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.]

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