In Which Ed Explains Induction

So I’m at a Starbucks with my mentee, Bart. Bart looks like  Jared Leto playing Jesus. Many piercings, tattoos, big puppy dog eyes, long brown hair. We have been friends since his first day as a teacher, when I showed up in a (successful) effort to offer assistance, and I’m now mentoring him in his second year of induction (third year as a teacher.)

Some context: it is 6:15 pm. We both began our day at 7:15 am for a mandatory  75-minute staff development meeting, and not the sort where you’re surreptitiously grading papers while listening to required procedural instructions you’ve heard eight years in a row. No, this is intense department negotiations on curriculum and pacing. Interesting, but high intensity, and no checking out. Then our normal day.  Then we supervised our twice weekly, 90-minute sessions with about twenty kids working on science projects. Now we are at Starbucks, working on Bart’s induction project.  I don’t normally do the “teachers work long days” whine, but it had, in fact, been a long day.

Bart’s a great teacher, much adored by his students. He has his own idealistic values, like he still assigns homework because he wants kids to want to do it. I smile indulgently at such foolish romanticism. The guy spends hours working on lesson plans, writing extensive notes, building meaningful lessons and assessments. Not too much time–he’s not silly about this stuff–but he is a thoughtful person developing his practice, and he is in fact a really good teacher.

Induction is designed to engage and encourage new teachers to think productively about their practice. Bart and I had, up to this time, spent many hours in fruitful conversation, valuable to both of us, designing a year-long induction plan that interested him and would deepen his teaching experience.  He turned in his plan early, asking for feedback. I was pretty confident he’d be praised–my last mentee had done far less work under a different system and had done very well.

But alas, it was not to be. The induction administrator returned Bart’s plan politely, saying it showed real promise, but required a bunch of nitpicky changes.  In many cases, her changes expected Bart to be very detailed about the results of analytical or exploratory work that hadn’t yet happened.

I was very concerned. Bart thought the whole thing was absurd. So we were spending a few hours retooling his plan so that the wording pretended to comply with her demands. My years in corporate America have given me a thorough grounding in this task as well as an acute fear of failure; Bart has no such protection.

“What is the point of rewording all this?”

“Satisfying a bureaucrat without, you know, sex or money or drugs involved.”

“But why? I mean, why do we even have this induction nonsense?”

“Well, it all started with the achievement gap.”

“Induction will fix the achievement gap?”

“Of course not. Nothing will fix the achievement gap. So while there were some early successes, things mostly stalled out about twenty-thirty years ago.  Meanwhile, we started spending far more on education–bilingual education, increased academic requirements, special ed. Increased teachers–while our pay is about the same, we’ve had way more growth in teachers than in students. Many people noticed we had nothing to show for it, but no one seemed to notice that we are making far more demands on our students.”

“Completely unrealistic demands!”

“Of course. ” (Note: my original history here: The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform on this topic is still one of my favorites.)

“But what does this have to do with this crappy makework?”

“Well, back in the 80s, when the Nation At Risk declared that we were destroying our country and Russia would win…”

“A Nation at Risk?”

I sighed. “That’s right, you went to one of those online ed schools. It was this huge report written by conservative Repulicans arguing, basically, that American high schools are destroying the country by making school too easy. So that began a wholesale upgrade of required high school courses–except, of course, many kids weren’t capable of learning advanced material. Schools tried tracking, but they were sued out of it in diverse districts, leading us to try things like differentiation and group work and resulting in the wide range of abilities you see in your classroom today.”

“Anyway, back in the 90s, it finally began to occur to folks that not all kids were ready for this material, but rather than change the requirements, they started a big push for “readiness” at the middle school and elementary school level. This is where charters had a lot of success; it’s how KIPP made its bones. Turns out  that if you cream highly motivated kids of average ability and push testing, you can bump test scores, and back in the 90s, everyone screamed that oh, my lord, this is proof that our public schools are disasters and teachers are morons.”

“Did they have success in high school?”

“No, but of course higher test scores in elementary scores would lead to  better high school performance.”


“That’s idiotic. High school is much more difficult. So is that when credential tests began?”

“Well, high school teachers have had difficult credential tests going back to the 70s, a fact conveniently ignored by reformers. High school teachers are well-qualified, so we already knew that boosting teacher cognitive ability doesn’t lead to higher student test scores. But what means these pesky facts in face of enthusiasm and certainty? It’s when credential tests for elementary and middle school teachers began, though. (You can read all about it here.)”

