Tag Archives: teacher qualifications

The Aussie story and the plague of the middlebrow edupundits

This article is getting a lot of cheap responses.

Headline: “Federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett says teachers do not have to be smart”

Which leads, of course, to everyone mocking him for saying it’s okay for teachers to be stupid. But here’s what the article says:

[Garrett] said he didn’t think the teaching profession needed to be more selective.

“It is not necessarily a fact that someone who is academically smart makes a better teacher than someone who isn’t,” Mr Garrett told reporters in Canberra.

“I don’t think education should necessarily be the province of the particularly smart or gifted.”

Mr Garrett said he knew teachers who weren’t the most academically gifted but nevertheless went on to be great because they had passion and enthusiasm for the kids they taught.

I’ve written at length about this for America, at least. There is no evidence that smarter teachers make better teachers and our teachers are smart enough. And yes, many people with less than exceptional content knowledge make very good teachers, and plenty of brilliant people make terrible teachers.

So really, there’s nothing even slightly objectionable about Garrett’s points. Not that this stopped anyone from mocking.

I started this blog in some small part because I got irritated at all the idiots that I finally could capture in a name: the middlebrow* education “expert”. You find these preferences often in otherwise political pundits: Matt Yglesias, Megan McArdle, Noah Millman, Walter Russell Mead. In fact, almost any time a political pundit expresses even the briefest of thoughts on education, it’s straight from that part of the opinion spectrum. Most of the billionaire reformers are middlebrow. And of course, middlebrow education experts are legion in blog comment sections.

The middlebrows are educated, generally intelligent people who succeeded in the private sector—or married people who succeeded in the private sector. They hold a number of conventional opinions about education, even though they aren’t directly involved in teaching or educational policy.

One middlebrow profile is the quasi-reformer view: teachers aren’t very bright, unions are evil and a primary reason students are failing, standards aren’t high enough, merit pay will draw better people into teaching, everyone can succeed, we just have to catch the kids early enough.

The other middlebrow profile is the quasi-traditional view: teachers aren’t very bright, merit pay will draw better people into teaching, unions are evil and a primary reason students are failing, standards aren’t high enough,kids aren’t being taught the basics, bring back tracking, unmotivated students should be kicked out, weak-willed school administrators aren’t willing to let kids bear the responsibility of their actions, .

The overlap is intentional; all the middlebrows are consistent about blaming teachers. But these aren’t people with a coherent view; they’ve taken the cheap way out.

They think about education the way I like Hall and Oates, the Eagles, or John Mayer. When I listen to music I want something I can sing along with the radio when I’m driving. Nothing more. I don’t want to think, don’t want to work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these musicians—they’re popular for a reason. I can go on at great length about the excellence of Don Henley. But I like them in large part because they’re easy to like and tuneful. I’m not going to do the work to listen to more challenging music.

Likewise, the middlebrows in education want to opine on a subject that’s very much in the news and, unlike global warming or economic policy, they think this is an area in which their opinions carry a lot of weight. There’s nothing terribly off about their opinions; they are safe and easy. But just as a serious musician hates the proliferation of pop, so too do I get tired of the proliferation of conventional wisdoms by people who haven’t really taken the time to think or research their opinions on education.

Say what you will of reformers like Rick Hess or Fordham, or of progresssives like Larry Cuban or Diane Ravitch, they have coherent views supported by research and struggle intellectually with the grey areas.

Anyway, the middlebrows had fun with this story, even though the Aussie was, for the most part, right.

*I knew the term before now; I just finally figured out that it applied to this issue.

Math teachers’ feelings and other irrelevancies

Why Math Teachers Feel They’re Poorly Prepared.

I feel a rant coming on.

Why on earth would we care how math teachers feel about their abilities? They either are prepared or they aren’t, and that can be demonstrated through a test. As long as they are surveying teachers (in just two states, mind you, and about 20 counties), why not give them a test to capture their actual abilities?

This sort of research typifies that offered by both sides of the education policy debate: soft data, complete ignorance of any existing hard data, and intent determination to avoid collecting anything approaching meaningful data.

Just a few of the more annoying parts:

  1. “By relying on teachers’ reports of their own feelings of adequate preparation, we only get at their knowledge indirectly.”


