Posted by: holdenlee | September 19, 2012

Expectations work on teachers like they work on students

Last time in 11.124 (Introduction to Education) we watched Waiting for Superman. Today we watched American Teacher. Each documentary attempts to address the problems underlying the American education system. In oversimplified terms they argue as follows.

  1. Waiting for Superman: The single most deciding factor in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher. Therefore, we need to make teachers accountable; we need to reward better teaching and fire bad teachers. Teachers’ unions and “the system” resist such change. In a sense, charter schools can work outside these constraints, pool together the good teachers who have high expectations for their students; charter schools thus provide a model for how we should structure the school system.
  2. American Teacher: The single most deciding factor in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher. However, teaching quality is poor because we as a society have low expectations of the profession; constraints such as money and lack of support from their schools hinder teachers’ ability to teach, and drive many quality teachers away. Therefore, as a nation we need to change our conception of teachers, restructure how teachers are trained, and give them more resources to help them succeed.

Both documentaries make valid points (in particular, the charter schools run mentioned in Waiting for Superman seem to be doing quite well), but in this post I’ll focus on American Teacher.

It is instructive to compare the educational system in the US with more highly-performing nations such as Finland. There are many confounding factors that can lead you astray, but I believe this article captures the main points. (It’s definitely worth a read, and covers many points that I won’t write about here.) In this post I’ll describe why we should and how we can “raise our expectations” for teachers, drawing on many of the ideas in American Teacher.

Expectations work on teachers in the same way they work on students.

Expectations of Students

As I’ve written in a previous post, in general the greater the expectations placed upon students, the better they perform (Pygmalion effect).

  • If a teacher believes a student isn’t smart enough to succeed, then that student most likely won’t.
  • If a teacher believes that a low-achieving student can meet the same high expectations as everyone else, and backs this up with good teaching practices, than the student will likely meet those expectations. Not only that, a teacher must value the student’s work, and feel like the student has something unique to contribute.

Expectations do more than just determine where a student will be at the end of the school year. They can drill in either of two perspectives on life.

  • Innate ability theory: Everyone has a set IQ, which determines what they accomplish in life. “Some people are just geniuses, they’ll become famous scientists and artists. I’m not one of them. It’s hopeless to try.” Low expectations often drill this point in–a teacher expects that just because a student started out “dumber,” he will make less progress than other students.
  • Effort-based ability theory: Anyone can achieve great things with effective effort. “I too can become a scientist or artist. But I have to work hard. There’s no way around that.” High expectations drill this point in–a teacher expects that if a student started out behind, he will just need more work to catch up with other students. The teacher expects the student to put in this work.

Which point do we want to drill in? We have to look no further than what America stands for as a nation: a land of opportunity. The idea that anyone can achieve success.

Of course, expectations are easier said than accomplished. I claim to be no expert on this (or even mildly knowledgeable). High expectations is more than just a teacher saying at the beginning of class “I have high expectations of you.” It’s usually not about a teacher failing underperforming students. Expectations pervade the environment of the classroom, almost imperceptibly, in the hundreds of decisions teachers make every day: from how much time students spend working with each other (are they expected to learn from each other and give voice to their own opinions? or simply absorb information from a central authority?) to how much time to wait after asking a question to how the desks are arranged.

Expectations of Teachers

The same logic that applies to students applies to teachers. The greater the expectations placed upon teachers, the better they will teach our children. But who is placing these expectations? To make an analogy, if expectations for students pervade the atmosphere of a classroom, then expectations for teachers pervade the atmosphere of the school system, and even more broadly, our whole nation.

  • If we, as a nation, have a low expectations of our teachers, then the teachers in our classrooms will be like the students in a class where the teacher expects little. Of course, there will always be stellar teachers.

We regularly honor and deify these pedagogical geniuses. But… we regard inspired and demanding teaching as an individual trait, rather than as a professional norm. As long as we consider engaging teaching to be an individual trait, rather than a norm that might apply to any teacher, we feel no obligation to ask the broader systemic question of why more evidence of engaging teaching does not exist. from School Reform from the Inside Out, Richard Elmore

What is this kind of attitude called? Yes, right, it’s called innate ability theory. A few teachers will be good, and “bad” teachers will stay “bad.” This is not optimal.

  • If we, as a nation, have high expectations of our teachers, and back up that expectation with concrete ways in which we treat our teachers, then our teachers will educate America’s children to be future leaders. Just like a good teacher treats a stubborn student, a good system has to demand that “bad” teachers get better and give them the tools to do so (not just fire them left and right).