“But induction isn’t a credential test.”

“Yeah, I’m getting there. Because, as you’ve no doubt anticipated, a wholesale increase in teacher cognitive abilities didn’t have the desired result–although it did result in a huge decrease in black and Hispanic teachers, once the fraud ring was discovered and broken up.”

“Fraud ring? Like taking tests for teachers?”

“Yep. Long story. Never mind that, while the evidence for smarter teachers getting better results is fuzzy,research shows a much stronger link for achievement if teacher and student race match…”

“Teacher and student race? You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Particularly low achieving blacks. Sucks, huh.”


“Where was I? Oh, yeah. Anyway, at some point in there progressives and conservatives found something they could agree on. It was ridiculous to assume that teachers could just….teach. They sit in ed school, which is widely agreed to be a waste of time…”

“Mine was.”

“…and do a few weeks of student teaching, and suddenly, shazam. They’re teachers! Once all the professionals sat and thought about that, they decided it was stupid. After all, these professionals had insanely great test scores and got into terrific schools, but teachers, who have our nation’s kids’ future in their hands!–go to crap schools, have low SAT scores, and then we just put them in a class. This has to change. Some of them are terrible. Some quit. Let’s  invest in their success!  Give new teachers more support. Improve student achievement.Blah blah.”

“Ah. Here’s how induction comes into it. But hasn’t it always been that way? I mean, we’ve always just put teachers into a classroom. Were they smarter? I’ve heard that in the old days teachers were smart women who couldn’t get other jobs, and now we’re all idiots.”

“In fact, teacher ability has been pretty constant. While it’s true that fewer really smart women become teachers, a whole lot of reasonably smart men did, along with the existing reasonably smart women.”

“And you’re right. It has always been this way. In the very early days, teachers were taught content. But for sixty years or more, prospective teachers have spent a year or so thinking and reading about pedagogy, six to ten weeks student teaching, and then entered the classroom.”

“All so America could invent the Internet and go to the moon.”

“Win World War II, outlast Communism, make AIDS a manageable disease, and elect a black president. But yeah, faced with the choice of accepting cognitive ability or pretending that teachers are ludicrously unprepared for the classroom, it’s an easy pick: spend billions on a useless training program for new teachers.”

“And so here we are.”

“Well, be happy Linda Darling Hammond didn’t get her way. She wants teachers train for three years after graduation before getting a job. And she’s a liberal!”

“What the hell? Here’s what I don’t get. Teaching isn’t that hard…well, it is hard. But it’s not hard in a way that training helps. It’s incredibly difficult but….exciting.”

“Well, of course.  Teaching is a performance job. Teachers have an audience. And as any actor can tell you, facing a hostile audience is a hellish proposition. Facing a hostile audience every day, eight hours a day, can’t long be borne. Facing a hostile audience of 30 or more children? Sane people run screaming if they can’t do the job.”

“So teaching has its own quality control built right in.”

“Exactly. If you are completely inept, you will quit or be fired in the unlikely event you made it past student teaching.”

“But you’re not saying everyone is a great teacher.”

“No. Everyone who continues teaching is at least an adequate teacher. And beyond adequate, no one can agree on the attributes of a great teacher. Manifestly, great teachers aren’t necessary. Adequate to good teachers are sufficient.”

“But we could do better. I mean, I would have loved to have talked to you before I started work, to get a good idea of what I was facing.”

“You wouldn’t have believed me. In fact, you didn’t believe me! Remember when I gave you that assessment test to give your kids the first day, and you were shocked because it was pre-algebra? These were geometry kids, you said. They’d finish it in 20 minutes. Um, no, I said, they’d need at least 45 and my guess more. You were polite, remember? Like who is this crazy loon.”

Bart was chagrined. “My god, you’re right. I doubted you back then. And then the test took them an hour and the average score was thirty wrong.”

“You still doubt me! You shouldn’t, of course, but teaching is hard to believe until you do it. Which is why induction is a waste.”

“Well, at least they pay you to do this. I do it for free!”

“Yep. Teaching is pay to play. Anyway, it’s seven. Let’s send this off and hope it pleases the bureaucrat.”


(It didn’t. The bureaucrat demanded more nonsensical changes. I wrote a cranky note.)



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