jump to navigation

Educating Teachers March 7, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Teaching.
Tags: ,

I am skeptical of education reform in this country.

One sort of reforming wants to spend more money to improve education despite the fact that throwing money at the problem hasn’t worked. The other sort wants to use standardized tests to measure teacher performance, institute merit pay for successful teachers and fire the unsuccessful teachers. But this assumes that teachers have the knowledge and skills to teach well but are just too lazy to do the job without a financial incentive. This is a wholly unwarranted assumption that has circulated among right-wing, anti-union groups for years and has now escaped into the mainstream, apparently influencing the Obama Administration.

Lack of motivation is not the problem. Most teachers are dedicated people who care deeply about their students. Teaching complex material to unprepared, unmotivated, distracted students will always be a difficult challenge at best. But we have to get better at it if our society is to flourish. Punitive measures are not sufficient.

Most recent attempts to find models of education that work involve cherry picking the best teachers, administrators, and students, putting them together with adequate funding and some new, bright idea about curriculum; and then pointing to their success as evidence that—? Well, I guess that good students will learn from good teachers. But we already knew that.

The problem with these experiments is that they are not scalable. We need thousands of new teachers each year to teach millions of students. Thus, neither the teachers nor the students will be the “cream of the crop”. Educational policy cannot be about hiring the best and the brightest—we need too many teachers for that. Among a workforce of millions of teachers, there will be some good ones and some bad ones. But rewarding the good ones; and firing the bad ones will have little impact on outcomes. What matters is the average teacher. The successful educational policy will get average people to perform to the best of their ability.

This article in the New York Times Magazine is interesting because it reports on new research in teacher training that actually might do some good.

Working with Hyman Bass, a mathematician at the University of Michigan, Ball began to theorize that while teaching math obviously required subject knowledge, the knowledge seemed to be something distinct from what she had learned in math class. It’s one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less. This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov’s techniques. It was a different animal altogether. Ball named it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T. She theorized that it included everything from the “common” math understood by most adults to math that only teachers need to know, like which visual tools to use to represent fractions (sticks? blocks? a picture of a pizza?) or a sense of the everyday errors students tend to make when they start learning about negative numbers. At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. “Teaching depends on what other people think,” Ball told me, “not what you think.”

The idea that just knowing math was not enough to teach it seemed legitimate, but Ball wanted to test her theory. Working with Hill, the Harvard professor, and another colleague, she developed a multiple-choice test for teachers. The test included questions about common math, like whether zero is odd or even (it’s even), as well as questions evaluating the part of M.K.T. that is special to teachers. Hill then cross-referenced teachers’ results with their students’ test scores. The results were impressive: students whose teacher got an above-average M.K.T. score learned about three more weeks of material over the course of a year than those whose teacher had an average score, a boost equivalent to that of coming from a middle-class family rather than a working-class one. The finding is especially powerful given how few properties of teachers can be shown to directly affect student learning. Looking at data from New York City teachers in 2006 and 2007, a team of economists found many factors that did not predict whether their students learned successfully. One of two that were more promising: the teacher’s score on the M.K.T. test, which they took as part of a survey compiled for the study. (Another, slightly less powerful factor was the selectivity of the college a teacher attended as an undergraduate.)

Ball also administered a similar test to a group of mathematicians, 60 percent of whom bombed on the same few key questions.

The whole article is worth reading. But what stands out  is the recognition that teachers need to know more than subject matter and educational theory—the two main elements of teacher training. They also need a detailed understanding of how unformed minds can misunderstand the subject matter.

I suspect that the difference between an experienced teacher and an inexperienced teacher is that the experienced teacher has a wealth of information about what is hard about the subject they teach.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com