The average teacher will be average

We’re not going to find enough “best and brightest” teachers for all students, writes Mike Petrilli on Gadfly.

. . . lots of our children–especially poor and minority children — are going to have teachers who may be good but are not likely to be great. These are teachers who themselves received so-so public school educations, attended so-so colleges, are raising families and thus probably don’t want to work sixty hours a week, but who do care about their students and want them to succeed.

Shouldn’t we be thinking about how to make these average teachers more effective, too, and augmenting them via technology and other stratagems, rather than putting all our eggs in the “superstar teacher” basket?

I agree that the supply of superstar teachers is quite limited, though I’m not sure technology can spread their reach beyond their own classrooms. Does anyone know where this is being done?

A strong principal can turn average teachers into effective teachers. A weak principal will turn average teachers into ineffective teachers and ex-teachers.

For example, in planning for her second year of teaching, Miss Bennett checked out rumors about a new reading curriculum; a district administrator told her she’d almost missed the deadline to sign up for training. Her principal didn’t tell the teachers about the curriculum change or the training. “Total lack of communications” is the principal’s management style.

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Comments

  1. What makes you think average teachers aren’t effective?

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Well, according to Freakanomics, good schools at the K-6 level mattered a lot more than good schools at the jr. and high school levels. (Makes sense… if you never learn reading and basic math, you can’t learn the later stuff.)

    BUT do we realy need super-geniuses to teach first graders to read? I doubt it. Filling the elementary schools with teachers of average intelligence should do the job….. IF they do a good job teaching basic skills…..

    I wonder if we might see better results if we changed the incentives– payed elementary teachers as much as HS teachers, and reduced ELEMENTARY class sizes. (teaching 15 kids in 3 reading groups is probably more effective than 25 in 3 groups….. at the highschool level, there’s proably less of a payoff for smaller class sizes….)

    Of course, then we’d have to convince people that it was MORE important for every child to learn multiplication well than for every child to learn geometry poorly……

  3. Mrs. Davis says:

    It is hard to imagine anyone less qualified to teach than someone who never had any difficulty learning. How do they relate to someone who is having difficulty? How do they relate their experiences with difficulty learning and how they had to persevere and how rewarding it was when the light finally went on?

    As long as we have public schools, the most important qualification for teachers will be beatification.

  4. Mrs. Davis said, “It is hard to imagine anyone less qualified to teach than someone who never had any difficulty learning. How do they relate to someone who is having difficulty? How do they relate their experiences with difficulty learning and how they had to persevere and how rewarding it was when the light finally went on?”

    What about the other end of the spectrum? How does a teacher who never sat, bored out of their mind in an elementary school, related to a gifted student?

  5. Good article by Mike Petrilli, but that bit about technology bugs me. How is technology going to spread the benefit of the really good teachers? What comes to mind is the idea that we can videotape the lessons of a really good teacher and then share that videotape with a lot of other students. That certainly can be done. It’s not a new idea, however. It predates the internet by at least three decades. As a freshman at the University of Missouri in 1961 I took American Government that way. We watched the videotaped lecture three times a week, took the prescribed tests, and got our three hours of credit. I’m not sure the professor on the tape was supposed to be a superteacher. I always assumed it was a cheap way to deliver a course. But it worked.

    But do we want to try that with first grade teachers? Or even eighth grade teachers? What works fine in college may not transfer very well to elementary school. At that level we are still trying to civilize the barbarians. That is quite a different matter than delivering a well prepared lecture.

    The whole problem of discipline is not addressed by NCLB, at least that I am aware, and a lot of discussion about academic achievement doesn’t mention it. But discipline has always been very important. If you need a reminder of how important and difficult discipline is, read Gary Rubinstein’s book, The Reluctant Disciplinarian, and check out his blog, http://garyrubinstein.teachfor.us.

    And, equally important, the idea of spreading superteachers around via video assumes a certain perspective of teaching. It assumes that the presentation of a topic is the essential thing in teaching. An alternative perspective is that the essential thing in teaching is the management of the time and efforts of the students by the teacher. A video presentation, no matter how well done, does not manage the time and efforts of the students. I have discussed this management versus performance perspective of teaching in an article on my website. Here’s a link: http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap01.htm

  6. Mrs. Davis says:

    What about the other end of the spectrum? How does a teacher who never sat, bored out of their mind in an elementary school, related to a gifted student?

    They don’t. But public schools make no pretense of wanting to do anything differently for gifted students. They’ll learn, so what’s the problem?

