Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Improving Schools

Today, Bob Herbert points out that increased teacher credentials do not automatically translate into better teaching skills:
The first is teacher quality, a topic that gets talked about incessantly. It has been known for decades that some teachers have huge positive effects on student achievement, and that others do poorly. The positive effect of the highest performing teachers on underachieving students is startling.

What is counterintuitive, but well documented, is that paper qualifications, such as teacher certification, have very little to do with whatever it is that makes good teachers effective.
Part of this, in my opinion, results from the fact that there is typically a strong economic incentive for teachers to increase their credentials, such as an automatic raise upon obtaining a master's degree, which inspires teachers to pursue higher degrees (often a masters in education) without regard to their interest or aptitude, and seems to transform many education graduate programs into diploma mills. But even assuming otherwise, what is there to support the assumption that beyond a certain threshold, more training in educational theory will result in somebody becoming a better teacher? Or, if a teacher is more ambitious, how does a masters degree in math translate into better teaching skills for an elementary school math teacher - if the teacher has the interest and aptitude to complete such a masters degree, it is reasonable to assume they already had sufficient mastery of the subject to teach at the K-12 level.

Herbert proposes developing "New forms of identifying good teachers and weeding out poor ones - by carefully assessing their on-the-job performance". Fair enough, but the educational system is a forest that can't be efficiently improved one tree at a time. He knows this:
The second area to be mined for potentially transformative effects is the wide and varied field of alternative school models. We should be rigorously studying those schools that appear to be having the biggest positive effects on student achievement. Are the effects real? If so, what accounts for them?

The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), to cite one example, is a charter school network that has consistently gotten extraordinary academic results from low-income students. It has worked in cities big and small, and in rural areas. Like other successful models, it has adopted a longer school day and places great demands on its teachers and students.
Not just alternative school models, though - but alternative educational models. Sometimes it seems that approaches to teaching certain skills or subjects depends upon the direction the wind is blowing, not any actual research into the effectiveness of one teaching technique over another (e.g., "whole language" versus "phonics" for teaching reading; "mandatory homework" measured by volume, not relevance or outcome). I was reading somebody advocate for speeding up ESL for immigrant students so that they wouldn't "fall behind" as measured by "No Child Left Behind" - but the real test should be whether the ESL program helps with longer term academic achievement, not the latest litmus test imposed by Washington. It may be that rapid ESL education does that, but that wasn't a concern articulated by the proponent of the "reform".

Length of the school day is an interesting subject to examine, but it's not likely to be a quick fix. There are school systems in other nations which achieve strong academic performance based upon a shorter school day (with a lot of homework). If kids won't have the opportunity to perform their homework outside of the school, or won't have necessary support at home, it is apparent how a longer school day (with less homework) can help overcome such problems. But in such a case the remedy is not one that "fixes the school", but one that compensates for certain problems in the home.

In any case, we can do a lot of bona fide research into teaching methods that work, by age and by subject, and see how well those techniques can be implemented in the classroom. (Language education, it seems to me, is largely dreadful in the public schools - yet we know that the government has already invested millions in efficient language education programs for its employees, and some of those programs and techniques must be transferable to K-12 settings.) Beyond that, we can examine what makes teachers good or inspirational, and try to teach (and coach) better teaching techniques to student teachers and newer teachers. (I suspect that a lot of it will come down to personality, which will make it difficult for many to consistently implement the techniques inconsistent with their personalities, and to going an extra mile or two on the teacher's own time (i.e., after hours, with no additional pay), which is not something that teachers can be compelled to do.)

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