Message to Educonomists: You Can't Ignore the Important Stuff
Emily and Bryan Hassel have an idea: Don't get too hung up on plans to make teachers better. Instead, figure out how to help the best teachers reach far more students. After all, they argue, the top 20 percent of teachers are three times as effective as the bottom 20 percent.
Try as they might, though, they cannot escape the need to support teachers through good old fashioned staff development, curriculum and assessment. It's time the education economists paid much closer attention to these critical areas, which are just so déclassé these days.
Of course, the Hassels' argument raises all sorts of questions. How do you identify the top 20 percent of teachers? Do we trust test scores? Will teachers stay in the top 20 percent from year to year? Are the "top" teachers good in every kind of school? Are they effective with every kind of student?
But the Hassels face an even bigger challenge. Their plan will require nothing short of a massive investment in all those things their fellow educonomists find oh-so tedious: Teacher training. New curricula. Much, much better tests. If we pursue the Hassels' brave new reforms the way we pursue most reforms--on the cheap--then we're going to be in a whole heap of trouble.
The Hassels, like so many of their ideological brethren, seem to believe that great teachers are born, not made. Hence their relatively dim view of staff development. (I've always found it curious that so many reformers who insist that every child can learn believe teachers are ineducable. Every child has limitless potential, they say, but don't waste your money on developing teachers' talents.)
The Hassels offer several ideas for spreading the best teachers around. The best teachers can manage more than one classroom with lesser teachers working for them. The best teachers can teach online to reach far more students than they can in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Or the very best could be beamed via television or "hologram" to thousands or millions of students, with lesser teachers facilitating learning online or in classrooms.
Now, to the Hassels' credit, they recognize that their great edifice still rests on a sandy foundation. They admit that we lack reliable means of identifying the best teachers. They admit that the best teachers may become less effective in their new roles. And they admit that even the best teachers will need new curricula and tools to be succeed.
So what happens if we build the Hassels' brave new world without big investments in staff development, curriculum and assessments? I shudder to think of it.
Take, for example, the importance of better tests. The Hassels envision a complex economy where test scores are the coin of the realm. This is more than just a metaphor to them. They actually speculate that private investors could buy "teacher futures" and make money on rising test scores. Teachers' stock would literally go up and down.
You'd think our recent adventures on Wall Street would make the Hassels a bit squeamish about this vision for the future. Their vision dramatically raises the stakes of good assessment. Just imagine. Unless we overhaul our tests, the Hassels' education economy would create a bubble far more dangerous than the one that just destroyed jobs and savings.
And what about staff development? How do we prepare teachers to become managers, on-line educators or front-line workers? How do we transfer their talents to a wholly new context? What happens to "the best" teachers if we fling them into an entirely new pool? In a sink-or-swim environment, even the best will sink.
The Hassels actually make some very important points. We have to give teachers much more room for professional growth. Technology may well transform teachers' roles and bring the very best within reach of the students who need them most.
But their work also bears a hidden message for the educonomists: All roads to reform lead through better curriculum, staff development and tests. Let's hope the educonomists hear it.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- Actress/Mathematician Danica McKellar on girls and math
- Best Selling Author Kenneth C. Davis on engaging with history
- Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Danielson on providing health care at school
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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