Comparing Two Approaches to Teacher Selection and Evaluation

I read two books this year that sparked a debate in my mind: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. Both agree that, compared to class size and technology, teacher quality is the driving factor behind educational outcomes.

Ripley likes the Finnish model, where going to school to train as a teacher is a highly selective and competitive–on par with going to Harvard or MIT. Teachers study for six years, with a minimum of one year student teaching and a required thesis, within which the student can be winnowed out at any point.  Teachers graduate with the equivalent of a master’s degree before they’re ever given full control of a classroom. This is a stark contrast to the rather low standards required of American teachers.

Because of the high standards of the teaching profession, kids tend to have high respect for their teachers, and principals grant teachers far more autonomy than in the U.S.–for example, selecting their own textbooks and being able to structure their syllabi with lots of leeway in the curriculum.

Gladwell claims, on the contrary, that no university or training program can adequately prepare an arbitrary student for teaching, nor predict who’s going to succeed at teaching.  He argues that the only way to see who will thrive as a teacher is to actually have them teach, and evaluate results. His overall preferred approach, then, would be to recruit new teachers from a much broader base–not just education majors but others, and maybe not even require a college degree, and over-recruit them as new fodder for the system.  Then, after 2-3 years of trial performance, weed out the bad ones and reward the good ones.

Should we build teaching supermen (and women)?

I see several good points on both side of the argument. The strengths of the Ripley approach compared to Gladwell:

  • The winnowing process to remove people who aren’t cut out for teaching takes places before they have a chance to mess up real kids.
  • By making it tough to enter the profession, while there’s no guarantee that the new graduates will be great teachers, there is a guarantee that we won’t have teachers who studied education “’cause it’s easy.”
  • While the cultural perception of teaching will be slow to change, by making the teaching profession exclusive and elite, many Type A personalities will be attracted to it as they are attracted to the Ivy Leagues or Special Forces. This phenomenon has been borne out in the applicants for Teach for America.
  • This isn’t a theoretical idea: Finland transitioned to this system and it has gotten real results.
  • From a practical standpoint, it’s much easier to flunk out a student than fire a government employee, even if they’ve been hired on a trial basis.
Or do we throw a bunch of prospective teachers against the wall and see what sticks?

The strengths of the Gladwell approach compared to Ripley’s:

  • How do you ensure there is an alternative career paths for those that flunk out of the much harder education program–especially if they’ve invested a great deal of time and money in it? How do they overcome the stigma of failing at an education program that is still perceived as easy?
  • Cost: schooling costs big money, and potentially keeping great teachers from making an impact right away.
  • Required political will: the cultural mindset and legal/political issues make education change hard.  Gladwell’s solution would be a shorter distance to cover.

I would be curious to hear a conversation between the two.

[EDIT 12/12/14: Freakonomics has just published two podcasts (here and here) that are pertinent to this subject that are well worth the listen.]

FAA vs. Pirker: An Examination of the NTSB Opinion and Order

TL;DR: In the case of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) vs. Raphael Pirker, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says that “model aircraft” are aircraft, and thus subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration.  This contradicts the decision by an administrative law judge (ALJ) who decided that the FAA’s claim was invalid because (among other reasons) Mr. Pirker’s model aircraft did not meet the definition of aircraft as Congress and the FAA had been defining it.  The case is returned to the ALJ to adjudicate strictly on the question of whether Mr. Pirker’s conduct was “careless and reckless so as to endanger the life or property of another”. Though the news media has generally been pointing this decision as a victory for the FAA, this case is not closed and it is certainly not the last word on the matter. NTSB were narrowly focused upon the definition of the word “aircraft,” and made no statement at all about the FAA’s ban on commercial UAV operations, nor First Amendment rights.

Many, many headlines have come out making it seem like the NTSB ruled totally against Raphael Pirker, and now he has to pay up the fine.  That’s not entirely accurate, and this case isn’t yet shut and could still affect the UAS regulatory landscape.  To be a little more complete, I am going to summarize what I believe to be the whole story then take a guess as to what will happen next.

Mr. Pirker with his airplane.

What the FAA said to Raphael Pirker

  • In October of 2011, the University of Virginia hired Raphael Pirker to capture video and stills of the campus and medical center using his foam, 4-ft wingspan UAS.
  • In April of 2012, the FAA sent him a letter telling him he was fined because of illegal and reckless operation of a UAV, which included a twelve examples of flying too close to buildings, people, streets, etc., the fact that he didn’t have a pilot certificate, and the fact that he was operating the aircraft for compensation. At the end of the letter was a notification that he was being assessed a $10,000 fine.
  • Mr. Pirker appealed to the National Transportation Safety Board Office of Administrative Law Judges on the basis that the FAA did not have regulatory authority over his actions.

