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On Education (1): Schools, Teachers, Markets, and The Success of Learning efforts

The education system needs to adequately understand and reward its superstars. It also needs to constantly reconsider its role as a conveyor of knowledge, while keeping an eye on its own production capabilities: Economic, social, and cultural!

How can we fix the educational system? Should we reconsider what its objectives are?

The overall effectiveness and efficiency of the school system makes for a very interesting discussion. Other than being the main tool to spread knowledge in a society, it is also supposedly an important contributor to the processes of economic progress and of social mobility (allowing for the possibility of individuals moving between ‘classes’) … That – however – is just in theory …

One can count many problems with the educational system … Does it achieve the ‘right’ literacy? does it develop adequate knowledge of languages and maths? Encourage creativity and balanced intellectual growth? Many of these variables have all been continuously measured and documented (in some places).

Education Law | Blackfords LLP

I came across some interesting insights in an economist article a while back ( The Teacher Wars. By Dana Goldstein. Doubleday ; Building a Better Teacher. By Elizabeth Green). Below are some excerpts from the article, and some thoughts and ideas about it. It is definitely a thorny subject, and education’s problems are ‘wicked’ ones.

Some excerpts:

When a California judge recently struck down teacher-tenure, education reformers around the country cheered.

For policymakers the solution is now plain: use data (such as exams) to ditch the duds, reward the stars and steer the strongest teachers to the neediest students.

[This however won’t have a real good impact on the quality of education] The real challenge, both authors argue, is not to get rid of the bad teachers, but to attract and keep good ones and improve the middling majority.

This is where most American education reform goes wrong. By fixating on the hard data of inputs (incentives) and outputs (student performance), reformers neglect the most essential part: what happens in the middle. Most teachers enter the classroom with minimal practical training and little professional support. Only half the candidates are ever supervised as student teachers in a real classroom. Everyone seems to assume that good teachers naturally know what to do. But this is a myth, writes Elizabeth Green in “Building a Better Teacher”. Teaching is a skill, a trade, not an innate gift.

So how should the teachers be taught? There is no simple answer. […] Ms Green and Ms Goldstein agree on a few basic points: the best training should include regular feedback, collaboration, mentoring and observation throughout one’s career.

In Japan, for example, teachers observe the lessons of mentors and dissect them afterwards. Colleagues collaborate on new lesson plans. Unlike the learning-by-rote maths classes typical of America, where teachers demonstrate (and often fumble through) sample problems and then have students solve similar ones on their own, Japanese classes are often devoted to solving a single problem all together, which creates a far livelier atmosphere of inquiry, full of mistakes and opportunities to learn from them.

Comments, Ideas, and Questions

Tenure, Incentive Schemes, and the Teacher market:

Is tenure essentially useful in the case of school teachers ? What can be gained from it vis-a-vis their performance and contributions? Should “the system” reward teachers with relatively unshakeable stability (when?)?

Teacher compensation: Why are teachers generally underpaid (with the exception of a few countries)? Probably due to the supply-demand dynamic, but there is some nuance here, because good schools are not cheap.

How does this contribute to making teaching a less-attractive profession overall, thus reducing the natural competitiveness that can exist for getting in? Is this a failure in the intrinsic use of a ‘market’ for managing the demand and supply in terms of school teachers?

Teacher performance and Selection:

What mechanisms are in place to make sure that teachers perform well and develop their skill-sets ? Can we (societies, policy-makers, the school-system) measure and track that accurately? If the main challenge is developing the majority-around-the mean of teachers (instead of just weeding out the bad ones) , can there be a uniform system for better preparation and selectivity of teachers?

>> Students grades can be quite problematic as a measure here. They are too reductive and too short-term. How can they be modified/replaced as a measure of teacher success?

Is there a better system to ensure that Superstar teachers get more compensation, thus driving more highly qualified people to the field — Should societies subsidize this? Is it not dangerous in itself ?

Elitism in Schools:

Is there an unhealthy concentration of educational resources (human and otherwise), and what impact does this have?

Ideas for solutions (a brainstorming)

Measurement of Teacher Performance

There could be a uniform measure for student progress that is defined on a national level (according to the specific learning requirements in that region) — This measure should typically be defined for each academic year. It also must be calculated based on random, representative, diverse samples of students. Monitoring this measure allows to give a fair assessment of the teacher’s level in terms of the change (variance) that applies to the student’s grades in those tests.

Can we track student progress over the long-term? like a few years down the line, or through to college, and maybe beyond? Would be quite interesting to think about the cooperative mechanisms that might help put this in place, and its effects on social and cultural cohesion. Imagine a teacher having personal stake in the student’s future!

What we measure has great power. The measures themselves, for students and teachers, should be an evolving and constantly changing set. They should take into consideration what students and teachers should be creating, and the different cultural and social contributions they should make.

What about having measures that will encourage cultural creativity, and encourage participation in the regeneration and evolution of the culture? And since we’re at it, what about measures that will encourage economic contribution, financial literacy, and an understanding of – and participation in – the markets of production and value-creation?

Why don’t we reverse the Problem?

Why focus on teachers in the first place ??

Could mobility of students be an easier solution? Moving students based on their academic performance from one place (and class) to another more freely, and in a ‘sponsored’ manner – by a guided cooperation between organizations and government (which anyway is paying so much to try and ‘fix’ the existing system — what if it just is non-fixable)? This selection process would be based on rigorous sampling of significant numbers of performers and could be done on topics that transcend what they are normally taught in schools to try and reach their mental capabilities not knowledge.

On some level this solution applies better to the concept of the inevitable difference between the innate competencies and skills of people, and would allow for a much better effectiveness of the educational system in terms of promoting social mobility. Additionally, a solution that focuses more on students is much less costly to implement (although it just doesn’t feel as fair) .

In this sense, the resources will be shifted from a random and country-wide pool of educational institutions and individuals (educators and administrators) to a very specified and better developed and closely controlled pool for more academically distinguished students. It is much more practical (and easier) to manage closely much smaller organizations, that have more defined needs.

Regression to the mean vs Elitism

Any solution should tackle one important problem of the existing school system which is bringing down some of the best students to the more average level …. This is what the system does. It is designed around tyrannical averages.

The tension here is between performance and segregation. A good design-inspired solution should try to reshuffle the variables so that inclusiveness and participation doesn’t contradict with adequate performance and the adaptability of the system.

Concluding Thoughts

Eventually the school system needs to evolve toward breaking up the existing highly compartmentalized production lines which enforce uniformity, and – to an extent – suffocate the many students who might be further from the mean. The system should allow more students to excel, even if in different ways, and in turn more students to receive attention more suitable to them!

There are a few different ways of envisioning how that might work.

The education system needs to adequately understand and reward its superstars. It also needs to constantly reconsider its role as a conveyor of knowledge, while keeping an eye on its own production capabilities: Economic, social, and cultural!

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