Monday, November 19, 2012

Do We Really Need Better Teachers? What For?

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind. -- John Godfrey Saxe (1816 - 1887)

What is a better teacher? Better for what? What is the “improvement” supposed to aim at? These are primary questions. Secondary questions are whether it is worth the cost compared to other options, or to the status quo. Who gains what from “improving teachers “-- whatever that means? Who pays for it?
A recently retired member, a world-explorer, has offered a real live elephant to your organization, The Harmony Club. “How would we take care of this elephant?” you ask Sam, a member and, in life, a car-parts dealer. “First, you get a better steering wheel for your car,” he replies.

You are perplexed. “A better steering wheel?” you respond. “What for?” “Well,” says Sam, “you’re gonna be pulling that animal around in a trailer a lot and you’ll need more control and comfort when you do it!”

“A trailer? Why will we need a trailer?” you demur. Sam replies, “To get the elephant back and forth to the vet and to the state and county fairs.” “And to visit my kids’ schools,” adds Susan, also a member and, in life, a school board president.

“Harmony Club will need to hire an accountant, too,” breaks in member Stewart, a business school professor, “in case we decide to charge people money to come see the beast.”

“But what about food and shelter and clean-up and TLC?” you ask.

“Piffle,” says Susan. “That’s small stuff. Let the neighborhood kids come visit the elephant to keep it company. The rest you can get other members to help you with. At this juncture we’re trying to deal with the really important things.”
Do we really need better teachers for our public schools? Better for what? And will the improvement be worth the cost -- since “better” often means “more expensive?” And what kinds of things here are being assumed to be benefits? (See Dissecting School Benefits: a typology of conflicting goals)

Let’s revisit the questions, “Do we really need better teachers?” and “What for?” We can look to examine several possible answers. The first group I will call Student-Oriented Aims.

Do we really need better teachers? What for?
Student-Oriented Aims:
a. for better test scores
b. for more learning
c. to increase student interest
d. to increase student motivation
e. to reduce boredom.
Note that these aims each immediately in turn raise the important questions: For which students? What other factors affect the outcomes aimed at?

Do we really need better teachers? What for?
Economic-political Aims:
f. to create new jobs (assumption: they are pertinent, ultimately to student-oriented aims)
g. to open educational budgets to new entrepreneurs.
h. to placate powerful yet ignorant critics

The great pretense in all kinds of (not just public) schooling is that Student-Oriented aims take precedence over Economic-political Aims. The reverse is nearer the truth. This is a reality and diluting our beers with tears is probably a pointless endeavor.

For more than a century, Americans having been beating the drum for better public schools and better teachers. What they have not been doing is addressing our two basic questions. This is possibly very wise until that time is reached when a tolerance for variation, if not a congruence, in aims can be reached. Muddled thinking about educational aims is the cost we pay to minimize open social conflict on these issues.

For more references and to examine these recurrent issues further, see School Reform via Teacher Professionalization: Is it Cost-effective?

--- EGR