I’ve got this teaching policy thing figured out

So, in the past month I’ve read Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher, Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars and a ton of articles about both.  Not to mention, Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World this summer.  Plus, I had the awesome opportunity to pick Goldstein’s brain in person during her terrific visit to campus on Monday (evidence below):



Anyway, so none of this is original to me, but after digesting all this information, it seems pretty clear to me what we need to do (and much of this I’ve written before).

1) Treat teachers like professionals.  Yes, pay them more, that’s a given.  But it’s a lot more than that.  Give them meaningful opportunities for career advancement.  A teacher in year 25 should not be doing the exact same things as a teacher in year 2.  Teachers should have mentorship and curriculum development responsibilities as well as other ways to advance professionally and use their greater experience in skills in constructive ways.  All of these things will help attract better teachers and help keep better teachers.

2) Enough with the damn tests and over-reliance on the value-added metrics.  We way over-test our students.  So much better if students actually spent more of that time learning.  And evaluating teachers by students’ test scores is a hugely blunt instrument.  It has value at the extremes of the range when looked at over multiple years.  But that’s about it.  Furthermore, the data should be used to recognize which teachers need more development and how we can help them.  After we’ve actually tried to help them become better teachers and it hasn’t worked, then we can fire them.  The way it works now, the system is full of perverse incentives.

3) Teaching is a skill.  Work on developing it.  The major message of Elizabeth Green’s book was that great teachers are made not born.  And we’re pretty well at the point where we know what it is that makes them.  We just need to scale it up.  Alas, a huge part of this means teachers spending time learning from each other.

4) Give teachers more time.  If we want them to develop more skill they need time to observe other teachers and time to work with other teachers.  And therefore less time in front of students and less time grading.  Japan does a great job of this.  They got the idea from us where we never really implemented it.

5) Okay, this is key to points 3 and 4 above– teaching is collaborative.  Don’t expect teachers to work as if their classroom is an island and don’t evaluate them (i.e., student test scores) like it is.

6) Make it easier to fire truly bad teachers.  Try to make them better first, but it is pretty clear that in some cases, union protections go too far.  This breeds an unhealthy distrust of teachers that works against truly meaningful reform (I’m looking at you Campbell Brown).

7) National standards, damnit.  None of the systems that out-perform us have such a radically decentralized system of education policy. None of them.  Algebra is algebra is algebra whether you are in Mississippi or Minnesota.  Please don’t pretend otherwise.  There are, of course, elements of education that should have local control, but honestly what students learn and when they learn it shouldn’t be.

8) Those standards should be high standards.  Students learn better and learn more when you challenge them, not make an artificially low bar so that places like Mississipi and Alabama can make it look like they are doing a good job on education.   Students should learn fewer things but learn them more deeply with an emphasis on critical thinking (hmmm, if only there were a set of standards adopted by most states that did that).

9) Recognize that we should do all we can within education policy, but a huge part of the existing problems fall outside of education policy.  Yes, I’m talking about poverty.  A huge study by Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff estimated that teacher quality is responsible for only about 7% of the achievement gap.  The implication– the vast majority of the gap is created by factors that exist outside education policy.  This is an education post, not an inequality and poverty post, but one is foolish to ignore the impact of the latter on the former.  On the other hand, just because poverty and inequality are huge problems does not mean we should not do all we can to improve schools and teachers.

10) Last point, and this is a meta-one.  In many ways education policy reminds me of health care.  There’s advanced democracies doing it far better than us all around the world and somehow we pretend they don’t exist.  We get obsessed with teacher evaluations and rank and stack while none of the best performing countries do this and ignore the greater professionalization and better teacher training we see all around the world and just say “well the US is different.”  Yeah, we are different in how stupid we are in willfully ignoring the best lessons from other countries.  If we basically copied what they do with teachers in Finland and Japan it surely wouldn’t solve everything, but it would be a hell of a lot better (for teachers and students) than what we are doing now.

I’ve surely forgot something important, but hey, that’s 10 points.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

5 Responses to I’ve got this teaching policy thing figured out

  1. John F. says:

    Right on.

  2. Mika says:

    Finland! You probably know more about Finnish education system than I do so I don’t comment that. But I have a picture in a series “Finnish presidents doing stuff”:


  3. R. Jenrette says:

    Sure, algebra is algebra in Mississippi and Minnesota. But is history the same, or civics or economics or current events or even psychology,biology and sociology in those states?
    It’s all part of the same partisan divide. Teachers are on the front line of the divide.
    More of a national consensus is needed before big time education progress can be made.

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