Monday, August 24, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Do Teachers (Or Schools) Know How to Improve?

Let us assume for a second that we know how to measure how good a teacher (or a school) is. We can then know exactly how well one is performing and hold them accountable for poor performance. In such accountability schemes those who underperform are essentially scolded and warned that they must do better. But we're making a huge assumption when we do this: that teachers (or schools) know how to get better.

And I'm not sure we're as safe making this assumption as many seem to, well, assume. We can berate teacher training and professional development until the cows comes home, but in the end a teacher (or a school) is on their own to figure out how to improve. And I don't think it's as easy as it looks -- or that the answer is as obvious as it might appear.

Most accountability systems seem to insinuate that those who underperform do so because they're not trying hard enough. If this is true, then improvement is easy -- one simply needs to work harder. If this is true, then accountability systems seem like a reasonably good idea -- they will help rid us of those who aren't willing to work hard.

But anybody who knows anything about teaching and schools will recognize that effort is far from the only determinant of success. And that working harder will not always yield better results. Let's use athletics as an example. If you wanted to become better at, say, tennis or golf, would you just go out and hit a ball until your hands blistered? Maybe. And it might help a little. But if you were really serious about it, you'd probably go see a coach, take a lesson, or at least read some articles or how-to books. You'd have to learn the proper techniques, practice those certain techniques, and, if you're really serious about improving, get some feedback on your practice attempts. As they say, "practice doesn't make perfect: perfect practices makes perfect." In other words, it's not a simple manner to get better -- one has to first know how to get better and then work both hard and smart. And it's certainly not a simple process.

And teaching is quite similar. The only way that an accountability system can ever work is if teachers (or schools) know how to improve. If we simply say "that's not good enough, you have to do better," we're assuming that they know how to improve. But what happens when one asks "how do I do better?" I know math and literacy coaches have proliferated in the last decade, but I'm not sure that we typically a.) have somebody to answer that question, and b.) have an answer to the question. And I'm even less sure that many teachers would know the answer to the question.

Of course, one could argue that improvement isn't necessary for an accountability system to work (though it would be for an incentive system to work), that it could also work by weeding out the bad apples in order to replace them with ripe ones. We can argue all day about whether or not there's a teacher shortage, but it's pretty clear that quite a few troubled schools also have trouble recruiting enough talented teachers. Similarly, we can extol the virtues of charter and private schools until the cows come home, but I don't think many people are under the illusion that starting new schools is a quick and easy process. In other words, in order for accountability systems to work we need to make sure that teachers (and schools) know how to get better before we decide on how to punish them for performing poorly (or rewarding them for performing well).

At some point in the coming months the National Center on Performance Incentives is going to release the initial results of the first randomized field trial using performance pay -- 100 middle school math teachers were offered bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 for three subsequent years based on gains in state test scores. And the results are going to get a lot of attention however they turn out. And most people will want to know one main thing: whether the 100 teachers in the treatment group outperformed the 100 teachers in the control group. It's an interesting an important question. But regardless of the answer, we need to find out why. How did teachers respond to the chance to earn incentives? Did they work harder? Did they change their pedagogy? Assign more homework? Spend more time on test prep? Attend more professional development? Do nothing? And what happened when they did these things? Did they become better teachers, or at least produce better test scores? In other words, did teachers who tried to improve accomplish their goal? Can we, in fact, say that teachers know how to improve? To me, those are more important questions.

We can't say that we know how to fix the educational system until we know whether teachers (and schools) know how to get better. And accountability and incentive systems will never work unless they do. And eventually people will realize this. As Nancy Flanagan put it in a comment on Robert Pondiscio's latest post: "We don’t have any helpful new ideas about classroom management in the 21st century, but we’ve decided to punish you when you fail, anyway."


Roger Sweeny said...

I fear your commentary "proves too much." If Nancy Flanagan is right that, "We don’t have any helpful new ideas about classroom management in the 21st century," why do we require teachers to go to ed school in the first place?

