I’m going to start this post as I will end it, referring to my recent adventures observing Larry Ferlazzo’s Theory of Knowledge Class, this week. Why bring up the particular in this discussion of one of the global issues in school reform? Because, at the end of the day, no matter how good an idea sounds when you share it in your think tank boardroom, what happens in classrooms is where the success of your ideas will be measured. Although it often seems that bad ideas have a much longer shelf life than good ones.
The observation? It was great. Was the class perfect, no, it was day before the start of a week off. Was the lesson perfect, no, and I made some suggestions to Larry about things he could do. BUT, it was pretty damn good, and there was a lot for me to see, and think about. As usual, about 2/3rds of the way through, I had to sit down, and just stare for awhile. Observation (and all the recording I was doing) is pretty exhausting work. But it was worth it.
Why? Now, I’m going to go ” big”. One of the big issues in education reform is teacher effectiveness, and the idea that maybe what we need to do that is “fire bad teachers”. Look at this article in Newsweek, which speaks fondly of the mass firings at Central Falls, RI but also has a reference to the fact that Finland attracts the top 10% of it’s graduates to teaching. The thing is, Finland didn’t get to that point by firing teachers, but this points out the major differences in how the United States looks at “reform” and how this is approached in other countries.
In Finland, they sought over time to improve everyone, all teachers. In the United States we seem to be stuck on either getting everyone better than average, or getting rid of all the teachers that aren’t. (Evaluation: A personal perspective | Reflections on Teaching)
Part of that no doubt has to do with their more socialist society, and our more corporatist one. As a former co-worker opined:
Maybe we should be looking into the “trust-based school culture” that Finland adopted back in the 1990s. But that would also mean addressing our problems with children living in poverty. That doesn’t happen in Finland. We have six times as any kids per capita living below the poverty line. That might be why we approach school reform in the United States like a corporation. In Finland, they treat their schools like places where kids go to learn things. Go figure. (Entropical Paradise: Race To The Finnish)
But the cold, hard demographic facts make what is being proposed a non-starter, because the fact is that there are just too many teachers needed to take the “hatchet” approach (not that this is stopping some folks like Eric Hanushek):
That means we’ll need to replace around a half million teachers, perhaps more, every single year (retirees plus “normal” attrition). And this may last for several years.
If this scares you, it should. A half million teachers is roughly equivalent to one-third of the annual graduating class of every college and university in the U.S. combined. If every single Ivy League graduate in a given year decided to be a teacher, this would cover only a fraction of the annual demand. So, beginning very soon, there might be a pretty serious strain on the teacher “bench” – it’s a good bet that we’ll have a tough time replacing all these leavers/retirees without a decrease in the quality of the applicant pool, especially in low-performing schools and districts.And this doesn’t include any possible uptick in the number of teachers fired based on performance.
But those who clamor for the systematic firing of a significant proportion of teachers every year have a responsibility to address the replacements issue. Some do, but most do not. In the former category is economist Eric Hanushek, who regularly proposes that the “bottom” 6-10 percent of teachers be dismissed every year, based on their students’ test scores. When he estimates how this would affect aggregate performance, he assumes that replacements will be of “average” quality (once again defined in terms of test scores). (Shanker Blog » How Deep is the Teacher Bench?)
My sense now is that they may try to finesse this with proposals like “online” schools, but someone has to look at all that student work and give feedback, otherwise the results will be predictably lousy.
Finland succeeded because they did something much harder than firing teachers. Something like what I did with Larry Ferlazzo. They worked on slow, but consistent, and ongoing improvement. If you don’t believe me, look at this former principal/superintendent who was all for cleaning out “deadwood”, but began to see that developing teachers was a more fruitful route. We could try to fire our way to better teachers, but I have a feeling it would be like bombing our way to peace, and as impossible as the more scatological part of that well known metaphor.
This is not an argument for how things are. I’ve expressed my ambivalence for the current system of evaluation (Evaluation: A personal perspective | Reflections on Teaching). Instead this is about working with peers to become better. What is it that Larry and I did? First, we trusted each other. As Larry has trusted me, I would trust him to do the same sort of observation and public post about my teaching. Given the current state of education in general, my district and school in particular, I don’t think I would be at all comfortable doing this with my administrators. I’d like to get there at some point, but at this point, evaluation is more about judging, and not as much about improving. Until the dagger of judgment (like questionable newspaper rankings), and consequences (being fired) are taken from our necks, what incentive do we have to participate in a program like this, and if we are forced to, will we ever “trust” enough for it to really work?