Solving the Education Mess?

Jonathan Alter knows how to fix education: stop pandering to teachers and make sure that the people who are employed as teachers can actually, you know, teach. To support his argument, Alter approvingly quotes one of the worst education secretaries since the development of the cabinet position:

It's time to move from identifying failing schools to identifying failing teachers.  That sounds obvious, but until now it hasn't happened in American education.  "We need a management tool that can show whether Ms. Jones can teach long division," says Margaret Spellings, Bush's sensible secretary of Education.

The thing is, they're right. And wrong. We absolutely need to have better teachers in schools-with more accountability and higher expectations. We absolutely need to be able to know that a student will gain valuable knowledge and experience while attending every teacher's class. In many schools, the old maxim is right: whatever a teacher does behind their classroom door is accepted, because no one knows what's going on or measuring the results. And some teachers, like some people in any profession, certainly don't put in all the effort they should, and some are just unprepared or unqualified.

Conceding those points, though, doesn't mean the solution is as easy as Alter or Spelllings suggest. The reality is that teaching is a non-competitive profession in many areas. While Alter gives lip service to increasing teacher pay, without a systemic change that offers young people more financial incentive to begin careers in education, simply firing ineffective teachers won't offer a solution: they'll simply be replaced by different ineffective teachers. As the National Center on Education and the Economy recently pointed out, a large number of teachers are coming from the bottom third of their college classes–how can we expect improvement as long as that remains the case?

I'm not even an advocate for large pay increases for teachers.  The current system, though, by offering most of the benefits and pay to the most experienced teachers, despite research suggesting teachers are most effective in the middle of their careers, needs to be reexamined.  At a minimum, we need to look seriously at college loan forgiveness and other incentives to get the best and brightest back in education.

A final criticism of the piece is that Alter sees principals as a solution to this intractable teacher problem:

Above all, a principal must have control of who teaches in his or her building.  All other reforms depend on it.

Alter definitely needs to do his research on this issue.  Where does he think principals come from?  They're usually former teachers.According to Education News , they're not exactly the brightest people with graduate degrees:

Of 51 intended areas of graduate study, applicants in 45 fields had higher Total GRE scores than applicants in Education Administration.  Candidates in 5 fields – Home Economics, Social Work, Counseling, Early Childhood and Special Education – had lower Total GRE scores.

It's become fashionable in some ciricles to blame educational failures on college teacher programs, and to be honest, I found my experience in college learning to become a teacher almost devoid of value, but let's not position principals and administrators as exemplars of educational virtue or knowledge.  Reform needs to happen there, as well.  The New York Times addressed continuing education programs in 2005 :

The universities, in turn, capitalize on this demand by viewing their education schools as ''cash cows,'' setting low admissions standards and offering ''quickie degrees'' instead of investing in a quality curriculum, the report said.  In fact, while criticism has often focused on the questionable academic qualifications of many teachers, the report found that school administrators typically had substantially lower scores on the Graduate Record Examination than the teachers they supervise.

The reality of public education is that the people who make policies and direct districts are no more accountable than teachers, who take the brunt of the blame when the system fails.  If we are truly serious about reforming education, let's reform the leadership of our schools, let's examine the explosion of administrative positions in many districts, and let's demand that the people who take these positions are academically qualified. What kind of rank hypocrisy exists when schools hire people without considering their academic qualifications?