Thursday, May 27, 2004

Attracting Good Teachers

Michael Winerip writes in the Times that the two most important characteristics of good schools are small class size and good teachers, both of which require additional funding to achieve.

The secret to quality public education has never been a big mystery. You need good teachers and you need small enough classes so those teachers can do their work. Period. After that, everything seems to pale, including the testing accountability programs, technology, building conditions. Even curriculum seems secondary, as our best public colleges demonstrate. We have West Point and we have Berkeley, and the question isn't which has the correct curriculum; the question is which curriculum is the best fit for the student and teacher.

I'm not going to get into small class size today. There are contradicting studies out there, and I'm not sure who to believe. But I do think that a good teacher can handle a class of 22, as easily as a class of 17. If you have a finite amount of dollars, then concentrate on the teachers, rather than on class size.

If we had infinite amount of dollars, then I would also work on job programs for poor areas, on parenting classes, on adult education, and complete overhaul of some neighborhoods.

There's no question that having good teacher are important, unless one is entirely reliant on computer aided instruction. So how do we attract better teachers? I guess money wouldn't hurt, but I think that there has to be other changes in place to get that Harvard grad to chose to teach.

Money ain't everything. Look at the lines of smart people applying to graduate schools. Professors make about the same as high school teachers. In some cases around here, the teacher do better. And they aren't burdened by publishing responsibilities, student loans, and tenure pressures. Smart people can flock to a career for other reasons than a paycheck.

Make it harder to become a teacher. A recent study by David Steiner showed that ed schools are a joke [more from Eduwonk]. Make these schools more rigorous or just shut them down. Teachers could go through traditional departments and then learn teaching tricks with a mentoring year at a school. Toss the teachers exams and rely on the GREs.

Professionalize. Teachers need to act more like white collar workers than blue collar workers. They ought to not punch a clock, but work overtime for free if needed. They should be paid according to their effort and ability, just as any other career. Bad teachers should be quickly fired. Of course, the teachers unions hate these proposals.

Make it easier to become a teacher. NYC has a great program that helps other professionals transition into teaching. This program needs to be greatly expanded. I would like there to be more outreach to graduate students. I want it easier for smart people to become teachers, and harder for the dumb to become teachers.

Incentives. Student loan forgiveness programs or subsidized housing are two ideas.

Advertise. People need to know that this is a job that is in sync with your kid's schedule, that gives you three months of vacation a year, and that doesn't have the pressure and stress of being a lawyer or a doctor. Oh, and you can make a difference in a kid's life. That, too.

Good teachers are important, but pay raises alone will not bring the best and the brightest.

UPDATE: More discussion on this post at Crooked Timber, curtesy of Harry.

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