Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Totem Pole

Via Andrew Gelman, Gary Rubinstein has a very good post on what he observed while visiting a KIPP school in NYC (part of a larger series). I'll be getting back to the big issues Rubinstein raises soon, but first I wanted to take a moment on this side issue.
One thing that I see in schools a lot is the most experienced teachers getting to teach the high level class while the newbies have to teach the ninth grade remedial classes.  I suppose that this is some kind of reward for longevity, but it really is unfair.  If it really is about ‘the kids’ the new teachers should teach some of those easier classes.  I’m sorry to report that at KIPP they seemed to have the same sort of totem pole going on.  In the ninth grade wing is where I saw the most first year TFAers.
We hear a lot of complaints about how soft things supposedly are for long-time teachers, but the one place I've actually seen extensive evidence of this is an area that almost no one mentions (except, of course, for Rubinstein).

As a rule, first year teachers are best suited for advanced classes both in terms of strengths and weaknesses. New teachers tend to take a while to stop thinking in college terms. They are generally weak in classroom management and in those special communication skills needed for to handle lower level classes. Talking about concepts with peers and professors is very different from discussing those same concepts with bored ninth graders running behind grade level.

On the plus side, those concepts are fresher for just-out-of-college teachers and they inspire more passion. New teachers generally have more energy and are better able to keep up with classes of academically advanced kids. On top of that, college bound students often respond better to teachers they see as part of the college experience..

There is, as always, a context of bigger issues here, but for now, if you're looking for a reform to get behind, you could do worse than  tearing down that totem pole.


  1. Generalising a bit...
    Experienced teachers tend to know the material inside and out. Young grads tend to know enough at the time they passed the course therefore giving them the easiest material to teach until they get up to speed is good. Better to just be wrestling with classroom control than classroom control and the material.

    1. I'm not sure I buy that for a few reasons:

      1. Young grads' knowledge isn't uniformly distributed. These teachers are generally coming off of senior level courses. When I started teaching, Cal III was a lot fresher than algebra. A 'less advanced' class might actually be more difficult for them.

      2. Young grads are generally used to discussing topics with other students (who are roughly on their level) or with professors (who generally know more). Those communication skills that allow you to get an idea across to someone with no background in a subject are best honed through experience.

      3. The flip side is that advanced classes tend to be much better at teaching themselves. I'd prefer all lessons to be clear, but if there is a muddled one, I'd rather it be given to kids who have the internal resources to deal with it.

  2. New teachers are almost always at a disadvantage because teaching does require a lot of skills that have nothing to do with content.

    Having said that, I would say that from my experience more competent teachers do tend to teach more competent students. The argument could be made that the society, as a whole, advances more from the productivity of its brightest minds than from the less bright. Thus, if you want to maximize advancement, the better students should be taught by the better teachers. Though when considering that line of reasoning, don't be surprised when struggling students fall further behind.

  3. The content of upper level mathematics courses is VERY FAR removed from the day-to-day content of an algebra class in high school.