  7. I’ve taught in urban schools most of my career, and I resent the stated assumption that such teachers will, of course, NOT be “good enough”. I’ve generally found my colleagues to be at least as good as suburban teachers, even though the circumstances were far more difficult.

    It’s also NOT acceptable to imply that graduates of non-elite colleges received a “so-so” education. Some of us at non-elite schools were there due to budget constraints or family situations, not lack of intelligence or skills.

  8. I firmly believe there is nothing more important to a classroom as a good teacher. There are superstar teachers who seem to be naturals. They have all the natural moves that a good teacher needs in any setting. The goal is try to recruit and retain these teachers straight out of college, and it doesn’t have to be Ivy League. These teachers represent a small percentage of whom we interview but they are out there. The rest are average but can be much more with the right principal and professional development opportunities. I have seen average teachers become great teachers with dedication and hard work. The sad part is when we hire below average teachers who are in education for the wrong reason (summers off). These teachers get in the union, they get tenure and then you can never get rid of them. I do not think they represent the majority, but they are out there. Clearly these are the teachers Mrs. Davis from an earlier comment has experienced. She clearly is not a fan of public education and that is too bad because there are a lot of good teachers who make a difference every day.

  9. Mrs. Davis says:

    I think there are so many teachers that it will be impossible to have the average teacher be much different from the average college graduate. But the problem I try to focus on is not the teacher. Because even though the teachers are the most important part of the students’ educational experience, they have become powerless cogs in the struggle between big government and big unions.

    Teachers would be much better served in a very decentralized industry where they had much more relative power. Likewise students and parents would be far better served in a decentralized industry where they had more relative power through the power of choice. The problem is the public school system, not the teachers who are its victims as well as the students ands parents.

  10. I wonder if we might see better results if we changed the incentives– payed elementary teachers as much as HS teacher…

    I have never heard of a district in which there was a pay disparity between elementary and high school. Every single one I’ve ever seen had pay simply based on seniority, with allowances for extra education or extra-curriculars.

    As far as urban vs. suburban, there are completely different sets of skills required in each setting. In my urban district, you basically see two types of teachers. There are the missionary types who thrive in the urban environment – people who look at the kids in their class and realize that, between the idiots around them and the idiots above them, they are the only thing standing to protect them.

    There are also, however, people who can’t get jobs anywhere else. Urban districts require a lot more teachers, and have a much rougher environment. It is akin to what the Catholic church in America is facing right now. When you have a difficult time getting staff, you’re much more likely to let mediocre ones stay around. It’s not that the mediocre ones are so numerous. They just stick out a lot more.

    Urban districts also, with their very large budgets, tend to be top heavy with administrators and million-dollar programs that change as fast as the wind. The result is that teachers who know how to teach are so overburdened with mandates that they lack the authority to actually teach. Combine that with a centralized discipline system that coddles thugs with loud parents, and you have a recipe for a nightmare.

    Wait, remind me again why I do this?

  11. Linda F. makes a good point about not all students from non-elite colleges being mediocre. However, the quality of the education these bright individuals receive is often not as high as what they would’ve received at an elite school.

    My best friend from high school was bright but came from a family of modest means. She got accepted to Tufts, Brandeis, and Holy Cross but ended up commuting to a non-flagship branch of UMass for financial reasons. One day I was visiting her and sat in on her freshman English class. It was an absolute joke- way less academically rigorous than the honors English classes we had both taken at our high school. The professor was having the students in the class read paragraphs and underline the thesis statement. I couldn’t believe this exercise was necessary in a college-level class! The contrast with the freshman English course I’d taken at an elite university was striking.

  12. “A strong principal can turn average teachers into effective teachers”…’tis certainly true that a strong leader, in *any* field, helps employees to become more effective. But why would a strong leader want to become an educational administrator, in the system as it now operates? Strong leaders, by their very nature, thrive on responsibility and accountability, and the system does not exactly center around these things. What it does center around is mindless credentialism, which is exactly the sort of thing that turns strong leaders off.

  13. Andy Freeman says:

    > I think there are so many teachers that it will be impossible to have the average teacher be much different from the average college graduate.

    That assumes that either teachers are random or dominate the numbers. The latter clearly isn’t true and the former unlikely.

    Fortunately, we don’t have to “think”, we can actually look.

    We find that hard science and engineering graduates tend to be signficantly better at math than social science graduates. Where do teachers fall and when is this relevant?

  14. In the “Black Disaster” entry we’re introduced to the Fort Bend, Texas school district which graduates 80% of black guys compared to Detroit Public School district’s 20% graduation rate.

