Monday, July 2, 2012

More on Felix and Education

Some choice quotes and reactions from Felix Salmon's recent post (already mentioned by Mark)
One big axis of tension is between the long-term view of the teachers and the unions, on the one hand, and the shorter-term view of pretty much everybody else, on the other. Is it possible to radically transform an entire educational system during the tenure of a single elected official, or before your tween enters high school? Realistically, no, it isn’t. Good teachers and good principals stay in the same place for decades and tend to take a long view of things; politicians and parents and children and venture capitalists, on the other hand, don’t have that kind of luxury. As a result, they tend to want to do big, drastic things which could have immediate results, whether it’s nationwide testing, or vouchers, or charter schools, or a multi-billion-dollar wiring of classrooms, or a mass culling of underperforming teachers, or a large-scale move onto some trendy new online educational platform.
One element that is neglected here is the problem that fast moves that show short term gains could work out very badly in the long run.  For example, simply by breaking one's word on pensions it is possible for a politician to look like a fiscal genius.  But the long term erosion of trust can actually result in worse outcomes. 
But there’s a really big problem here, and that’s the strong move on the part of reformers to fire underperforming teachers. The first thing you need to know if you want to fire the underperformers, of course, is who those underperformers are. And the best way to find that out is to use all that lovely new ed-tech data. As a result, teachers tend to be very suspicious of any attempt to collect data about them and their students: they fear that such moves are a means of collecting dubiously-reliable empirical evidence which will ultimately end up getting many of them fired.
I am unclear why firing teachers has become such a popular talking point.  Why have we, as a society, become convinced that firing is a good plan?   I think that the reason is that "tests" are becoming the entry point to social status.  So a bad teaching experience could have massive life-long effects on the students (simply because we make the tests so high stakes). 

But the idea that data should be used to train and educate teachers to do a better job seems to be somply beyond the pale.  And I am unclear why that would be so.  Do we really think a culture of fear and instability provides a better working environment or improves performance? 
In which case, how should bad teachers be fired? I do have sympathy for reformers and parents who put that action at the top of their to-do lists, and I’m even willing to believe the assertion, which I heard a few times at Aspen, that a handful of bad teachers can end up significantly bringing down the performance of an entire school. At the same time, however, if you look at say Finland, or some similar educational system with very high outcomes, you’ll also find almost no teachers being fired. Or, to put it another way: if bad teachers can bring down the performance of a school, then good schools can bring up the performance of all their teachers. Look at the various super-principals who get occasional gushing media coverage: they can turn around schools, given time, and generally don’t need to fire many or even any teachers in order to do so.
I love this switch -- why are we so focused on individual teachers and not the school environment itself?  I think that the short term fix environment is the reason.  I don't care about future kids -- I care about my child who is with Mrs. X right now.  I don't care about 5 years from now, I care about what happens before the next election. 

But the long term result of this will be to focus teachers on individual performance numbers.  And if you think that is a good plan, just think of how you would react in a position of constant instability and fear where a few numbers can change your life? 

1 comment:

  1. The time frame is, in many ways, the central problem facing education (and also politics). A real change for the better can take 5 years, sometimes even decades, before the good outcomes become clearly apparent.