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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:

Abandoned wooden schoolhouse, so delapidated that the fields and woods behind it can be seen through the empty windows and door frames.

Atelier Teee (cc)

Posted to Acid Test, The Confluence, Corrente.

13 Responses

  1. Good post quixote!

  2. I retired after 33 years (but I’m going back when my mandatory cooling-off period is over) — all on the front lines of ignorance– the community college classroom (well, except for that short awful forced stint in administration), and I, amazingly, agree with everything you said. That’s a new experience for me with blog posts. Class size is all. Try the personal physician vs. the community clinic and compare which patient and patients are in the best health as another example.

    • I taught in a community college for a year, and it was probably my most fascinating teaching experience. It was the most diverse student body I’ve ever seen. There were the older students who could have gone to Harvard, but didn’t have the money. The young, middle-class airheads who’d obviously had ultimatums from Ma and Pa: “You can go to college, or you can get a job.” The students who were working two jobs, taking care of their families, and going to night school for a chance at a better life. (They just blew me away.) And then the ones who came into it thinking they were just plumbers or receptionists or something, and who’d find out they were brilliant, and leave the class planning to go to med school.

      It was a real charge.

      • I’m back in CC after getting a BA in Econ from Old Dominion. I love it. The teachers are awesome. They all know that we are working students and go out of their way to make sure we understand the content while giving us leeway in being late because of our jobs.

        I’m hoping to get my network admin certification. I think that Seattle Central CC has one of the best programs here in Washington. They have the best toys to play with.

      • hey Q, loved this diary and wish more people had seen and commented on it. Very very good and I could not find one thing to disagree with.
        I had many average and several below average teachers in my life and NOT ONCE was it their fault that I did not do well in school. It was always a choice I made based on what else was going on in my life (when you parents divorce, your whole family sits around smoking pot and making several beer runs every day… and you are being molested by trusted adults, no teacher can make you interested in doing homework. I fear for the kids with parents who are buying in to the idea that their kids will be okay if they just get rid of the lousy teachers and send their darlings to charter schools. They are in for a big let down.
        I am going to share thispost with my friends on facebook, many are teachers and Obots both. I think their cognative MUSt be disonating by now.

  3. This was a good series, thanks for doing it!

  4. Yet another great installment. As before, you are right on with your criteria of having TEACHERS evaluate other teachers. OMG, the politics involved with having almost ANYONE in your school district evaluate you is unbelievable. I would imagine it is the same in just about any business, though.

  5. I’ve heard stories of the 60s and 70s with awful teachers and huge classes and the kids were still able to learn. The US was better in test scores, too. I think class size is a remedy, but is it a fundamental solution?

    • The short answer is: Yes.

      (Did you miss the bit where I said it’s up there with evolution for solid support? There’s been boatloads of research on it.)

  6. Nice work!!

  7. Excellent piece. I agree that placing value on teaching, through better resources, adequate pay, training, evaluation, work environment, and smaller classes would go a long way.

    Hey, it might even increase motivation. Because like you said, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

  8. I’m getting a tremendous boost out of hearing from my fellow teachers. :biggrin:

    Thanks to all for the kind words!

  9. i’m tempted often and sorely to write pieces like these, but the slaughter of quality public education is on purpose and when i remember that it deflates me somewhat. i am too sensitive for the really hard teaching and working in the communities where it’s mostly the most privileged who get the good stuff pisses me off over time to the point where i can’t function in them. if i ever am responsible for someone’s education again we’re going to do completely re-styled, Socratic and unstructured in certain ways and various other radical departures from the current system. socialization is important and there are ways to do it, but truth be told? i find all but really nice colleges almost unbearably horrible. so much about most education environments today are a sheer horror, to me at least. every day that passes i weep for being in the generation that’s basically the last to get what we got. it’s factory learnin for amurkins from now on, for all but the very wealthy. and of course in that imposed ignorance, people today don’t even realize what they’ve lost.

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