Real men of genius

One of my favourite education writers, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, writes about a Mr. Eric Hanushek, who in addition to being an economist, may very well be a real man of genius.  Remember all that money that might be flowing to the schools?

I read about a school principal who disliked saying she was firing staff. She preferred the phrase “freeing up teachers’ futures.” That is sort of what Hoover Institution economist Eric A. Hanushek is saying we should do with any new school bailout: use it to pay severance packages for ineffective teachers so they can find their true calling elsewhere.

That’s not going to happen any time soon, of course.

Hanushek’s article actually has a much larger scope: he looks at different possibilities of what will happen to schools (with respect to the economy) and discusses multiple strategies.  Still, the notion of paying teachers to leave has a certain amount of poetic justice to it; and really,who among you didn’t have an absolutely crappy high school teacher that really needed to be asked to go elsewhere to find their calling?  How much better would schools be without much of that intellectual detritus?

Both Mathews and Hanushek see the obvious problem:

My first problem with his solution, as he recognizes, is that we are not really sure which teachers are effective and which are not. Most districts have no dependable way to find out.

That depends on what the meaning of “dependable” is.  As I’ve said often before (here and elsewhere), there are very dependable ways to identify the ineffective teachers.  Students know.  Principals usually know.  When people say that there aren’t dependable ways to find out, what they usually mean is one of three things: (1) There’s no way to prove that a teacher is ineffective, at least not with a strong enough basis to withstand a lawsuit or a union action; (2) A method might have some false positives and false negatives — some good teachers might accidentally get swept up and some bad teachers might be missed; (3) that they don’t want to fire any teachers anyway so they won’t accept any method as dependable.

I really don’t see either (2) or (3) as an actual problem.  (3) is just institutional inertia.  As for (2), when I clean a sticky spill from my counter — some counter molecules come off onto the scrub brush, and some spill molecules are left behind.  So what?  (1) is a thornier problem — for all the reasons that get discussed ad nauseam throughout the edublogosphere.  When it takes half a million dollars and months of time and effort to fire a teacher, you can imagine what sorts of painstaking accuracy and relevance will be demanded by teachers and unions and what sort of holy hell will be raised if it isn’t.  Still, hat’s off to Mr. Hanushek’s thinking outside the box.


  1. Evan Romer says:

    My problem is (4) there a real potential for decisions about who to let go to be made for political, personal and power reasons. The teacher who crossed the principal, the teacher who a School Board member doesn’t like, the teacher who gave the principal’s son a low grade, the teacher who stuck to their standards and didn’t make passing their class a joke, the gay teacher, etc.

    Maybe we can develop procedures to minimize this problem, but it CERTAINLY has to be part of the discussion. To act as though, once we have a system in place to get rid of ineffective teachers, then teachers will be let go only on that basis, is naive.

    Also, I find your response to (2) very callous. A good teacher loses her job because the system makes a mistake and your response is “So what?”? If your response were, “that’s a terrible shame but it’s better than the system we have now,” I could see your point. But “so what, it’s like a few molecules on my counter”?

  2. I actually do NOT think that there is a “dependable” way to identify effective teachers because there is not a “dependable” way to ascertain the purpose of schooling.

    Effectiveness depends on the purpose and goals. Some teachers may be extremely effective in light of certain goals, and rather ineffective in light of other goals.

    If you bring in a new principal with different views as to the goals that s/he wants teachers to work towards, you will often get different lists of effective and ineffective teachers.

    So, again this comes down to how much you want to trust principals. Do you think that they are experienced enough, selected well enough, well trained enough, well supported enough and wise enough to make these determinations? Good principals are going to make a few mistakes on the margine, perhaps. But poor principals? They’ll make lots and lots of mistakes.

    So, who can handle this. Some principals? Yeah. Most? Probably. But what you are talking about is not really a question of teacher quality as much as of principal quality. How do you determine which principals to trust with this kinds of decision-making?

  3. I have just been compared to a molecule of countertop. Wow.

    Thank you so much.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I nominate ceolaf for Comment of the Month. Excellent points, all.

  5. I’ve worked for a number of principals.

    They seem to have an enormous amount of pressure from the district office to accomplish things that run contrary to the union contract or just simple common sense.

    Successful principals are deceitful. Principals who retain a sense of decency are fired.

    It’s more political than pedagogical.

    It’s sad to see new principals who start out as decent human beings try to hold on to their jobs.

