Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gladwell on Education

Last week I quoted and linked to a Hendrik Hertzberg post that argued that America ought to commit to reducing class sizes in its public schools. This week in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell calls into question the cost-effectiveness of cutting class sizes, proposing that a better way of improving our schools is to get better teachers in classrooms:

You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hertzberg, it seems to me, would argue that identifying teachers "in the eighty-fifth percentile" is not as easy as it sounds. The other problem that occurs to me is this: Can we put an eighty-fifth percentile teacher in every classroom? Or would that be possible only in Lake Woebegon, where every child is above average?

Eventually, Gladwell comes to this proposition for how we might radically change the way we hire and retain teachers:

Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher.

My wife pointed out that she'd hate to have our kids be in the classroom of one of the three candidates who don't make it.

As usual, Gladwell's writing is thought-provoking but a bit facile. In the end, he seems to be promoting another version of the "run it like a business" mindset. Ed Deutschlander, mentioned in the quotation above, hires people who want to be financial advisors, and he's mightily pleased with himself and his process. He asks: 

What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?

But his corporate model is not very appropriate for education. Financial advisors tend to be people who are interested in making a lot of money. Teachers tend not to be, and thank God for that. Only a fraction of Americans employ the services of financial advisors. Everyone has many teachers. 

I don't have the answers, and I do like the notion of paying close attention to the work that teachers are doing to reward and encourage the skilled ones and help improve or cull out the bad ones, but it seems to me that Gladwell's piece is mostly misdirected. 


meyermeyer said...

Then again, the business model could work. Get a teacher in the 85% (however you determine that) and that teacher has a powerful bargaining chip for a competitive salary--undermining the proscriptive pay scale. After seeing Stace work and fail at the National Board, however, I'm convinced that education lawmakers, and lobbyists for that matter, know so little about real educating that I wouldn't trust my kid to them. I'm all for more qualified teachers, but if you're going to put such a system in place, you're going to have to apply the economics to it as well. This goes back to merit pay, of course, which is a huge joke. Essentially, you'd have AP teachers taking home more money and Special School District bearing even more of the brunt of criticism. Teaching to the test would become the norm (as if it isn't already).

framiko said...

Yeah—it seems to me that you need something like the current certification requirements to weed out total yahoos, but then you also need administrators who work hard to observe carefully and reward good teachers and help mediocre ones and ditch bad ones, perhaps using techniques or criteria like the ones referred to in the article. But I think those techniques and criteria need to be thought about much more thoroughly than they were in this piece (that's not necessarily a criticism—it just wasn't the focus of the article).

meyermeyer said...

So I read the article (finally) and agree with your assessments--Gladwell is too facile on the issue. Then again, his purpose probably wasn't a completely thought out and structured proposal for revising the education system (even though it points in that direction). I very much liked his statement that, regardless of school performance, teacher influence is the best indicator a student learning. Of course it strokes my ego, but also stands up to what I've suspected--human interaction is the key to successful learning. That's why the web will only take us so far. It's also why teachers who treat kids like kids (you know what I mean) instead of like students are doing the kids a disservice.