And if we really don't know how to do things well, why do we require principals and other administrators to take further ed school courses in yet more ed school programs?

vamoe said...

The answer is: yes, teachers do know how to improve. You must not be paying attention to education at all to even ask the question. Look at schools over the last twenty or thirty years. Look at university education programs. They are turning out better teachers and the teachers are teaching the students better. One reason my child does as well as she does is we have a steady stream of young, well educated teachers streaming out of the university in our town. Also, there are more continuing ed programs in place and the teachers make use of them. Also, there are more books about teaching than ever and the teachers read them. These teachers and administrators are always trying new ideas in our schools and when the ideas work, the schools continue to use them. Teachers are always working to improve, and they are succeeding. You might also look at the poverty index, the no parent children, and the plunging state budgets for education which are wreaking havoc in the schools, but that is another discussion.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

vamoe, I'm not asking whether schools of education know how to train teacher. I'm asking if teachers, once they're done with school and out in the field, know how to make themselves better teachers. In other words, if a teacher is told that their performance is good enough, do they know what to do in order to make it better? And I think we can ask the same question about schools that are put on the needs improvement list.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post. I am a teacher that had a really rough first year. I did everything right in college, I was very book smart in all my ed classes. I didn't perform well enough my first year and it ended up costing me my job. There was very little support in terms of what to do better, they just always assumed that I would continue to fail again.

Brian Rude said...

Wonderful post, Corey. I think the answer is very clear. No, teachers do not know how to improve, and no, schools do not know how to improve. Everyone considers that they are doing what they do because that is the best thing to do under the circumstances that they are stuck with. Forcing changes, I would suspect, is usually counterproductive. I can imagine that sometimes forcing some specific change results in improvement, but sometimes that "improvement" is superficial, misleading, or is the result of a trade off that some would consider unacceptable.

Everyone has opinions of who the good teachers are and who the bad teachers are, and which schools are good and which are bad. Those opinions are freely shared in some situations, over the lunch table among like minded colleagues. But that does not mean that when those opinions are introduced into serious discussion they will have much affect. What is obvious to one and his/her like minded colleagues can suddenly become not at all obvious in a larger context.

I have been mystified by the idea that national standards will improve education. National standards can only be goals. If national standards were to be adopted that have the effect of saying that 90% of my algebra students will accomplish what now only 40% of my students accomplish, then what am I supposed to do? I'm doing everything I can think of now to promote accomplishment of my students. No, I don't know how to improve. It's just as simple as that. I don’t know how to improve. If I did, I would. I'm not convinced that anyone knows how to improve. If they did, with very few exceptions, they would.

But I do believe educational improvement is possible. I believe it will come not by setting goals, but by actually looking at teaching and learning as it actually happens. I don't think we do that now. Many teachers look hard, and think hard, about their own practices, but are not very good at analyzing what they do, and are not very good at communicating with others. All we seem to have is the rhetoric of ed school, and that doesn't get us very far. If we were to enact into law the rhetoric and ideals of ed school we could certainly cause a lot of frustration, but I don't see any realistic likelihood of educational improvement.

Let me switch to a related question. To where can we look for parental improvement? Isn't that important too? Should the government pass a "parental accountability act" in an effort to improve parenting? There is a lot of poor parenting, is there not? And we know who the poor parents are, don't we? At least over the lunch table with like minded people we know who the poor parents are.

Accountability is a very important concept, but I'm not sure it's a concept that will help much in either teaching or parenting. With very few exceptions teachers and parents are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. I have my ideas of what’s best to do in my situation. Other teachers, and parents, have their ideas of what’s best to do in their situations. Until I become intimately familiar with the other guy’s situation, and the other guy’s perspective and response to that situation, anything I say about what he or she should do doesn’t mean much. And until that other guy becomes intimately familiar with my situation, and my perspective of my situation, anything he or she says about what I should do doesn’t mean much.

So, no, we don’t know how to improve.