    “Fortunately, this approach is sufficient to demonstrate how much variation there is in teachers’ content-specific knowledge, or at least in their feelings of adequate preparation.”

    How, exactly, is this approach sufficient to demonstrate variation? Any evidence that “feelings” about preparation is equivalent to, you know, actual preparation? It would have been useful to collect some knowledge (say a short multiple choice quiz) to see if any correlation between feelings and reality existed, for example.

  2. Commenting on the finding that many first to third grade teachers feel academically prepared to teach only their grade level, and no higher: “Is it reasonable for teachers to focus only on the topics that they will teach?”

    Great question. Except the author doesn’t answer it: “However reasonable such a position may appear, many of the more advanced topics for which teachers did not feel well prepared provide the mathematics background necessary to be truly well prepared to teach the more elementary topics at their grade level.”

    I think he’s saying that teachers can’t really be well-prepared to teach elementary topics unless they know advanced topics as well. Gosh. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were data to support that opinion? So far, the data on the relationship between teacher’s subject proficiency and teaching outcomes is, to say the least, a bit squishy. More importantly, there’s a huge difference between knowing a topic and being prepared to teach it. So a teacher could know how to find the area of a triangle but not feel comfortable teaching the derivation of the formula. This is a huge difference that the author completely ignores.

  3. “Teachers’ self-perceptions of their preparedness seem likely, if anything, to overestimate what they know and how well prepared they are rather than to underestimate it.”

    No data at all to support this bold assertion. I would intuitively argue (hey, the author can do it, so why can’t I?) that teachers, who are cautious critters of habit, are more likely to underestimate their knowledge and preparation, particularly in high school. I know this because I’m quite different from the average teacher in this regard. Tell me I’m teaching the history of technology or, god forbid, AP Calculus the next year, and I’d say, “Sure.” History of tech I wouldn’t start preparing for until three weeks before school started. AP Calc I’d spend the entire summer working on increasing my mastery, getting lesson plans from friends, and finding the critical teaching points in the subject. I know that I’d learn a huge amount the first year, that I’d do a decent but not great job my first year, be much better the second and subsequent years. Plus, I’d find it a fun intellectual challenge. Most teachers with my level of calc knowledge would, instead, say “Hell, no” to the offer. But then, I’m (literally) smarter and more flexible than the average teacher. This does not make me a better teacher, but I’m going to have an easier time stepping out of my comfort zone. From my perspective as an ex-techie, it’s hard to overstate the relative hide-boundedness of most teachers (I’m not saying this is a bad thing). So the author’s assertion that teachers would overstate their ability strikes me as not credible without further data.

  4. “In this section, we summarize what teachers have told us about their preparation in mathematics at the college level and as graduate students.”

    I have a degree in English and took no math in college a hundred years ago. All the math I’ve learned, I’ve learned on the job as a tutor–some of it as a teacher, but most while tutoring students in their coursework and on the Math 2c. (I’ve spent little time tutoring calculus, which is why I don’t know it well.)

    GRE Math score: 800. I am relatively certain I scored in the top 10% on two of the three required math credentialing tests, well higher than many math majors. My demonstrated math ability is probably in the top 10% of the entire college graduate population–certainly in the top 15%. Yet I would show up as one of these lamentably unqualified high school teachers who didn’t get a degree in math.

    Unless the author has evidence that, controlling for demonstrated ability, teachers who took math coursework in college do better than teachers who did not–that is, two teachers who got 800 on the GRE but only one of which majored in math have distinctly different outcomes in algebra instruction—then he shouold stop pretending that coursework is relevant. The author cites no such research, and I’m aware of none. Coursework is a proxy. It’s not the real thing.

    Of course, the author could have included a brief test with the survey so he could correlate, to some small degree, the performance of non math-majors to math majors on their chosen subject.

    Why would anyone take this data seriously? I genuinely don’t understand this. Why not survey math ability with a test and get hard data? But then, the hard data might be so discouraging for his side.

    Lest anyone take my ire amiss: I think most elementary school teachers close their eyes and think of England during their math segments. I’m not convinced their distaste makes a huge difference in outcomes. The country has dramatically increased teacher content knowledge requirements over the years, particularly in the last decade, particularly in elementary school. It hasn’t mattered a whip.