Sunday, July 23, 2017

Forbes Says 18 Dumb Things

Forbes has some super-duper insights to offer about education, courtesy of Omri Ben-Sahar and Carl E. Schneider. If you don't recognize those names from the world of education, that's because Ben-Sahar is a "law professor at the University of Chicago, the editor of a leading academic journal, and a global expert on contract law and consumer market regulation" and Schneider is "the Chauncey Stillman Professor for Ethics, Morality, and the Practice of Law and is a Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Law School." In other words, one more set of experts who are public education amateurs.

With its title, "Teacher Certification Makes Public School Education Worse, Not Better" announces its intention to be outrageous, and it does not disappoint. It's a short article, but it squeezes in 18 dumb things. Let's count them of:

1) Who does not believe that education is vital, that it is crucial to personal success, economic prosperity, and social mobility?

According to several pieces of research, social mobility is stalled in this country. Educational inequity is more appropriately viewed as a symptom, but for some folks, portraying education as the cure-all for our current rampant inequity uses schools as a convenient whipping boy and lets every other creator of inequity off the hook. Meanwhile, what does the data show about the rich and successful folks of this country-- are they rich and successful because of their great education?

2) America has excellent higher education. Yet primary and secondary school students have long performed poorly on tests compared with students from many industrialized countries.

I'll remind you that the authors work in higher education. The old "score badly on standardized test" factoid is well-worn, but pointless unless you're willing to offer evidence that the score actually means something. Do low test scores correspond to some measurable dip in American prosperity? Did we get President Trump or the Great Recession of 2009 because standardized test scores took a dive those years?

3) This chart

The US is spending more money all the time, and the other lines on the chart don't justify it and still our test scores don't go up (though why we don't throw that line on the chart too, I do not know). And we have no interest in considering any possible explanations for increased expenditures for education. Just keep it simple-- we spend All This Money!

4) The key to successful education is to attract good teachers.

Yup. Teachers are the only important factor in education, meaning, of course, that everything that ever goes wrong with education is the teachers' fault.

5) We can try to do so by raising teachers’ salaries (as commonly advocated). But this strategy also seems to fail, partly because higher incomes go to both good teachers and bad, giving bad teachers as much incentive as good ones to become and remain teachers.

There are several things wrong with this. Take your pick. You could start with the dopey notion that "good" and "bad" are solid state characteristics of teachers, like height or hair color. But lets look at some others.

One theory is that if you offer more money, you increase the pool of teacher hires and then-- then- you get to pick only the good ones.  You could even use money to outbid other districts for the top people. Or-- and here's a radical notion-- you might believe that teachers respond to incentives other than cold, hard cash, like respect and support and cushy offices. After all-- isn't that why you higher education stick around even for low collegiate pay?

Finally, folks who have never spent time in an actual classroom tend to seriously underestimate how taxing it is to be to teach poorly. Of all the jobs in the world that a person can drudge away at, day after day of disengaged misery just to get a paycheck, teaching is by far the worst. Sure, some people head toward teaching because they think it will be easy; the figure out otherwise pretty quickly. Students are unforgiving and the work is demanding, even when you half-ass it. You've seen the figures on the huge number of teachers who quit the field within the first few years-- do you think perhaps a large portion of those are people who aren't so great at the work?

Teaching badly is hard and taxing. Not that many people are going to keep at it just for the check.

6) Higher standards make things worse.

After dismissing higher pay, the writers consider tougher standards. And then they reject that idea.

For two reasons. First, more stringent certification standards do little to keep out bad teachers. Second, such standards deter excellent prospects from entering teaching.

They have part of a point here, arguing that we don't know how to identify and test for teacherly excellence. But then there's #2-- the idea that higher standards reduce the teaching pool. Wouldn't you like to see some kind of support for that odd idea? Well, too bad. The writers will repeat the assertion two more times, and throw in the idea that teaching standards also create teacher shortages, but at no point will they offer any evidence or support. Nope-- the best teacher candidates want to enter a field with low standards.

7) It is no surprise, then, that researchers find little difference between teachers with or without a certificate. Allowing genuine alternatives to certification thus does not hurt the quality of learning (and even can improve it, some studies suggest).

Sigh. Once again, by "little difference" what we mean is "little difference in scores on a single narrowly focused standardized test." Which simply doesn't qualify as a measure of teacher quality. Another of the link takes us to the work of Eric Hanushek, which has been refuted more often than a Ouija board reading.

8) If we want schools to hire better teachers, we should expand, not contract, the pool from which schools may draw.

What was that part about not raising the pay for teachers? But let's not expand the pool by making teaching more attractive-- let's just open up the job to anybody with a warm pulse.

9) It also creates teacher shortages, especially in chronically understaffed subjects like science and math, in poor communities, and in schools with high proportions of minority students. Budgets are not to blame (they have not been cut). Licensing barriers are the culprits.

Yup. People are just lined up to take those jobs. And there's a clear training and career path for anybody who wants those jobs. But somehow, it's the need to get a teaching license that's holding them back. And certainly not any factors that make the job less attractive, like pay or treatment or support or respect.

