A great Freakonomics podcast on teacher quality
LEVIN: And as a society, you know, we have to start thinking, yes we have to start paying teachers more and recognizing that there will be professions that pay more. What else can we do to make teaching as respected a profession as possible? I mean, and you know, one of my favorite ideas is for teachers who continue to teach past their fifth year that we consider some type of tax break and tax incentive for them including the possibility that they don't pay income tax, recognizing that we won't always be able to pay teachers more. But there ways that we can say to teachers, 'Hey, you are a national treasure, you are essential to the future of the country.' And I think if we got serious about that it could really make a huge difference. Even little things — I know it sounds little but we have armed forces you know, board airplanes first, why not have armed forces and teachers board airplanes first? You know, I just think there are lots of ways we could think about valuing the teaching profession more.
… LEVIN: And you know, the success of KIPP from the beginning has been able to recruit them to come work with us, to help them grow and become even better and then to have them stay with us over time. And all of which we've worked really hard at. And I think there are a couple of key aspects to what makes our teachers successful. One is this combination of head and heart. What I mean by that is the ability to simultaneously deliver rigorous content — consider that the "head" part — while also simultaneously motivating and engaging kids to care deeply about themselves, their future, and the content that's been delivered – consider that the "heart" piece. It's the real combination of rigor with joy that I think KIPP teachers are exceptional at and we spend a lot of time working on. And in addition to that I think is there's this recognition at KIPP that character and academics are interwoven in every minute of every day with everything that happens. And so there's an old James Baldwin quote, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but have never failed to imitate them." And I think our teachers take that incredibly seriously. And so if we're expecting our kids to work hard and be nice, our teachers believe that they need to do the same. If we're expecting our kids to love math and reading, then teachers need to show the same love of math and reading.
DUBNER: Talk to me for just a minute about how teaching is taught generally in the country. I'd especially like it if you could talk about it in light of the kind of common thought experiment, I'm sure you've heard it, if you went to sleep 120, 130 years ago and woke up today, almost everything in the world would have changed except for the classroom where there is one teacher up in front of 20 or 30 kids with a chalkboard and so on. And I'm curious what you think about how teaching is generally taught in this country, and if it's found lacking, which I assume you'll say it is, whether that's because it's stuck in the past or maybe because it's a lot harder problem than we think.
LEVIN: So I think yes, the way we train teachers is fundamentally broken in this country. And I think that's true on three levels. So one, it's disproportionately theory-based. And so you'll learn about theories of child development, you'll learn about theories of math instruction, or theories of reading instruction. And all of that is actually important. It's just I'm not sure of like what good the theory of math instruction is if you don't actually know how to deliver a lesson on math as well. Number two, we have two problems with the way we approach content in this country. There is no doubt that content is queen and king. So the importance of content mastery in the classroom is absolutely essential. Having said that, sometimes the best math teachers weren't necessarily the best math students, because you know you often teach better what you weren't so good at, because you actually had to work to learn it. And yet, very often you have to have a certain number of college credits in math in order to be a math teacher. There is truth to that for sure when you get to the more complicated and higher levels. At K-8 level, however, you need to be able to deliver the content. You need to have a mastery over that, and that isn't necessarily meaning you had a math degree in order to be able to teach fractions. You just need to be able to actually understand the nuances behind fractions. And right now, we're assuming that if you have a math degree you can teach math as opposed to you know being taught the content. The third problem with the way teachers are trained is that we are not training teachers right now to meet the challenges of our kids today. Right? So to this extent we are sort of still training teachers for classrooms of the past. So we're not teaching teachers well enough how to effectively differentiate for the vast range of skills the kids have. We're not teaching teachers effectively enough how to use technology to further teaching, and we're not teaching teachers how to make school relevant for what kids are really needing to succeed in the colleges they may go to or the careers they may pursue 20 years from now.
DUBNER: So when you say that the way we teach teachers is fundamentally broken and then you describe these dimensions on which it's not working, I guess my next question is a very obvious one, which is why? I mean, you know, in most areas of higher ed., the curriculum and methodology and pedagogy adapts over time. I mean, the way computer science is taught now is really different than the way it was taught 30 years ago. And the failings that you describe, they sound maybe hard to address, but not complicated. So why hasn't the teaching of teachers evolved?
LEVIN: So why hasn't this changed? One interesting metaphor there is like the bar exam, where people study and cram for the bar exam because they need to pass it to get their credential. But it doesn't necessarily reflect what they do then when they go to practice it. But education is even worse because you get your master's then you go practice and there's no reverse accountability. And if you think about computer science, the example you gave, if you have coders who aren't up on their recent code, those people aren't going to get hired. And so there's a feedback loop there. Or if doctors aren't trained on the current medicines, people aren't going to go to those doctors. So there's a feedback loop there. But in education that feedback loop doesn't exist. Teachers go into the classroom…
DUBNER: And why? I mean, is it partly because are we seeing the backside of the fact that teaching is a public institution, a government institution, governments just have different ways of verifying and qualifying people than does private practice?
LEVIN: I think there are a couple of reasons. It has been historically very, very hard to evaluate and remove ineffective teachers. How you're trained and your future performance have been very, very disconnected. Now there's been a big push recently over around teacher evaluation and teacher accountability. But people still aren't really connecting the entire cycle between the recruiting, developing, and retaining of teachers. Teaching is, arguably one of the most important professions in our country and it's still a divided conversation, right? So we talk about developing teachers. But if you listen to the public conversation it's mainly about teacher evaluation, retention, not recognizing that who you bring in and how you train them leads to their future performance. And so that disconnect I think is remains like a huge, huge, problem. And there's no incentive for schools of ed. to change.
[MUSIC: Fooling April, "Too Late" (from Three)]
DUBNER: And that's why Levin decided to help start a new kind of graduate school to educate teachers:
LEVIN: The Relay Graduate School of Education, I was one of the cofounders along with Norman Atkins and Desha Tull. Norman Atkins from Uncommon Schools. And Daesha Tull from Achievement First. And we basically felt that there was a disconnect between the way our teachers were getting trained in the graduate schools around New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut and their performance in the classroom. And so what we thought is that you could create a more productive union between theory and practice and that you could have people who are teaching teachers who are still connected to students either as teachers or as principals. And what started in New York has now grown in New Jersey, and New Orleans, Houston. It is a two years master's program where the enrolled teachers need to show student proficiency in order to earn their masters.
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast "Is America's Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?"