However, just as there are many ways to subconsciously affect the expectations in a classroom, there are many ways to affect the expectations of teachers in a nation. Before we can solve the “problem” in education, we need to seriously examine what we as a nation expect of our teachers, and to what extent we value their contribution to society.

What do we currently expect of teachers?

Very few top college graduates are going into education. As one of the teachers in the documentary, Rhena Jasey, put it, her classmates didn’t understand why she chose teaching as a career rather than all the better jobs she could get with a degree from Harvard. They said “Anyone can teach.”

But as Jasey said, “Wouldn’t you rather have a Harvard graduate teach your children?”

We expect that teachers have it easy.

A common misconception is that teachers have an easy job: 6-hour workdays, summer breaks, and so forth. If you count all extra work needed to be a good teacher–planning, after-school tutoring, careful grading, counseling students and so forth–a teacher may spend 65+ hours a week, and work on weekends too. The film showed teachers who paid out-of-pocket money to buy supplies that their classrooms lacked (one spent as much as $3000 in one year) and teachers who hardly earned enough to support their families.

We expect that anyone can teach.

Yeah, right. Anyone can become a teacher, just like anyone can be a doctor, and anyone can be a mathematician. No, I’m not being sarcastic. Actually you can interpret it that way if you want. The statement “anyone [who wants to] can be a teacher” has the same truth value as “anyone [who wants to] can be a doctor.” If you believe hard work is necessary and sufficient to get you anywhere, then both are true. If you believe that our inbred tendencies give us our aptitudes for life, then both are false. (Quiz: what dichotomy of theories does this show again?) Or you could view it as a continuum, if you wish.

If teaching pouring knowledge into students’ heads, then being a doctor is just prescribing medication.

The point is that teaching is a skilled profession, like a mathematician, musician, doctor, lawyer, or architect.

But because teaching isn’t as respected as these other professions–part of that respect is communicated by level of pay, but it’s also just by our culture–we get two kinds of people who go into teaching:

  1. People who are really dedicated to working with kids.
  2. Others: students who couldn’t make it into the other professions, and so went into teaching, because the bar for entry was lower. Others, perhaps, who were lured by low job expectations, just like a student is lured into a class where the teacher gives out A’s for free.

We expect that teachers need to be told what to do.

Like an overbearing parent who hovers over a kid’s shoulder, administrators and politicians sometimes feel like they know more about teaching than teachers. They come down in the form of mandatory curriculum, and good teachers often feel frustrated because they can do better than what they are forced to do.

When I talk about the long hours, for example, what I mean is that, over the course of four years, my school’s administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries. More and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported. One afternoon this spring, when my often apathetic 10th-graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class “seated and silent.” It took everything I had to hold back my tears of frustration. (Why I Left Teaching, Sarah Fine,

To bring it closer to home, parents sometimes insist on their children being placed in “higher level class X” against the suggestions of a teacher (who’s seen the children’s daily work), or try to find fault with teaches for their children’s performance.

We don’t tell doctors how to do their job, or scientists how to research. We expect they know it, better than us. How can teaching ever improve, if we can’t expect teachers to make decisions about teaching?

What should we expect of teachers, and how should we convey it?

American Teacher argues that America’s low expectations for teachers explain why our educational system is so broken.

In contrast, the top performing nations in education have high expectations of teachers.

American Teacher compares our expectations of teachers to the expectations in high-performing nations like Finland, Singapore, and South Korea. These countries have…

  1. Selective recruiting: To-be teachers are held to a high standard, just like doctors and lawyers. Why? Because when a parent enrolls a child in a school, (s)he is putting the child’s future in the teacher hands, just like a patient in a hospital is putting his or her life in the doctor’s hands. I’ve heard said that a teaching certification is harder to come by in Finland than doctors’ certification in the US.
  2. Funded training: These nations realize that teaching is a lifelong learning process, because a teacher always searches for better ways to connect to students. They provide the tools for teachers to learn to get better. Here, teachers are on their own.
  3. Competitive compensation. Adjusted for relative cost of living, a teacher in Finland makes 2.5 times the salary of a teacher in the US. A higher salary sends the message that the teacher is doing work that requires expertise and has value for society.
  4. Professional working environment. Supplies are funded by the schools. Teachers work with each other to eliminate their weaknesses.
  5. Cultural respect. In Finland, a poll found teachers more respected than lawyers and doctors.
  6. Career oriented. Teaching is viewed as a serious career, not a job with short hours, not a spouse’s job that gives a secondary source of income.

