Forget better teachers…

Get better teaching jobs instead.

So says the combined authority of Hess, Gunn, and Meeks in an interesting commentary at Education Week.  Here’s the short version: We’re never going to get all the omnicompetent super-teachers we think we need.  So instead, let’s take the work force we have and change the job of teaching — change the structure of institutional education, change what we’re doing with schools, really — in order to maximize that force’s effectiveness.

Of the various proposals in the essay, I think the promotion of specialization is probably the best.  Every teacher — even the ones that I considered awful when I was in school — has some talent.  No human is completely bereft of talent, save perhaps those suffering from certain really extreme birth defects.  Learning how to use the talents of your employees is one of the hallmarks of a good manager and a good leader.

Even if turning the school into the equivalent of a hospital, complete with a para-educational staff and a small army of administrative workers, turns out not to be feasible, it’s a novel idea, and the authors are probably right that it’s easier than attempting to hire not hire all those super-teachers.


  1. I don’t entirely disagree with your argument, short term.

    But you did remind me of these lines from Heinlein’s “Farmer in the Sky”, where the protagonist is describing a school in a large space ship:

    “Each class consisted of about two dozen kids and some adult who knew something about something. (You’d be surprised how many adults don’t know anything about anything!)”

  2. I’ve always said that I would much rather have fewer teachers in my building, with the remaining teachers all teaching more sections of more students, as long as their was appropriate support.

    Instead of each teacher handling 5 classes of 25 students, i would happily manage 6 classes of 40-50 students. However, the cost savings by removing that large number of teachers would be placed in other areas. Each teacher would have a paraprofessional working alongside them. The paraprofessional would assist with discipline, grading papers, planning, and other aspects of working with the students.

    Every 2-3 teachers would have a full time secretary. The secretary would help with coordinating meetings, paperwork, making copies, parent contacts, etc… Each person would be doing what is best suited to their talents and ability. Currently, a large percentage of my day is spent on work that does not need a professional teacher, but just needs a talented secretary. Freeing me up to teach would help cut the workforce, raising the average ability of teachers in all buildings.

    Obviously, this approach is much better suited to middle schools or high schools.

  3. How is this proposal of specialization different from the current high school model? I’m clearly missing something.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:


    If you read Paul’s comment again, all the things he wants to make discrete from the teacher are currently part of the teacher’s responsibilities.

    This isn’t JUST about subject separation.

  5. Interesting, because on some campuses, it seems like the current model is to devolve more and more tasks onto the teacher.

    I’d love to have someone willing to handle the “administrivia” I have to deal with as a prof, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. If anything, I see us being asked to write more reports, do more stuff (like textbook ordering) ourselves using an “online interface,” and that kind of thing.

    (Every “online interface to make life easier” I’ve ever encountered has been just the opposite…)

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    The idea that we need to make “every man a tiger” as some military theoreticians say (civilian non-veteran theoreticians) fails because the most most men can be is good soldiers.
    Similarly, trying to model teachers after the self-sacrificing, masochistic geniuses like Jaime Escalante and the “idealistic white teacher turns around a ghetto classroom” Hollywood model is simply going to fail. Pushing the teacher version of the “bon general ordinaire” to be a cross between teacher versions of Napoleon, Patton, and Sun Tzu will fail and, in addition, ruin and crush the unwary willing.
    Teaching is one thing. Everything else is another thing. Putting the two together is not a good idea.

  7. Stacy in NJ says:

    How about if the “para-professionals” were teachers in training? Make them do the grunt work (grading, talking with parents, paperwork) and then observe/assit classroom master teachers? Like a real apprenticeship program? Instead of a degree in education, how about a major in their specialty and then 4 or 5 years assisting as an apprentice?

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Stacy — I’m not convinced that working as a legal secretary is a good way to train to be an attorney, though perhaps the jump from nurse to doctor might make more sense (I’m not a doctor so I don’t really know). So I’m not sure how much of the scut work can or should be sloughed off on apprentices.

    But I do think that a more explicit apprenticeship system would be an excellent idea, and I’ve mind to create something like that myself when I open my private school in…. (checks his watch) …16 years.

    We’ll see. But I think apprenticeship — real apprenticeship — is the way to go for teacher training. So you’ve got at least one person who agrees with you.

  9. As someone who went the non-traditional, “intern” route to a teaching credential, I agree completely with the idea of apprenticeship.

  10. Stacy in NJ says:

    Michael, Yeah, well, the master teacher would have the additional responsibility of guiding and evaluating his apprentice. Besides the grunt work, the apprentice would need to learn actual classroom and instructional skills.