Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers: Part II

Alright, no more detours from the myths that are distracting policymakers. Well, that might not be true, but at the very least I will make some progress on responding to these myths.

Myth number one is that “teacher preparation matters little for student achievement.” This myth…makes sense. The money sentence is: “The National Bureau of Economic Research found that beginning teachers with more extensive clinical training (including a full-year internship – like doctors get) actually produce higher student achievement gains than those from either traditional university programs or alternative pathways.” Well, that is interesting. So the real answer is teacher preparation matters a lot for student achievement if we actually decide to do it right. Because let’s be honest, if TFA’s strong recruiting and boot camp approach can perform similarly to traditional ed schools then that says more about the weakness of traditional ed schools than anything else. And every teacher I’ve ever talked to said that no matter what type of training they got, they had no clue what they were doing their first year. It is just an incredibly difficult thing to prepare for. So you would think that if we took an approach more similar to the on-the-job training doctors get it would cushion the first year disaster, weed out some of the people who would realize teaching isn’t for them and raise the prestige of the job itself just by raising the effort required to enter the profession. Victories all around.

So the easy part was establishing that actual, real, worthwhile training would do a lot of good. I feel a similar argument could be made for professional development, the red herring of all teacher improvement conversations. The hard part is actually creating an environment where better training happens. It would require dismantling the current traditional system which focuses heavily on credentials. And those credentials mean more money in most school district pay schemes. So there are some entrenched interests in place to keep the traditional credential pipeline alive. More on-the-job training would take more time, money and effort. People who participated would have to be compensated accordingly. This would mean changing a lot of union contracts in a way that would challenge the supremacy of the union leaders, and the veteran teachers who are most often their base, who ascended their profession through the very traditional credentialing system that they would be dismantling. That would take true vision and bravery. For gun shy politicians and beat-up school district leaders, we would need to provide some data cover in exchange for some patience and professional nurturing. There is no worthwhile on-the-job training without serious investment from the districts.

That’s a lot of paradigm shifting. And it would require an unprecedented amount of honest and open conversation about how to measure good teaching, how to help people become good teachers and how to have enough patience to let a new system grow and succeed. The alternative would be to continue dropping in novices, whether from traditional or alternative credentialing systems, and trying to get rid of the ones who don’t magically work out whether through evaluation or attrition. The alternative would be to continue rewarding teachers for credentials that might not mean anything in terms of educating kids. The alternative would be to continue hoping that putting big time talent into tough situations will lead to solutions. We can continue these things but I think all of us know that even if we make incremental improvements while continuing the status quo there are ceilings we will never break through.

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