The New York Times has a story about the potentially deleterious effects of teacher turnover. Matt Yglesias, a fantastic blogger on economic issues and one of the best articulators of the pro-market progressive viewpoint, points out that we should really be asking how charter schools are able to produce comparable results given their more inexperienced teachers, or in other words, how the “experience-adjusted quality of the charter school teachers is substantially higher than of the traditional public school teachers.” I think this is a fair question, and as my past forays into the data in NYC show, charter schools do do a solid job of educating students that are largely (but not the most) high-need. There are probably some practices we can all learn from some of these schools. Many critics of reforms will spend their efforts resisting the assumption within this question, fighting to observe that these charter schools are actually doing a much worse job. I’m not convinced that this is a worthy fight, since even experiments designed around natural lotteries show at the very least that charter schools are not worse.
But that doesn’t mean I am 100% on board with a growing charter school sector (either in terms of # of schools or spread of curricula/best practices). I’m very concerned with what happens to the teaching profession, or the perceptions, training, work, and expectations of teachers, as these models proliferate and gain legitimacy? Here’s a few reasonable hypotheses.
- there will be an increasing perception that teaching is not a high-skill job, since it does not require extensive training or experience. I think if we managed to actually get the top 10% of graduating college students to become teachers this could be mitigated (think of consultants, who are well respected, highly paid, right out of college, trained on the job, and often leave after a few years), but I don’t think that is likely.
- there will be less investment in university training, and an increasing (but not commensurate) investment in institute-like and on-the-job training. I am a big believer in the value added of some of these alternative certification programs, but do think we can all agree that teaching, at it’s most effective, is job that requires some theoretical understandings of pedagogy and child development and an extensive knowledge base. These alternative programs will neither be equipped or incentivized to provide this.
- The actual work of teaching will change. I’m not talking about accountability here. I’m talking about the amount of prescription a teacher has to swim through on a daily basis. Management techniques, lesson delivery, classroom organization, are all things that are less and less up to professional discretion, especially in charter schools. Teachers become performers, rather than professionals. One counterargument is that there will be new professional hierarchies around training new teachers. This is certainly true, but anyone who studies or witnesses school organizational design can tell you that schools cannot exist essentially bifurcated between professional/autonomous “vets” (3-5 years) and prescribed novices. When schools hit a percentage of new or low-performing teachers, their response is to prescribe and centralize for everyone. All teachers I know at high performing charter schools admit this. They like how effective they are with this prescribed curriculum, but they realize they are replaceable cogs in a machine, and migrate to places where they feel more individually impactful. PLEASE, give me some counter-examples. I wish there were. What’s worse is that while Uncommon can prescribe practices for teachers in a way that is both effective and (relatively speaking) professionally respectful, when lesser charter schools try to import these ideas, they implement them in ways that are ineffective and professionally humiliating and outrageous.
Here’s an example of micromanagement by a principal of one a high performing charter school (from the New York Times article).
“Observing two first-year math teachers, she noticed that both were reviewing place values with sixth graders. “We might not be pushing them as rigorously as we can at this point,” she said. And when one teacher exhorted her students to give themselves a celebratory chant, Ms. Singleton corrected the teacher’s instructions. “I have to interrupt,” Ms. Singleton said. “It’s two claps and then a sizzle.””
Can you imagine the top 10% of our graduating college students being publicly instructed on how to give an arbitrary cheer in front of their students? And again, this is one of the better charter schools. Think about the humiliation from the 80% who are hearing about these ideas and implementing them even more obtusely. And let’s not forget about the amount of hours that will be expected teachers work.
- The expectations of teachers will change. We will forget about the idea that teacher used to plan their own lessons, invent new activities, analyze their own data their own way, respond to particular students’ behaviors in ways that make sense for those students. Teaching will no longer be a highly personal, skilled, or professional activity. We will rely on the talents of organizational leaders and administrators. Now in the short run, this might increase test scores for students in the bottom tier schools. But does anyone really think this system is a better one for students than one populated by many highly professional, trained, and experienced teachers?
My fear can be articulated by the concept of path dependency. Decisions that on the margins seem rational (like spreading the practices successful charter schools) can over time lead to a highly sub-optimal outcome. We are stuck today with a keyboard actually designed to make us slower typers because that was necessarily decades ago to ensure that typewriters wouldn’t get jammed. Since nobody is willing to relearn a new keyboard layout, its unlikely a any designers of a more efficient layout will be successful.
But like switching keyboards, are we less likely to move to a higher plane of teaching and instruction as charter school practices become more ubiquitous? I actually am not sure. I’m reading the book The Smartest Kids in the World, which discusses how Finland was once fed up with its schools and essentially scripted out a national curriculum while closing down all but the top six training programs (and forced them to associate with top universities). It was only after these barbaric measures were in place that they began to loosen the regulations to allow for the current professional, decentralized, and autonomous teaching force that exists today. Anyways, I think that’s probably the most interesting question to ponder if you are thinking about the long-term impact of charter schools.