What the ALJ said

  • The ALJ ruled that Mr. Pirker’s foam airplane was a “model aircraft” rather than an “aircraft.” His rationale was that the FAA’s definition of “aircraft” is overly broad, and strictly speaking would give the FAA authority over balsa gliders and paper airplanes. This obviously absurd example would lead a reasonable person would assume that the FAA’s broad definition to be practically limited.  Considering Congress’s 2012 FAA Modernization Re-authorization and Reform Act, and FAA Advisory Circular 91-57, “model aircraft” have been considered as something different from “aircraft” when applying FAR 91.
  • Further, Policy Notices 05-01, 07-01, and 08-01, and this policy memo were non-binding, and any attempt construe them as binding regulation was circumventing laws about proper rulemaking procedure.

What the FAA’s appeal said

  • The FAA said that Mr. Pirker’s foam airplane was an aircraft, and that “model aircraft” are subject to FAA regulation. That AC 91-57 was not relieving model aircraft operators of following regulations, but a tacit agreement that if they followed the voluntary guidelines, they would be left alone.  Additionally, they asserted that the law and AC 91-57 says that model aircraft are defined by “sport or recreational use,” (as opposed to business or commercial purposes), thus this was not a model aircraft.

Summary of the amicus curae briefs submitted to the panel

  • Three amicus briefs (here, here, and here) supported the Pirker decision, claiming that a) the FAA’s prior policy statements, statements that their policy memos are not publicly binding, and admission that UAS operators cannot comply with Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) add up to a lack of authority to levy civil fines; b) regulatory uncertainty is inhibiting growth of a legitimate UAS business market; c) that attempting to comply with the FARs would cost thousands of dollars, even to fly small, simple aircraft costing only hundreds of dollars, is pricing small entrepreneurs out of the market unnecessarily; d) Mr. Pirker’s aircraft never entered the FAA’s definition of navigable airspace (greater than 1000 feet above ground in this case) and thus is not subject to their regulation; e) the FAA has been engaged in governmental overreach and bullying of UAS operators on a broad scale, and this action falls in that category.
  • News media organizations also filed a brief furthering the argument in support of Pirker. They claim that a) a complete ban on commercial UAS is hindering First Amendment press rights; b) UAS flight could substantially improve news coverage; c) that privacy concerns are addressed by state oversight and do not need federal attention; and d) that the ad-hoc cease-and-desist letters from the FAA have been circumventing notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures.
  • The National Agricultural Aviation Association filed a brief in support of the FAA, saying that Mr. Pirker did not follow the safety guidelines outlined in AC 91-57, and thus was subject to penalty by the FAA.
  • Four former FAA officials filed a brief that asserted that the FAA has authority to protect air safety regardless of whether an aircraft is model or not, and that the FAA has consistently treated UAS as aircraft. Mr. Pirker filed a brief in response to this one, claiming that these officials were not impartial and had a vested personal interest in supporting the FAA’s position.

What the NTSB panel said

  • So now, to the ruling: the NTSB supported the FAA’s assertion that Mr. Pirker’s foam airplane was indeed an “aircraft.” They specifically declined “to address issues beyond the threshold question that produced the decisional order on appeal…” In other words, they refused to rule on constitutional issues or on the propriety of the FAA’s rulemaking.
  •  They sent the case back to the ALJ with specific instructions to determine solely whether Mr. Pirker’s flight was “careless and reckless so as to endanger the life or property of another.”

What now?

  • This is strictly non-expert opinion and observation, but it appears that this is a very narrowly defined decision. The NTSB is a safety panel, not judges, and they are primarily concerned with aviation safety rather than law or constitutionality.  They said nothing at all about commercial operation or rule-making or privacy or the First Amendment, meaning that these are still open questions (though not likely to be decided in this case.)
  • It remains to be seen if the ALJ deems the operation of the aircraft to be “careless and reckless so as to endanger the life or property of another.” This ruling is not a given one way or the other since the damage and injury which could potentially be caused by a 4-ft foam airplane is very limited, despite the apparently footloose mode of operation (for example, causing a person on the sidewalk to have to dodge to avoid the airplane).
  • Three more lawsuits have been filed against the FAA, and unlike this one, they directly address the FAA’s rulemaking procedures and limitations on free press, and will be decided in federal court, whose decisions will the be the law of the land which the FAA will be required to comply with.

T-Shirts, iPhones, and now . . . Airplanes?

