A faithful reader of this blog, who is a research programmer, wrote me the following:
Interesting ideas. And the problems are exacerbated with the fact that education is intimately tied up with local politics--in most places in the US, it is the most important and expensive function that small municipalities perform. This ties education to a lot of non-educational issues. One of the principal attractions of charter schools is their removal from the pettiness and irrationality of local politics.
I read [the Gladwell piece] and also the piece about the rise and fall of Jaime Escalante, and it made me start thinking about teacher quality metrics, and the lack of a marketplace for teachers.
It may be hard to measure teacher performance externally, but it does seem like teachers all know who the best teachers are in their department or school. Students also have preferences (like on RateMyTeacher.com) which are probably more highly correlated with academic quality than one might think. I think those two measures are probably enough to allow the cream to rise, as it were, but where would it go?
As that article points out - good teachers are probably already quite close to their maximum possible achievement, and far from their potential. Contrast this with hackers, who are similarly difficult to rate (except, in parallel, by their peers and by their users), but who have lots of options for reaching their potential.
There are a few reasons that come to mind:
Teachers have to teach somewhere near their home. This limits the kind of schools they can teach at. This often limits the freedom they have to create effective programs in proportion to the open-mindedness of the administrators in their area. Hackers can code from anywhere. The greatest hackers have whole cities basically built around them (like Seattle). This brings me to the second point...
2. No market
There is no market for teachers. I don't mean that teachers can't find work (though that might be the case), but that teachers HAVE to find work. Why aren't schools looking for the best teachers? Why isn't there more buzz around high quality teachers? Of course, teacher quality has to be a power law distribution, and we often do hear about the exceptional teachers at the tail, like Jaime Escalante, but I think the tail is fatter than we are led to believe. Headhunters are always seeking out new programmers who they think have potential. Good programmers might even decide to start their own company, like some of the most influential people in technology, which brings me to...
3. No Entrepreneurship
If a teacher thinks his/her school is being run incorrectly, or if he/she has some idea about how to do it better, there are only a few things he/she can do, and starting their own school is only just barely starting to become one of them. One reason it's hard to put up your shingle is that schools cost a lot of money to start, which brings me to the next point...
4. No money
There are limits to the ways you can incentivize great teachers to come to your school within the public system (which means a vast majority of the schools in the US). Salaries are standardized by degrees and experience, which are elements among the least correlated with performance. But money is not why teachers teach (clearly). One thing I think is even more important is the chance to work with other great teachers.
5. No Center
If you want to be film star, you move to Hollywood. If you want to be a financier, you move to Wall Street. If you want to start a technology company, you move to Silicon Valley. Where is the capital of secondary education? Nowhere. Great school teachers usually just stay wherever they are (thus, point 1). You might think that a central location might be unfair, giving the residents a much better education than people get in the rest of the country. That's true, but follow me down this rabbit hole a bit.
What these centers of film and technology and finance do is drive up the quality of their goods and services for everyone. If Silicon Valley didn't exist, neither would any of the top computer science departments around the world. For one thing, it's a carrot. For another, bringing the best people together always makes them do better work than they would have separately. They create the state of the art that everyone must catch up to.
Personally, I have no idea why no school district in the world is actively trying to become this center. Of course, all districts want to have great schools. Some even want to have innovative schools, which is a start. But there is no school district trying to hire the greatest teachers in the world. I don't even know of a school district with a single recruiter. [Note - This writer subsequently noted that universities could be a logical place for gathering people interested in improving and developing education.]
There is, of course a lot of friction around any change in education, which isn't helped by the fact that everyone thinks they're an expert (look who's talking), but regardless of philosophy it's clear that the best teachers are much farther above average than the average teacher is above dismal.
The lack of mobility in teaching is one of the most frustrating and destructive aspects of the work, especially for those of us who come from other professional spheres. It is outrageous that one can't plan a career of building skills from one institution to another, learning one way to teach in suburbia, another in an inner city, another in rural district, one way in a technologically-oriented school, another in a less advantaged place. One is encouraged to plop down in the first place you get a job and set down roots as soon as possible. After one's student teaching, one rarely sees another teacher operate in a classroom. (I was lucky to have spent my first four years team teaching--without that experience I would be pathetically incompetent today.)
And of course, the consumers of this service have little or no say in selecting who to accept the service from. That is, public school students have little or no choice of teachers.
The teacher's unions are screaming bloody murder about this, and I will probably write about that soon, but surely there is some way to address the issue of quality and genuine professional development (not take a course for a day and get a piece of paper) without destroying the entire bargaining unit system.