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The War on Teachers Ignorance III: What Could Work

(The title is inspired by Historiann’s excellent post. Also a note: unlike most of the things I blog about, teaching is what I’ve done professionally for decades. I taught in universities, not schools, but the two aren’t totally unrelated.)
Part I, Part II

If you need a metaphor for education it’s not work or play or a factory or a ladder. It’s a journey. People join at different points, and leave at any point. No power on earth can keep them on it if their minds don’t want to go. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s mind-altering, sometimes it’s a real slog, and sometimes the fleas force a change of plan. The same people are guides or need guides for different things at different times. Sometimes the travellers learn things on the road that are useful in the next village. Sometimes they climb mountains and see the whole world spread out before them.

Certification — whether it’s a cosmetology degree, a B.A,. or an M.D. — is the commuter traffic of that journey. The roads used, however, still have to be in good condition. Better, if anything, to withstand all that traffic. The necessary aspects of education still have to be done right, even if all anyone wants is a piece of paper for the wall. Where that’s most important is at the foundation: in schools.

The question raised in the second part was how much needs to be spent on education if it’s to work. Being so cheap that the money spent gets you nothing is a bigger waste than spending more and getting what you paid for. And, as I tried to make clear in the second part, punitive methods can’t work when the job to be done depends on willingness, lots of willingness. Humiliating people, learners or teachers, does the opposite of educate. Continuing the floggings until morale improves is not a cost-effective strategy.

So how does the voting public make sure education gets done right? It doesn’t. But neither does it have to. All it has to do is make education possible.

Humans actually enjoy learning and teaching. It’s probably got something to do with our 1400 cc or so of brain. That’s why we go to new places on vacation. It’s why more people watch new movies than re-runs. It’s more fun. And teaching is fun, too. There’s nothing quite like watching that “Aha!” moment light up someone’s face. Nobody has to force anyone to learn or to teach. All that’s needed is an unstressed environment with enough time and resources, and it happens.

Time and resources. Ay, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare said.

What does that mean in real life? First and foremost, it means small class sizes. Nothing else even comes close as a determinant of good teaching. To see the truth of that, consider that paying attention to students is a vital component in helping them toward understanding, and imagine a class with one hundred students. The teacher will barely know their names, let alone begin to fathom where the gaps in their knowledge lie. Then compare that to tutoring. Is it because all tutors are brilliant teachers that it helps even students who are bad at a subject? Hardly. An average teacher with a small class will have much better results than a brilliant one with large classes.

Remember, average is what most of us are going to get. That’s the definition of the word. All the BS about everybody having the “best” teachers and “quality” education is just that: BS. Most people are going to get an average education, so it’s extremely important — as in, Extremely Important — to make sure that average is good enough. Small class sizes are essential for average teachers to be good teachers. Small in this case means around 20, plus or minus five.

(I’m not saying individuals can’t be inspired by excellent lecturers and go on to do great and wonderful things. But whether or not that worked in your life or in a movie, I’m talking about what works across whole school systems. The evidence in favor of small class sizes as a tool for effective teaching is right up there with the theory of evolution for solidity.)

Resources also mean basic physical resources: comfortable buildings, availability of books, and basic supplies. Effective teaching and learning do happen with nothing but a stick to draw in the dust while the class sits in the shade of a tree, but that’s only proof of the strength of the drive to learn. It doesn’t mean it’s the optimum use of a teacher’s time or a student’s brain power.

And then there’s keeping teachers up to the mark. If they can’t reach the mark in the first place, evaluation is wasted effort. In other words, only the ones who are good enough to begin with should be hired. But the thing about good workers is that they tend to have more than one option. Teaching actually has to be attractive to get good teachers. Flogging teachers does not make teaching attractive. (You knew that, right?) So, for instance, in California two thirds (two thirds!) of those who qualify as teachers find other lines of work. How many of “the best” do you think that includes? What could prevent that massive erosion? Well, this is another thing you already know, but I’ll just spell it out. Better salaries and good working conditions (see above).

Once the good teachers have been hired, they still have to be kept up to the mark. Teachers aren’t unlike the rest of us. They may slack off less, but some slacking happens unless it’s prevented. The way to do that is with regular, objective evaluations, which are actually capable of encompassing the hugely complex task that is teaching. Just as only rocket scientists can evaluate rockets, teaching can only be evaluated by other teachers. Not by administrators, not by businessmen, not by politicians, not by tests. By teachers. Objectivity can only be approached if those evaluators work in pairs (as a check on each other), are from outside the teacher’s district, and are uninvolved in any part of her or his chain of command. That method isn’t new. Where it’s been used, for instance England, it seems to work. It certainly works better than random numbers methods based on multiple choice tests, or than office politics methods based on principal’s evaluations.

It’s not hard to summarize what works: small class sizes, adequate physical resources, good salaries, good working conditions, good standards in hiring, and evaluation by objective peers.

Anything strike you about that list?

Yes. Exactly. Every single one costs money. Real money. More than we (in the US) are currently spending. The bad news is that’s the cost of doing business. The good news is that then we’ll get something for the money.

In education, you don’t exactly get what you pay for. The optimum amount intelligently applied returns many times the investment. Too much spending generates decreasing marginal returns. Too little spending yields less than nothing because ignorance is expensive.

So the next time you’re listening to a discussion of reforms, ask yourself, “Does this lead to small class sizes?” “Does it improve working conditions for teachers?” “Is this part of outside peer-based evaluation?” If the answer is “No, but it’s cheaper,” then you know you’re being led down the garden path to here:

Posted to Acid Test, The Confluence, Corrente.