Posts Tagged ‘K-12 education’

Should we fire bad teachers?

March 16, 2010

Newsweek ran a story last week titled Why we must fire bad teachers. It makes some good points, but also evades most of the conversation that needs to occur before real education reform occurs.

First, I agree that we need to fire bad teachers. I am generally pro-teacher, due to the fact that they have a difficult job that is extremely important. Most work long hours for a small pay check, and the work conditions can be pretty stressful. However, I am more pro-student than I am pro-teacher, and this is why I agree that we should fire bad teachers.

However, the article made no mention as to how to determine which teachers are “good” and which are “bad.” I spent three years evaluating college teachers, and I did not make much progress in determining what makes a good teacher—the best I could do is rely on a gut feeling, or to paraphrase Potter Stewart: “I know bad teaching when I see it.”

Some would argue that we should indirectly measure teacher effectiveness by using student test scores. However, I have seen very little evidence that these scores mean anything. This is largely because I rarely hear discussion about our goals. If we decide that our goal is for students to know as many facts and one-step algorithms as possible, I would believe that these test scores could accurately measure that. If our goal is to create students who are creative, caring, diligent, and thoughtful, I am very skeptical. In fact, there are trade-offs involved: the more time you spend on facts and simple algorithms, the less time you spend on having students be creative and thoughtful. If this is the case, using test scores to determine teachers’ competence levels could have the effect that we fire the good teachers who are nurturing creativity and thoughtfulness.

Until someone convinces me that we have a way of measuring our educational goals correctly (also, they should tell me what the goals are for their school district), I am going to be very wary of firing teachers.

The article also makes a huge assumption, which is: the educational system is mostly good. If this is the case, I would agree that we should focus our energy on only having good teachers. However, “good” means “good within the context of the current education system.” Education is currently much more about obedience and compliance than creativity and thoughtfulness. Again, we need to decide if these are the goals we want (note: you can probably tell, especially if you have read previous posts, is that I think that we should have different educational goals that what we are actually teaching).

Note that there is no reason to believe that the skills required of a teacher whose main goal is compliance would be the same as if the main goal were thoughtfulness (although I think that there is still a large amount of overlap). For this reason, I would suggest that we reform all of education first according to our actual goals, and then sort teachers into “good” and “bad” piles based on the criteria of the system we want rather than the system we currently have.

I appreciate this article. I wish that the mainstream media would discuss education more. However, articles like these serve more to preserve the status quo than to effect change, and I know of very few people who are satisfied with the state of public education.

Optimally Challenging

February 21, 2010

@republicofmath tweeted a link to this article on Advanced Placement courses. This article nicely summarizes my feelings on AP calculus—very few students learn much calculus beyond the algorithms (I am not citing anything here because this is little more than my impression). Combining this with the push to make algebra as a required course for students as young as 7th grade, and we begin to see a pattern of the maxim “earlier is better.”

One particularly dangerous way this manifests itself is the in the corollary “harder is better.” In fact, I find myself doing that a bit this semester in my abstract algebra class—I find myself introducing graduate-level ideas to my students at times. This has mostly been fine, since my students have been really good. However, what is the cost of this? For every graduate-level idea I introduce, an undergraduate idea is left unsaid (roughly). But somehow I want to introduce these topics.

I do not think that I am alone in this habit of making courses more challenging than they need to be; in fact, I think that I far from the worst offender, since I am aware of this tendency and work hard to keep the material at the level of my student. I know of other professors who brag about making very difficult exams and homework assignments. I fall into this trap, too, when I am not consciously thinking about this issue. I cannot speculate about everyone else who prides themselves on being a “tough” teacher, but here are my best guesses as to why I am this way:

  1. I find the material more interesting. Since the course is for the students, this is not a terribly good reason. “Research” should be the outlet for the material I find most interesting.
  2. I find that my ego is stroked when I teach harder material. It is rarely a good idea to do things just for ego, though.
  3. I think that I am being a good teacher by challenging my students. However, this is not true. It is very easy to make a course that is too easy or too hard. Unfortunately, students do not learn much in these classes. It is relatively hard to create a course that is optimally challenging for the students, which is where they learn the most. Instead of aiming for “hard,” I should be aiming for “just hard enough.”
  4. I find that my colleagues respect me more. It seems like the fastest way for a professor to lose the respect of his/her peers is to gain the reputation of being an “easy teacher.” This is easily done, since many of my colleagues in this country think that anything short of “students killing themselves to make it through a math class” is too easy.

I do not want to make it sound like I have done a bad job this semester—I have actually been very pleased. I can merely point to occasions when I have introduced ideas that are too hard. If anything, I think that I might be developing the reputation as being “too easy” on my students (this will likely be the topic of my next post).