President 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.