10) The writers have been comparing teachers to doctors and lawyers, but argue that doctors and lawyers have a body of knowledge that can be easily tested. But there's another reason that teachers don't need the same kind of licensing as other professions.

Doctors and lawyers are also hired by people not competent to judge their performance. No such protection against bad teachers is needed because they are hired not by individuals but by experienced administrators.

I don't even know what to do with the idea that doctors and lawyers are hired by incompetents. But I do know what to do with the idea that experienced administrators can be the gatekeepers of the profession. First, not all administrators are experienced. Second, since organizations like Teach for America and Relay Graduate School have opened the profession  to anyone with a pulse, I'm not prepared to assume that every administrator is fit to sort teachers.

11) By far, the most effective way to improve teacher quality is to require administrators to selectively retain, after the first few years of experience, only the more effective teachers.

But administrators can do this now. Administrators can totally catch or release whatever teaching fish they catch. So what could be the barrier the writers are concerned about. Oh, come on-- you know. We've been slow to getting to this, but here we go.

The biggest barrier to improving teacher quality is therefore union contracts that block such selective retentions and, with lock step pay, eliminate success-based compensation.

Yes, those damned unions.

It's not clear to me what "selective retention" the union thwarts, but the assumption here that "success-based competition" would somehow improve teaching is a deeply dumb idea without the slightest bit of support. In fact, Microsoft abandoned it and Sears is currently dying from it.

12) Truth be told, incumbents like licensing because it reduces competition from entrants, keeps incomes high, and raises the status. Why else require florists, manicurists, or auctioneers to get licenses to cut flowers, nails, or deals. Do you really need 300 hours of supervised training to shampoo hair safely (in Tennessee)? Or seven years of training to be an interior designer (in DC)?

Yes, teaching is pretty much like being a florist. And licensing professions is just about keeping all the goodies for yourself. Because lord knows, by keeping a lock on the profession, teachers (and florists) have reaped huge financial rewards and awesome status in society.

Of course, it's also possible consumers like to know that somebody has actually checked out the person who's doing the work. It's also possible that people in a given profession have a stake in sharing that profession with people who are competent and who don't give their colleagues a bad name.

13) We are so committed to the idea of teacher certification that eliminating it may take getting used to.

Particularly if nobody ever makes a good case for doing it.

14) American higher education (we observed) is world class in ways that American primary and secondary education are not. Yet university faculty members are not certified to teach.

Please. Professors Ben-Sahar and Schneider both have very advanced degrees, because you don't get to be a university professor without a terminal degree (and, in some cases, publication).
University faculty go through their own sort of special certification. And regardless of their high self-regard, I've spoken to more than a few former students who agreed that no, their college professors aren't certified-- or qualified-- to teach.

15)  Instead, any college that develops a reputation for a weak faculty will struggle to attract students and the tuition they pay.

Colleges will be comparable to public K-12 schools on the day that all students must attend college and no colleges can select their own student body. In the meantime, saying that teaching staffs will be kept in line by free market forces is skipping a whole argument in which someone successfully makes the case for turning public education into a free market system (spoiler alert: such a case can't be made).

16) For many years, Americans have been admonished to pay more to get educations comparable to those many other countries provide. Americans have paid more but have not gotten that education.

Oh, passive voice. Who exactly has been doing this admonishing? And "comparable" in what way? And how do we know we haven't gotten it.

17) Abolishing certification requirements is not only virtually costless, but it would eliminate the onerous costs certification exacts.

Virtually costless? Letting any warm body walk into a classroom is virtually costless? I do agree that the cost of becoming certified has become onerous in some states, but that's an easy fix-- pointless programs like EdTPA could be shut down tomorrow.

18) And it offers the best hope of bringing more capable people into the teaching that all agree is so vital.

This is the final line of the article, and nothing in it has been proven in any of the lines that came before. Great teachers are somehow born and not made, and they alone can fix everything, and they are apparently distributed randomly throughout the population. Somehow by lowering standards, lowering pay, destabilizing pay, and removing job security, we will attract more of them and flush them out.

That's 18 dumb things in one short article. I suppose Forbes could get better articles if they paid less and let anybody write for them.


  1. After the torturous stretches made in this article, these two authors must have been on muscle relaxants for a week.

    So let's get this straight:

    Our nation will get BETTER teachers if those in charge of schools LOWER the salary and benefits of teachers, and make their job conditions WORSE, and RAISE the number of students in their class?

    Our nation will get BETTER teachers if those in charge of schools are LESS DEMANDING in the requirements of the candidates applying for the job? And

    Seriously? Really? In what universe does that work?

    Let's try and follow their logic:

    So when you ... move the bar from ... requiring a credential plus a Master's ... to requiring just a credential w/no Masters/just a Bachelor's, the quality of the teachers hired will improve as a result.

    Then, when you ... move the bar from ...

    ...requiring a just a credential w/no Masters/just a Bachelor's ... to requiring NO credential/just a Bachelors ...

    ... the quality of teacher hired will improve even more as a result.

    Then, when you ... move the bar from ...

    ... NO credential/just a Bachelors ... to requiring NO Bachelor's / just an Associate's Degree (Community College/ Junior College) w/no credential ...

