> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: December 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Missing the point Mr Gladwell

My son sent me a link to this article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. After wondering if this was his idea (my son, not Malcolm Gladwell) of a Christmas present, I ploughed through the article. I found it fairly depressing. Perhaps it was the length of time he spent talking about American football which soured me, I don’t know, but I did start to wonder if Mr. Gladwell really appreciated what teaching was like. His central point seemed to be that we could improve educational achievement by recruiting the right people. Haven’t heard that one before. He accepted this might be difficult -we can’t really tell what a ‘star’ or ‘top’ teacher looks like. We can only identify those elements which make a good teacher. Then we weed out the ‘bad teachers’.
The sectors Gladwell suggests we might look to for pointers are –wait for it – the NFL and the financial advice sector. He describes the recruitment approach of Ed Deutschlander, the co-president of North Star Resource Group, in Minneapolis. He recommends you recruit by first selecting people who fit your criteria for success. You put them through a rigorous regime, losing those who don’t succeed along the way. After four years he claims he can expect to ‘to hang on to at least thirty to forty per cent’ of the original top performers.

Note to any aspiring financial gurus. Read Dickens’ Hard Times. You might find the character of Bounderby interesting.

Gladwell shifts back to teaching. According to the article ‘Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material…’ The smart solution then seems to be going for better teachers rather than making class sizes smaller. ‘And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.’
Got it? You select teachers from anyone who has ‘a college degree and a pulse’ (there goes several of my favorite teachers). It doesn’t matter what their qualifications are. You ‘try out’ those teachers in schools, rigorously evaluating them on a regular basis. You might hope to get one good teacher out of every four teachers tried out.
Gladwell admits that salaries would have to change because once we find those hot shot teachers ‘who can teach a year and a half’s material in one year, we’re going to have to pay them a lot—both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.’
Those who survive the winnowing. Good phrase isn’t it. I wonder if Gladwell is aware of the numbers of teachers who leave teaching in the first four years, without being ‘winnowed’ but because they find the conditions too difficult. Does he really imagine the teaching profession is easy already and that there are hundreds of people lining up to get into it?
Aside from the practical problems his suggestions would create (Is he suggesting no teacher training at all? Who writes and grades the tests that chart student progress? How long before you can ‘prove’ that the teacher is the problem?) there are a number of issues in his approach that I want to take issue with.
Firstly, why does he say so little about the systems of education that most teachers find themselves in? Many of them positively interrupt good teaching. Take the obsession with testing. How often does a test mask or distort the learning that is going on? Three students get B minus in a test. One of them has a B minus because they have done the material before, found it boring but can regurgitate it with enough accuracy to get a reasonable pass. The second student has worked really hard and despite finding the material difficult has made a great stab at understanding it. The last student has a good memory and a nice turn of phrase and can flannel their way out of any test with very little effort. Each of those test results come from completely different learning experiences –but the students are graded the same. A good teacher might decide that the first student need not do the test, the second should continue on the learning journey and the third should be given a different test altogether. But where’s the room in a grade-oriented classroom for that? Students must be given their grade – regardless of how useless that label may be for their learning.
Secondly, schools are not financial institutions –but they are constantly hampered by financial issues. Otherwise we would stop coming up with good reasons for lowering class sizes, get more staff in and just do it. Teachers’ pay is another issue. A good teacher does many hours work outside of a classroom. The perception of teachers is that they have short working hours, with long holidays. This doesn’t take into account the extra time and energy you must put into teaching after hours and during vacation time. It doesn’t take into account the inflexibility of the school year. I don’t know anyone who went into teaching for the money, although I do think it says a lot about our society that we pay teachers so little.
Thirdly, I don’t believe that good teachers are just born, any more than good quarterbacks are just found. Teaching, itself can be taught. Teachers should certainly be taught whilst on the job. But teaching teachers needs to be given more than lip service. You can hardly expect teachers to do all of their job training during their free time, although many of us do.
Finally, and most importantly, I reject the vision of Education that is at the heart of Gladwell’s proposition. I do not believe Education is just about ranking students, so why should I believe it should be about ranking teachers? I accept that teachers can improve, and no doubt there are teachers who should not be in the profession – just as there are people in every profession who should move on. I think a complete overhaul of our education system is probably called for –but it shouldn’t involve the ‘old fashioned ‘ approach of setting the bar and them seeing who doesn’t manage to hop over it. We should be looking to educationalists like Dylan Wiliam to help us change our schools, not the football coaches. We are talking about the education of our children here, not the Superbowl.