    Principals would focus on teaching and learning if it weren’t for all the little fires they have to put out and all the politics they have to play.

    And so, I usually have bosses that have just one concern about my teaching–that I don’t do anything that would make their phone ring.

    It’s not curriculum, not test scores. It’s “The rule of the ringing telephone,” that guides all school administration.

  6. Mr. Lewis, thanks for generating such a good discussion. Is “Collateral Damage” an OK concept with you? As an engineer, I spent a great deal of time dealing with false positives and false negatives. It’s actually a major problem in many situations. Your comment showed a lack of depth, a lack of knowledge and, sadly, a failure of our education system. I doubt if anyone who read your post can take you seriously anymore. So it goes.

  7. Ceolaf and Robert Wright make great points. A teacher who makes kids happy and flaunts the latest teaching fads is our district’s ideal, regardless of whether he or she actually teaches the subject well. Teachers who are not popular with the majority of students and/or who don’t use trendy methods is “ineffective” in our leaders’ eyes, even if he or she conveys knowledge very effectively.

    Ideas matter. Ideals matter. Change ideals and we’ll change education in this country. New ideal: erudite teacher who can explain lucidly. Current ideal: knowledge-lite, chipper secretarial teacher who can deploy the latest complex methodologies while charming and counseling students.

    Percentage of middle school teachers who have a solid grasp of the history they teach –I’d say 20%. Anyone disagree? Yet this is not considered a scandal because actually knowing one’s subject is not considered important. We are to be “guides at the side” not “sages on the stages”.

  8. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    I was told that I don’t teach physics, but students. I’m still trying to figure out what that means.

  9. I teach juvenile delinquents.

    And sometimes, not very much.

  10. Roger Sweeny says:

    I’m going to assume that when you say “effective teacher,” you mean a teacher whose students “get the material”–who take away a large amount of subject matter knowledge from the course.

    High school students have wonderful short term memories. They practically beg you, “Tell us what you want us to tell you.” Many will do well on tests. But as soon as the assessment is over, a quick decay of that information begins. By the time the next September rolls around, there isn’t much left.

    If we wanted to actually find out whose teaching had been “effective” and whose hadn’t, we’d have to assess those students the following September–and the timing would have to be random, so they couldn’t cram beforehand. Partly because of the practicalities, I just don’t see that happening.

    The other reason I don’t see it happening is that it would rub our faces in something all we high school teachers know deep down, but don’t want to thing about: very little of what we try to teach is ever truly learned.

  11. Roger,

    I agree that testing a year later is a truer test of effective teaching. But I don’t share your despair that little gets retained. Sure the kids who don’t pay attention don’t learn. And even the attentive ones will forget a lot of details. But if teaching has been lucid, many kids’ brains will have been enriched. Gists, at least, will have been retained along with outstanding details. Vocabulary will have been acquired incidentally (we wouldn’t know quite how to test for this). New schemata will have begun to be installed in kids’ brains, and existing ones will have been rejiggered and improved. New opinions created, though the exact facts and logic that led to those opinions may have fallen away. I hold that lots of knowledge that we acquire through school and self-study becomes invisible once it enters the long term memory. It’s there and it’s working, but it’s hidden under thick piles of “software code”. This is one reason smart adults discount the value of teaching facts, even though their own intelligence depends on having had facts build and shape the “software” that operates in their brains.

  12. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    “Students know. Principals usually know. ”

    I don’t think this is true at all. You usually won’t know that you’ve learned something useful until after the fact, and rarely during.

    I’ve seen all sorts of mindless arts and crafts projects in hs and all those kids seem to think they’re learning a lot.

    I had an ex colleague who seemed to teach fewer topics each year and kept substituting more “hands on” (minds off) activites for calculations. His students seem to think he’s easy to understand and that he explains things well. They’re too young to realize that they’re getting the dumbed-down version of what used to be HS physics.

    From my end what made me most proud was a very bright girl telling me, toward the end of the year, that her math skills improved (not that they were bad; she takes advanced everything) because of what we did in class. I then started informally polling ex-students asking about their math skills. They all said they got better and I even had the advanced math teacher tell me that students who had me learned a lot from me. Just recently I contacted an ex student who told me that my class helps in the calculus class she’s now taking.

    I’m sure that little of this was obvious to these students when they were in my class.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ex-Physics Teacher,

    I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m giving students in general too much credit.

