Education administrators have chosen the wrong business model for schools — one that threatens to reward teachers for student test scores rather than for infecting their charges with a passion for learning, writes guest columnist Wayne Grytting. There is a better way.
WHY teach? Why would any adult in their right mind want to become a public-school teacher? Before we go too far down the “reform our schools” road, maybe we should have an answer to that question.
Not enough bright young people are making the choice to teach. Would you want to face a class of 30 hyperactive 12-year-olds every single day? Work long hours for low pay? Deal with parents who’d drive their cars over you to get their kids into Stanford? Live in the middle of a multisided political tug-of-war where everyone knows your job better than you?
Forests worth of studies in education have produced one result, which I quote from a McKinsey and Co. study — “the main driver of the variation in student learning is the quality of the teachers.” Exposure to effective teachers trumps class size or changes in curriculum by 10 times. Students given three years with “high-performing teachers” have increased their test results by 50 percentile points over their peers.
That is why the world’s top education systems focus on recruiting the best teachers they can find. For example, in South Korea teachers are coming from the top 5 percent of college graduates, while in Finland, teachers are coming from the top 10 percent. But in the United States, according to the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, “We are now recruiting our teachers from the bottom third of high-school students going to college.”
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Why do “effective teachers” decide to teach? What motivates them to remain? If you sit down and actually talk to veteran teachers you will find people who want to make a difference in others’ lives. On psychological tests they score off the charts on altruism. Show me the sternest, hardest teacher and I’ll show you a big heart just under the crusty surface.
Next you’ll find people who have a passion for learning. The teachers I’ve known and admired have brought their love of Chaucer, bird behavior or computer repair into the classrooms and infected students with their curiosity.
Finally, you’ll find people who’d just like a little respect, who now find themselves on the hot seat, suspected of slacking off and in need of rescue by professionals with MBAs who can show them how to become aligned, accountable and seamless elements of the system. Teachers would like their hard-won wisdom reflected in their schools.
I would dare you to go out like Diogenes with his lantern and find one good teacher who would list as their main reason for teaching the raising of student test scores. Doing well on standardized tests is a necessary life skill, but it is not what drives effective teachers. If my goals are to instill a love of Civil War battle history, Shakespeare or helping clean up polluted streams, I want to be judged on those terms.
Why teach in a system that measures and rewards goals its members do not share? That’s the question.
There is a disconnect between what motivates quality teachers and school-district plans to tie teacher evaluations and pay to test scores. Parents, you need to ask: Are the moves to curriculum alignment and standardized test accountability creating a working climate that will repel the very teachers we need to improve our schools?
Our school districts have swung to a business model of education. The problem is they’ve chosen the wrong business model. It’s taken, some would say, from McDonald’s; others say the old Soviet Union.
I’d suggest we adopt Warren Buffett’s model — find the best people, step back and let them manage.
Wayne Grytting is a recently retired West Seattle High School special-education teacher and author of a fairly satirical book titled “American Newspeak.”