Firing Educators with Enthusiasm

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3694091475_5f91e64680.jpgPresident Obama wants to make it easier to dismiss teachers whose students aren't performing well on tests. But what about the parents? By the president's own account, his daughter's performance jumped when he and his wife made clear their expectations, evidently without a change of instructor:

The president . . . went off script for a few moments, telling of a C grade that his 11-year-old daughter, Malia, brought home from school recently. It didn't meet the standards at the Obama home, he said, and Malia knew it.

More recently, he said, she came home with a score of 95.

"What was happening was, she had started wanting it more than us," he said.

And I wonder about negative incentives when positive ones have such questionable results; merit pay for test scores has been a disappointment, at least in Texas:

For the $300 million spent on merit pay for teachers over the last three years, Texas was hoping for a big boost in student achievement.

But it didn't happen with the now-defunct program, according to experts hired by the state.

The Texas Educator Excellence Grant, or TEEG, plan did not produce the academic improvements that proponents - including Gov. Rick Perry - hoped for when the program was launched with much fanfare in 2006, a new report from the National Center on Performance Incentives said.

"There is no systematic evidence that TEEG had an impact on student achievement gains," said researchers for Texas A&M University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Missouri.

Maybe attrition plus the dread jobless recovery will come to the schools' rescue. From the Depression into the 1960s, the teaching corps, not only in major cities, were an elite, many of whom had aced competitive examinations (the best known, Lyndon Johnson, was an outstanding classroom teacher). Not all new recruits of the postwar boom could be expected to measure up, just as the nation was spoiled by the efficiency of the mid-century Post Office, but there was more to it than the drought of investment banking jobs. Discrimination in other professions made instruction one of the few alternatives for talented women. There was also more religious and racial bias in what remained of the private sector. Fortunately, Depression-era unemployment levels, racism, and sexism are unlikely to return. So how do we recruit and train teachers?

Since teacher education and certification programs don't seem to relate to progress in actual instruction (not unusual; bar exam results aren't correlated with future legal competence) Malcolm Gladwell has proposed the sink-or-swim system used in football and financial advising. You can't evaluate aptitude in advance, so let lots of people try and keep those who work out because of a mysterious interpersonal aptitude one researcher has named "withitness." (Who, I wonder, will re-teach the kids who experience withoutitness?)
 
But teaching isn't like pro sports, finance or the arts. The average struggling musician can take hope, like the aspiring athlete, from a few colleagues' superstar incomes. Not teachers. Even Frank McCourt never planned to be a best-selling author -- it was his method of teaching by storytelling that helped him become one.

And we need many more teachers than quarterbacks, investment advisors, or special forces commandos. According to the Census Bureau, in 2004 there were 3.1 million primary and middle school teachers and 772,000 secondary school teachers. In 2005 we had only 800,000 physicians, and 20 years before that only 500,000, according to one unofficial report. Education's problem isn't that people don't realize it's important. Most do. The problem is that  it is so important, just as health care became a greater issue with the expansion of medicine.

So if the educational establishment is still not delivering, conventional incentives are disappointing, major salary increases unrealistic because of scale and state and local fiscal crises, and sifting battalions of aspirants for Gladwellian "withitness" is a non-starter, what's left? 

Musical ability was once considered the domain of "withitness" too. Shinichi Suzuki showed it was possible to train teachers to bring out latent talent in large numbers of students. We should focus not on threatening teachers but on creating better ways to help them.

The greatest of the twentieth-century gurus, Peter Drucker, was also the one who best recognized the educational side of all enterprises. Zachary First, managing director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University replied to my query about one of his most brilliant insights, which I haven't yet found in print:

"Peter Drucker long consulted for ServiceMaster. He was both an advisor and friend to the company's Chairman and CEO, C. William Pollard. Drucker once suggested to Pollard that ServiceMaster's real business was not janitorial services or lawn care or pest control, but rather 'developing people.'"

Maybe academia can in turn learn something from the crabgrass removal business. How to develop the people who are developing people -- that's the question.

(Photo: Gamma-Ray Productions/Flickr)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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