Monday, October 3, 2011

Thoughts on an Article I Haven't Read

. Monday, October 3, 2011

That would be this one, which tells me in the headline and subtitle that North Carolina "grooms its best students to be good teachers". I strongly suspect that this is not true empirically, and I certainly hope it is not. Teaching requires basic competence of the subject material plus the ability to lesson-plan effectively and communicate well. While this is not an easy job relative to many other tasks, it's not on the same level of difficulty of oh, say, developing new medical procedures, inventing new technologies, or devising and testing new theories of human interaction.* Given that, I'd rather our best students focus on the most difficult tasks and/or those with the highest social benefit, while our capable-but-definitely-not-the-best students focus on getting first graders to color inside the lines or getting eighth graders to dissect a frog without vomiting.**

*The inclusion of the latter is me puffing out my chest, in case you couldn't tell.

**Not sure if I have those activities assigned to the proper class because I skipped 8th grade and never dissected a frog, so I assume that's when that happened.


LFC said...

So you don't think pre-college teaching is among the tasks "with the highest social benefit"? Finland apparently channels its best students into teaching, with (from what I gather) very good results in terms of student learning, achievement, etc. Perhaps one of the problems w American education is precisely that it concentrates on coloring inside the lines, etc. -- i.e., trivialities. Even first graders can be better occupied than that, at least for some of the day. There is no question that public education in the US is not what it might be, to put it mildly, and this post seems oddly complacent about an obvious and quite glaring societal problem. If you posted it just to be provocative and get a rise out of someone, well, you succeeded.

Kindred Winecoff said...

You seem to have missed the first part of that sentence: "Given [different levels of occupational difficulty], I'd rather our best talents focus on the most difficult tasks AND/OR those with the highest social benefit". It doesn't seem to me that teaching elementary education fulfills both criteria.

Teaching certainly has high social benefit, but that's not really the question. The question is whether our *best* talents should become teachers. Is the marginal benefit from having our geniuses teach high school worth the opportunity cost from having them not work in most complex fields? In terms of getting the most bang for society's buck it would seem to make sense for teachers to be competent but not geniuses rather than the other way around. I didn't think this was especially controversial.

I don't think US educational outcomes are that terrible, considering that our kids often have shorter school days, shorter school years, and come from a very wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. Despite that we tend to rank middle of the pack in the OECD. If we want our kids to learn more I think we'd do better targeting those things rather than trying to get Fields Medalists to teach high school algebra.

I know nothing about Finland, but if social science has taught me anything it's that you usually can't generalize from Scandinavia.

LFC said...

Sorry, I read "and/or" to mean that it doesn't have to fulfill both criteria. (Otherwise why not just use "and" alone?) Where we can probably agree is on the notion that teachers should be, as a group, given more status and pay and that more care should be taken to attract competent people into the profession. I don't think we have to have geniuses teaching algebra.

The problem is not so much aggregate educational outcomes in the US as a horrendously unequal system in which there is a huge gap between good public schools and inadequate ones, a gap that tracks SES and race - not perfectly but to a disturbing extent. Just saying outcomes are OK b/c US is middle of the pack in OECD glosses over this inequality and the attendant injustice and waste of much undeveloped talent.

LFC said...

P.s. Not to mention the practical arguments for better science and math education esp., which are well known and much talked about by politicians. I don't think the US needs to rank at the top on these things (e.g. Singapore, Finland, and certain other, esp. small countries, have built-in advantages) but an increase in the aggregate outcomes couldn't hurt.
Even for those with various advantages, getting a good education in the US system is, I think, far from a certainty. I went to a very good (by reputation etc.) suburban public high school and to an 'elite' private university (for undergrad), and I don't think I got as good an education as I should have, by quite a long shot. Some of that was no doubt my fault but some of it wasn't. (And that was at the top rungs of the system in terms of institutional quality.) Have things improved in the intervening decades? Yes, in some ways, I'm sure. But not enough, probably.

Dot said...

Disappointing to see such a patronizing post on an otherwise enjoyable blog.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Dot, Who's being patronized?

LFC, I actually think the status of teachers is pretty high already. The status of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians isn't high enough, in my view.

Thoughts on an Article I Haven't Read
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