    Is there the slightest possibility that Fort Bend district has a secret pipeline to the place were uber-teachers are stamped out? Or is it far more likely that Fort Bend has, for reasons which have, as yet, excited zero interest, discovered a means of making average teachers vastly more effective then their Detroit counterparts?

    What’s really telling about public education is that were this any other field of endeavor there’d be flocks of experts trying to figure out Fort Bend’s trick.

    If it were Fort Bend Hospital and their post-surgical infection rate were 25% of the Mayo Clinic’s you can bet your last dollar that the Mayo Clinic would have bunches of experts performing organizational sigmoidoscopies on poor, little Fort Bend Hospital to determine how they manage the trick. But since it’s merely education no gives a hearty damn.

    The cold fact of the matter is that a lousy administrator can obviate the best efforts of lots of good, even great teachers and won’t break a sweat destroying the efforts of hundreds or even thousands of average teachers.

    Until administrators are provided with a reason to care desperately about every child’s education the ed schools can turn teachers with the ability leap tall buildings in a single bound for all the good teaching skill will matter.

  15. Allen asks if perhaps Fort Bend has discovered something that makes average teachers effective. I know nothing about Fort Bend and Detroit schools, but I would very strongly suspect that that something is discipline. Wouldn’t that pretty well explain it? Of course that brings up the question – can we somehow impose a tight system of discipline on a school that has been lax for years? How would that be done? What has prevented it from being done already? I don’t know, but I think we ought to think about it.

  16. Mrs. Davis says:

    Andy,

    I probably should have phrased that as college graduates earning comparable salaries. If we paid teachers better and they had better working conditions, we would get a better calibre of aoplicant. But there are about 3 million teachers, so there will be reversion to the mean in a population that large and it will be difficult to move.

  17. There are at least stories that teachers can make huge differences in student performance even in difficult situations (e.g. Rafe Esquith). From the statistical data available I do think it makes sense to say that these teachers are exceptional. So I can think of at least three possible reasons why all students won’t have exceptional teachers. First, the people who could be these exceptional teachers have many opportunities and choose to take opportunities that are more lucrative than teaching. Second, there are just not enough talented people around to become these exceptional teachers. Third, working in the context of the educational bureaucracy is too oppressive so exceptional teachers quit to find more fulfilling work. Perhaps there are more reasons, but these three reasons look difficult enough to ameliorate. So it does seem worthwhile to look into improvements that are not based on hiring the “best” people and then mostly depending on them to produce results regardless of the rest of the educational system.

    So there at least claims that different teaching methods can produce significant results. I came across a teaching technique that is called “Direct Instruction”. The advocates of this method at least argue that it can achieve the stated goal: achieve systematic improvement without having to hire the “best” people. They also argue that this was proven statistically and that the results have been mostly ignored since the 1970’s. This caught my attention because I had used this method to teach my son to read, although at the time I taught my son to read I did not know it was a general technique for all areas of learning. So I’d love to know if anyone vouch for or discredit the claims made by the “Direct Instruction” advocates.

    I’m not sure about the use of technology in the school, but I do believe that I’ve used technology successfully for teaching in the home. The most dramatic example being the difference between how my two sons learned the alphabet — by which I mean the ability to identify the letters and produce the sounds of the letters. I sent my first son to a private pre-K program for $6,000. It was one of the more prestigious ones in our area. My wife and I mostly counted on the program to teach him the alphabet . This worked some, but my wife and I found we needed to put in a separate effort to help him learn the alphabet solidly. For our second son, we bought an alphabet learning DCD for $7. We played this DVD every morning after breakfast for 3 months. He liked the DVD so much he also requested to watch it at other times during the day. At the end of three months he knew the alphabet solidly. So in summary I’d say this technique was astoundingly cheaper, faster, and more effective than hiring a shared teacher. So it seems to me that technology is very effective at least in helping to learn basic skills.

  18. Teachers’ unions must die. Bring in the meritocracy. Destroy the established order. Open the doors to non-accredited and non-indoctrinated teachers with half a clue about how the real world works.

    Sponsored by Oynklent Green, where energy is people!

  19. Andy Freeman says:

    > I probably should have phrased that as college graduates earning comparable salaries. If we paid teachers better and they had better working conditions, we would get a better calibre of aoplicant.

    Huh?

    We’re constantly told that teachers are more dedicated than the rest of us, that they sacrifice to be teachers, that teaching is a calling. (It’s unclear how that implies that they shouldn’t be questioned, which is the context in which it is usually offered, but I digress.) If that’s true, teachers would be more proficient than graduates earning comparable salaries.

    So, which is it? Do teachers sacrifice or are they typical (given salary)?