    ... the quality of the teachers hired will improve even more as a result.

    Then, when you ... move the bar from ... requiring just an Associate's Degree (Community College/Junior College) w/no credential ... to requiring just a high school diploma with, of course, no credential ...

    ... the quality of the teachers hired will improve to an even greater height as a result.

    Then, when you ... move the bar from ... requiring just a high school diploma with, of course, no credential ... to requiring just a GED acquired by high school dropouts/no credential ...

    ... the quality of the teachers hired will improve to an even greater height as a result.

    Heck, why even require a GED / high school equivalent?

    Why not allow high school dropouts, or middle school dropouts to teach?

    I'm wondering how these two authors --- if they have or ever will have children themselves -- show up on Open House night at the start of the school year, and discover that child's teacher is a high school dropout who cannot even speak or write a sentence with basic grammar.

    "Oh, great! Having just a high school diploma is great! I co-wrote this scholarly paper saying this is a wonderful way to hire our nation's teachers, and leads to high quality teachers."

    I don't think so.

    1. I don't think our portrayal of the author's argument is accurate. I don't think they are saying that teachers having fewer degrees is a good idea (or at least that's not what I would say). Rather, they are saying that credentialing is over-rated. That's just a different thing. You may agree or disagree - but its' a different thing.
      Our existing education system basically says that it doesn't matter much what your grades were as a student or the competitiveness of your college - but rather that what's important is that you get a traditional teacher certifcation - which affirms that you know the latest in pedagogy and such ... and usually that you've spent some time in a classroom as an assistant or similar. Moreover, the system says that you'll get paid more as you continue due to two things - seniority and degree attainment.

      Again, there's nothing there about grades or competitiveness of the school attended. And like many things in the market, you usually get what you pay for. Per Mckinsey, our teachers are mainly sourced from the bottom 1/3 of college bound high school students. Again, we neither reward grades nor competitiveness of school attended. My daughter graduated Princeton a couple of years ago. While TFA actively recruited on campus (and was sought after despite worse pay than alternatives), the district schools did not recruit. And as near as I can tell, the same is true at other competitive schools.

      Moreover, notice that the requirements outlined require a knowledge in education theory and practice - but not subject matter. There's likewise an increased belief that a good way to find math teachers might be to get mathematicians - or at least people who majored in math in school.

      The underlying belief in all of this (which again, you can agree with or not) is that teachers should be strong students who attend top schools and know their subject. And that the skill set of actually conveying these skills and knowledge that these people already possess can be trained relatively quickly. Again, I understand that you disagree with this assessment - and likely even find it insulting given the very different focus of teacher recruitment and promotion historically. The data suggests that the reformers are correct -but again, this tends to rely on standardized tests as a metric which I know you dismiss. But that's the rationale. I just thought you should at least better understand that with which you disagree.

    2. Indeed, I do disagree. In order to teach in a public school at the High School level, you need to be certified in some area of expertise. I was certified in general science, chemistry, physics, earth science and mathematics. Each of these certifications required necessary coursework as well as passing a competency test that covered those specialties.

      You have no idea how many people with STEM 'skill sets' are horrible teachers. No, empathy and an understanding of human cognition cannot be 'trained relatively quickly'.

  2. Since the authors are so fond of comparing teaching to medicine, let's compare #8 that way: "If we want hospital to hire better surgeons, we should expand, not contract, the pool from which schools may draw."

    I mean, really, think about how many people have not gone to medical school. Surely amongst all of those millions (billions, really) of people, there's got to be lots of people who could perform surgery better than some bozo who just happened to graduate from medical school. Therefore, hospitals shouldn't have to be limited to medical school graduates when hiring surgeons.

  3. Sorry about that last long post.

    Here's the short version.

    "So you get a higher and higher quality of (professionals --- doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. ) by making it easier and easier for anyone to be permitted to perform that profession?"

    THAT ... MAKES ... NO ... SENSE.

  4. Try using this logic when you want plumbers, electricians, hair stylists, and baby sitters. Alternative facts abound. Teachers are the enemy and amateurs know the real scoop. We're all fracked.

  5. Where is their talking point on the role of administrators? Ignoring management in an article on teacher quality shows just how clueless they are. The quality of building principals has declined precipitously in recent years as many inexperienced educators getting fast-tracked into the big chair. Why is it that administrators get so little attention from reformers?

  6. Take the word "teacher" out of the arguments and insert any other profession you like. Since this is Forbes, how about "financial advisor" or "stockbroker." Why should people need a seat in a stock exchange to trade stocks? Doesn't this keep the pool of available brokers arbitrarily small? Etc.

    Like the arguments that claim to prove the existence of god, they don't specify which god. (Remove Jesus, insert Odin.) Most of the hand waving arguments just don't hold water because they exclude pertinent data. How does teacher unionization correlate with student performance (even using their cockamamie measures)? Oh, the unionized systems do better? Imagine that.

  7. Great post!

    Regarding #11, just fyi, Microsoft still does stack-ranking. I'm not sure why there's a myth out there that they don't anymore. It's how they do the bonuses, and the bonus is the main distinguisher between different levels so it's very important.