In case you’ve been napping, and you think that all they make in China are iPhones, cheap t-shirts, and miscellaneous tchotchkes . . . think again.

Forbes and Flightclub report that a US aerial sightseeing company is purchasing twenty Harbin Y-12 aircraft for use in air tours of Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, as well as other light duty tasks. This would be the first Chinese aircraft imported to the United States. Ever.


So let’s be completely transparent: the engines are coming from Pratt & Whitney and the avionics from Honeywell–the more difficult bits are North American. However, that doesn’t diminish the expertise required to design and manufacture the airframe and integrate all the pieces.

This development should not surprise anyone who’s been paying attention.  China has been trying very hard to catch their aerospace sector up with the West, as detailed in China Airborne.  They’ve purchased Cirrus Aircraft to grow their light civil aircraft production capabilities.  They have made space to allow expansion of their helicopter manufacturing efforts. They’ve got a manned space station, Tiangong, and a probe on the Moon.

Watch out, Boeing and Airbus . . . there’s a new kid on the block.

You Can Now Add Planes To The List Of Things We Buy From China | Flightclub

The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart

This is a re-post of an article written by Salman Khan at the Khan Academy website.

Join the #YouCanLearnAnything movement

My 5-year-­old son has just started reading. Every night, we lie on his bed and he reads a short book to me. Inevitably, he’ll hit a word that he has trouble with: last night the word was “gratefully.” He eventually got it after a fairly painful minute. He then said, “Dad, aren’t you glad how I struggled with that word? I think I could feel my brain growing.” I smiled: my son was now verbalizing the tell­-tale signs of a “growth­ mindset.” But this wasn’t by accident. Recently, I put into practice research I had been reading about for the past few years: I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows. Between the deep body of research on the field of learning mindsets and this personal experience with my son, I am more convinced than ever that mindsets toward learning could matter more than anything else we teach.

Researchers have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle; that the more you use it, the more it grows. They’ve found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones.


What this means is that our intelligence is not fixed, and the best way that we can grow our intelligence is to embrace tasks where we might struggle and fail.

However, not everyone realizes this. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has been studying people’s mindsets towards learning for decades. She has found that most people adhere to one of two mindsets: fixed or growth. Fixed mindsets mistakenly believe that people are either smart or not, that intelligence is fixed by genes. People with growth mindsets correctly believe that capability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure. Dweck found that those with a fixed mindset tended to focus their effort on tasks where they had a high likelihood of success and avoided tasks where they may have had to struggle, which limited their learning. People with a growth mindset, however, embraced challenges, and understood that tenacity and effort could change their learning outcomes. As you can imagine, this correlated with the latter group more actively pushing themselves and growing intellectually.

The good news is that mindsets can be taught; they’re malleable. What’s really fascinating is that Dweck and others have developed techniques that they call “growth mindset interventions,” which have shown that even small changes in communication or seemingly innocuous comments can have fairly long­-lasting implications for a person’s mindset. For instance, praising someone’s process (“I really like how you struggled with that problem”) versus praising an innate trait or talent (“You’re so clever!”) is one way to reinforce a growth ­mindset with someone. Process­ praise acknowledges the effort; talent­ praise reinforces the notion that one only succeeds (or doesn’t) based on a fixed trait. And we’ve seen this on Khan Academy as well: students are spending more time learning on Khan Academy after being exposed to messages that praise their tenacity and grit and that underscore that the brain is like a muscle.

The Internet is a dream for someone with a growth mindset. Between Khan Academy, MOOCs, and others, there is unprecedented access to endless content to help you grow your mind. However, society isn’t going to fully take advantage of this without growth mindsets being more prevalent. So what if we actively tried to change that? What if we began using whatever means are at our disposal to start performing growth mindset interventions on everyone we cared about? This is much bigger than Khan Academy or algebra — it applies to how you communicate with your children, how you manage your team at work, how you learn a new language or instrument. If society as a whole begins to embrace the struggle of learning, there is no end to what that could mean for global human potential.

And now here’s a surprise for you. By reading this article itself, you’ve just undergone the first half of a growth­-mindset intervention. The research shows that just being exposed to the research itself (­­for example, knowing that the brain grows most by getting questions wrong, not right­­) can begin to change a person’s mindset. The second half of the intervention is for you to communicate the research with others. We’ve made a video (above) that celebrates the struggle of learning that will help you do this. After all, when my son, or for that matter, anyone else asks me about learning, I only want them to know one thing. As long as they embrace struggle and mistakes, they can learn anything.

The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart | Khan Academy