    But *I* knew who the good teachers were when I was in high school. And I’m absolutely confident in my evaluations, both then and now.

    So maybe I should amend my statement: the smartest students know who the good and bad teachers are — and not just good for the smart kids, but for students in general.

  14. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    Mr Lopez,

    The girl I mentioned first seemed surprised that she had gotten much better at math, and she’s very smart. Quite possibly will be a research scientist someday. Apparently she must be a moron compared to you.

    Your comment brings back memories of The Princess Bride.

  15. Perhaps it depends on how exceptional the teacher is. There was one teacher at my Junior High that did not even try to teach. The smart kids knew it. The “dumb” kids knew it. The teachers that got his kids the next year certainly knew it. And when my parents checked with their adult neighbors, people who went to JH as much as 20 years before also knew it. The guy had simply stopped teaching as soon as he was tenured.

    I don’t know how much of the responsibility here was the union, and how much the school administration. I do think that the school could have been better run if they’d fired the principal and promoted his secretary!

  16. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    Sure, there are egregious examples like the one mentioned. But there are many more that bear no resemblance to this one.

    If kids know who the bad/good teachers are, shouldn’t they also know how to identify the good/bad teaching strategies. Calculator overuse is an example. Should at least some smart kids realize that all this calculator usage cripples them and stage some sort of protest?

    How ’bout all the countless arts and crafts projects? Don’t the smart kids realize that they’re learning in HS what they already learned in kindergarten? Yet the dumber the activity the more popular it is.

    And if indeed it’s the Mensa candidates who see teaching as it really is, what of it? ?Since when does the educational establishment care about the smart kids? I was explicitly told that it doesn’t matter whether the smart kids learn anything since they’ll “succeed” anyway.

  17. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “If kids know who the bad/good teachers are, shouldn’t they also know how to identify the good/bad teaching strategies. “

    Why would we think this is the case? Unless there was some sort of 1:1 correspondence between good teaching strategies and good teaching, which I seriously doubt. My five best high school teachers were all very different in their style and approach. They had different strengths and weaknesses, but it was still apparent that the total package was getting the job done.

    Likewise, the worst teachers I can think of sucked in entirely different ways, too. One had us reading from the textbook out loud in class. Another refused to teach his subject and instead talked about things totally unrelated to the course. Still a third was simply incompetent at his subject and was always being corrected both by students and his post-mistake self.

    At the same time, the best English teacher I had sometimes had us read Shakespeare out loud in class, taking turns at the parts. Does this make it a bad strategy or a good strategy?

    “How ’bout all the countless arts and crafts projects? Don’t the smart kids realize that they’re learning in HS what they already learned in kindergarten? Yet the dumber the activity the more popular it is.”

    Yes they do realize it. And they resent it. They enjoy the activities because, well, when in Rome… but they resent it.

    “And if indeed it’s the Mensa candidates who see teaching as it really is, what of it? ?Since when does the educational establishment care about the smart kids? I was explicitly told that it doesn’t matter whether the smart kids learn anything since they’ll “succeed” anyway.”

    I was under the impression that we were talking about how to determine teaching quality, not how to best serve particular portions of the student body. Perhaps whoever told you that was speaking the truth. But just because they will “succeed anyway” doesn’t mean that they can’t be useful in helping us make determinations.

    Finally, markm is right: the ability of students to determine teacher quality does depend on just how bad the teacher is. But we’re not talking about figuring out where the precise line between the 49.9 and 50.1 percentiles are. We’re talking about getting rid of the most ineffective teachers — buying them out. It’s a gross-level differentiation.

    But right now we can’t even get rid of the exceptional cases. And a lot of people don’t even want to try, in part because there’s no perfect discriminator. But if we allow a certain number of false positives and false negatives in our discrimination, if we stopped letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, then perhaps we could at least get a start.

  18. Though I’m a union supporter, I believe in using the existing evaluation system to weed-out the worst teachers. However I think we need the money for extra administrators to do this –it is time-consuming, and administrators already have too much to do from what I’ve seen.

  19. Mark Roulo says:

    I was told that I don’t teach physics, but students. I’m still trying to figure out what that means.

    It means that the person who is telling you this doesn’t know the difference between the accusative and dative cases.

    In English, I think this means that they don’t understand the difference between the object of a sentence and a preposition.


    -Mark Roulo