None of these are true in the US.

As the Smithsonian article says about Finland:

The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. (LynNell Hancock, Emphasis mine.)

The annual teacher turnover in South Korea, Finland, and Singapore are 1%, 2%, and 3%, respectively. In the US, 46% of teachers quit before their 5th year. Most common complaints? Long hours, low pay, lack of support, lack of prestige, and lack of professional environment. Most of the teachers who quit aren’t bad teachers who lack the passion of working with students. They are the teachers who stay after school to tutor their students. They quit because they simply don’t have the time to “provide the kind of education” they feel their students deserve. These are teachers who probably even if they did stay, would do better than those who simply meet the expectations of showing up for work 6 hours a week.

The usual response to this kind of argument is that “teachers care all about more money.” It is about money in one sense: imagine if a doctor barely made enough money to support a family. Given its difficulty, how many people would find medicine an attractive job? And what would this do to the nation’s health care? It’s not just about the money; it’s also about the respect. Money is just one way of communicating respect (although an important one!), showing that we as a nation care about what teachers are doing.

It is somewhat contradictory that according to the Smithsonian article, Finland pays teachers more but spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States. I don’t know actually how this works, though I suspect that in the US money gets channeled more to administrators and bureaucrats (whose job is to manage teaching; again this shows low expectations of teachers: teachers can’t be counted on to develop their own curriculum, to know what’s best for their students), and technologies and textbooks that don’t really help. In Finland, by contrast,

The inspectorate closed its doors in the early ’90s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals.

“Bad” vs. “good” teachers

But if we suddenly gave teachers more pay and freedom, teaching isn’t going to improve. It’s difficult to argue for more teacher respect, compensation, and freedom, when the perception is that there are so many “bad teachers” out there who would just take advantage of the resources. Any gains would come long-term, not short-term.

Instead, a lot of “reform” proposals rely on trying to draw a line between a good teacher and bad teacher, and don’t ignore the problem: How do you draw this line? It’s like drawing the line between a good student and bad student. It’s a line that really shouldn’t need to be drawn. There are ways of running a class, that encourage even a “bad” student to work. Every student, if given the motivation to learn and work, the message that the work she does will be valued and will lead her further in life, and the insistence that shoddy work simply will not be accepted, can work hard and achieve. Any teacher, if given the message that her work is valued by society and vital to the future of our country and the insistence that shoddy work will simply not be accepted, can change the lives of children.

In the short term, yes, firing bad teachers might help. If a student drops out and a new student transfers in, the class average will go up.

In the long term, though, it would be better to raise expectations. Suppose we gave teachers more support, a better work environment, increased the qualifications, increased their salaries. What would happen?

  • More people who are truly interested in teaching, and especially educated students who might otherwise take well-paying skilled white-collar jobs, would go into teaching. As reported in American Teacher, a survey found that 60%-80% of college freshman would be interested in teaching if money weren’t object, and far fewer actually wanted to be teachers given the realities of the profession.
  • Fewer good teachers would leave the profession because of burnout.
  • Bad teachers would be pushed to get better, and given the time and resources to do so. If they improve, great. If not, then appropriate action has to be taken.
  • Teachers who are in the profession for an “easy life” and who do not actually have a passion for the job will find that school is no longer the right place for them—they cannot meet the high expectations—and leave for another one.

Changing our perception of what it means to be a teacher will have a catalytic effect on the educational system.

Why is change so hard?

It is very hard to find a place to start reform. The educational system often seems like a snake biting its own tail: if our teachers were raised in schools with low expectations of teaching, how are they going to break free?

Why have none of the reforms so far had a lasting impact?

There’s a lot more to say than I know how to talk about. You can read about it; the two readings I did for 11.124 on the subject were School Reform from the Inside Out, by Richard Elmore (Ch.1) and Frogs into Princes: Writings on School Reform, by Larry Cuban (Ch.7).

And what can we do?

I like to sort-of bring home a message in each of my posts: not paint a bleak picture of “the system,” how much radical change needs to happen, and how few people see the right road.

What can we do?

We can simply respect teachers and how difficult it is to be one. We can be the one NOT to ask “Why would you be a teacher when you could be a…” We can speak up when someone says “teaching is easy.” We could, in our mental maps, place teaching at its rightful spot besides the other jobs that we respect. We can work at grassroots, talk to people, slowly break away the misconceptions, and do our little parts to raise expectations.


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