Kodachrome.” It comes off of Paul Simon’s second solo-album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.” The lyric you mention here was the quote I chose to place next to my high school yearbook photo =)

  33. Who creates and grades the final? Are you proposing a standardized exam ? If the teachers creates or grades, there’s still an incentive to be easy.

    This still allows for teachers to game the system; teachers would try to get the good students and/or the guys who evaluate their teachers highly !

  34. Good questions — I think the students are already taking standardized exams, not created or graded by teachers. That is part of the No Student Left Behind-type initiatives.

    There is always some gaming of any system . . but it wouldn’t make much difference whether the teacher had good or bad students — either level could evaluate a teacher’s performance. And either level of class could given an incentive award — say a class trip, or extra electronic equipment — according to their improvement each semester.

  35. Democracy can only survive with a well-educated populace. And we can only survive as a nation if we share a common connection of what it means to be an American. I think we’re doomed.

  36. The article in the Atlantic was actually uplifting. At least standards are upheld. That’s much better than lowering the bar so low that anyone can roll over it.

  37. “I’m glad that we are paying more attention to our failure to provide adequate education to underprivileged areas in the United States, but I fear that we’re willing to demonize teachers and the entire profession.”

    Who passed the students on to 10th grade if they were only reading at 4th and 5th grade levels? Teachers! A lot of them should be fired.

  38. Which is exactly why I wrote “we’ve had all sorts of encounters with people who should have nothing to do with educating the community’s children.”

    But your angry response doesn’t address the assessment issue, and is precisely the sort of comment that my wife and other professionals perceive as betraying a willingness to indiscriminately direct anger at a group of people. Bad teachers should go; the point is that we need to pay a lot more attention to how we figure out who is good.

  39. Most standardized tests that measure content knowledge are graded “in house,” that is by the teachers in the schools.

  40. In the modern world, I don’t see how it’s possible to have opinions on economic issues at all and not be either a corporatist or an anti-corporatist.

    The rise of anti-political, anti-social corporate power is the defining economic phenomenon of the modern age.

    While I’m all too aware that most people end up as de facto corporatists because they don’t think things out, I find it hard to believe any writer as assertive as Rand didn’t have a strong ideology vis corporations, explicit or masked.

    Yet you don’t say she was an avowed anti-corporatist.

    An how on earth does even the world’s most heroic architect build anything bigger than a shed outside of nasty “collectivism”? That’s the most self-parodic, hypocritical part of it.

  41. Russ writes:

    “I find it hard to believe any writer as assertive as Rand didn’t have a strong ideology vis corporations, explicit or masked.

    Yet you don’t say she was an avowed anti-corporatist.

    An how on earth does even the world’s most heroic architect build anything bigger than a shed outside of nasty “collectivism”? That’s the most self-parodic, hypocritical part of it.”

    IMHO, Ayn Rand was an anti-monopolist, which is better than being what you call an “anti-corporatist.” Business corporations perform necessary functions. The problem is created by perverse government incentives, which allow shareholders to be legally looted by executives, CEO empire building at the expense of all other corporate constituencies, and monopoly finance, which provides free money for corporate acquisition binges and usurious loans to consumers, all with governmental approval. Existing anti-trust laws are a hodge podge of stupidity, inconsistency, pandering to special interests, all administered by a captured justice department run by one idiot after another ever since Jack Kennedy appointed his brother to the job.

    Individualism and competition and science brought western civilization out of feudalism and religious morbidity in two hundred years. Financial monopoly triumphed with passage of the Federal Reserve Act, and only the destruction of Europe and Japan in World War II made possible a brief American middle class prosperity which has now been eroding for forty years.

    Ayn Rand understood how this would happen. She blamed it on a philosophy of collectivism and altruism in which power is passed to windbags clamoring about the public interest, who then use force to impose slavery upon some for the benefit of chosen constituencies.

    All you progressives and communitarians and idealists and utopians have only yourselves to blame for what we face today. Hayek understood that individual people have their own interest and that no one can be trusted to pursue a public interest in which all will share appropriately.

    No doubt all of you could not wait to annoint a Kennedy, a Clinton, an Obama, each of them an opportunistic, self absorbed charlatan interested first and foremost in his own power and the devil take the hindmost. Well, you got them. How does it feel these days?

  42. If teacher skill and behavior is the only way that students can excel, how can teachers be measured? Present measurement tries to be an exercise in idealism but all measurement is subjective. That unions protect teachers is one of there jobs lest those teachers be subject to arbitrary politics or bias or cronyism. Do they protect those that should not be protected, certainly. Further, classroom composition, ability and talent are outside the teacher’s control leading to less clarity in defining what progress is being made. (Some school systems mainstream ‘special’ ed and beginning ESL students; some do not.) Until unions and administrations operate without a political agenda and cooperate, it will be difficult to get the raters and those rated to agree and to improve all schools. For now, be grateful that there are still good teachers out there work despite the system in which they find themselves. It may not be obvious to those of us on the outside to know who they are.

  43. About the same as if we’d gone your direction, maybe better. At least we are aiming for something better — and it may work out our way in the long run. The birth of the American nation out of the monarchist, classist “old world” was a miracle. Maybe more miracles are in store. There is an emergent aspect to reality — impossible to predict from the framework of established assumptions.

  44. Permanent war, a national security state, idiotic drug laws, chronic unemployment, a bankrupt education system, crumbling cities, worthless money, witless culture, pornographic entertainment, corrupted politicians, toadying academics and criminal elites. I guess it doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

  45. Internet. Awesome works of art available to all. Moving beyond racism, sexism, classism. Freedom of spiritual practice. Many, many things out of the closet. Young peoples’ IQ tests going up 10 points every 20 years since 1950. I could go on. Out of this decay something new is being born and a lot of us know that. Take a pill.

  46. Not where my sister teaches in an inner city school in KC — they do government assessment tests and no way would they let teachers grade them. .

  47. I’m in NYC, so I guess it’s kind of different in the Midwest. In-house testing is pretty standard in the greater metropolitan area though. You don’t grade the actual students that in your class, but other teachers in your department do. It’s mostly a cost thing. The NYC school district is so huge that to send out all those tests to an independent party to grade would be very expensive. Probably it should be done though.

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