Training Better Teachers

Elizabeth Green has a brilliant piece in the NYT Magazine about efforts to find better ways to train teachers. The most important influence on student achievement seems to be their family background. After that, the thing that makes a big difference is the quality of their teacher. Some teachers consistently deliver much bigger-than-average gains in learning, and others deliver worse-than-average gains. Most political interest in this has focused on better ways to screen the teaching workforce—attract more elite people into the profession, fire more ineffective teachers, pay effective teachers more money so they don’t quit.

But as Green points out, the country needs a lot of K-12 teachers and already has a ton of people already doing the job:

The shortest bar, all the way on the right, represented architects: 180,000. Farther over, slightly higher, came psychologists (185,000) and then lawyers (952,000), followed by engineers (1.3 million) and waiters (1.8 million). On the left side of the graph, the top three: janitors, maids and household cleaners (3.3 million); secretaries (3.6 million); and, finally, teachers (3.7 million). Moreover, a coming swell of baby-boomer retirements is expected to force school systems to hire up to a million new teachers between now and 2014.


I had to make my own chart based on those numbers, since the NYT didn’t see fit to include the one Green refers to.

Obviously, right now we do train teachers. But there’s nothing systematic about the training and it doesn’t seem to work very well. If you can research and design better methods, then the teachers of tomorrow will have a leg up. What’s more, if you can research and design better methods you can make much better use of the vast quantity of more-or-less average teachers in America. These are hard-working people who by-and-large clearly want to be in classrooms teaching students, and who if faced with persuasive evidence that slight tweaks in technique (see the “cold calling” example in the article) will make a big difference will probably embrace them.

Unfortunately, as of now the research is in a pretty primitive state and we don’t really have definitive knowledge of the existence of a better training approach. But there are promising steps being taken, and the Obama administration is rightly investing more funds in trying to figure this piece of the puzzle out.