MEDIOCRITY ALL THE WAY UP: Professor, professionalize thyself!

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 17, 2013

Part 3—Harvard man’s fun with Finland: It’s the mediocrity of public school teachers that gets Jal Mehta’s goat.

Sitting in his office at Harvard, the young assistant professor can see their mediocrity quite distinctly. Last Saturday, he explored the failure of this group in a very lengthy column in the New York Times.

“America’s overall performance in K-12 education remains stubbornly mediocre,” the troubled young professor wrote—just before he cherry-picked a mountain of data to help Times readers get the impression he wanted to convey.

In our view, Mehta’s column truly belongs in The Cherry-Pick Hall of Fame. As he cherry-picked his essential facts, he behaved in a way which ought to get him fired.

But how strange! All this distinguished young man could see was the mediocrity—the failure—of others! “[B]y international standards, our teachers are underperforming, regardless of how they were trained,” the troubled academic observed.

Also this: “Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields.” If only teachers could be more like them! By implication, like Mehta himself!

Can we talk? If Mehta were judged by professional models, he would be out on the street. But he wants Times readers to know all about the failure of public school teachers!

“American education is a failed profession,” he writes. “There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance.”

“The changes needed to professionalize American education won’t be easy,” the young fellow sadly mused as he ended his piece.

Here at THE HOWLER, our analysts stared at Mehta’s column, mouths agape. In the main, they were stunned by the cherry-picking which we will examine tomorrow.

That said, they also laughed at the statistical claim we will examine today.

“Professor, professionalize thyself,” one analyst mordantly said.

Let’s be clear. There are millions of public school teachers in the United States. Within that army, there are surely plenty of people whose performance could be judged mediocre.

Presumably, the performance of some teachers is worse. Presumably, our schools could be better if we had “talented teachers” of the type Mehta imagines.

That said, what would it take to professionalize Mehta’s profession? Tomorrow, we’ll look at the astonishing way he cherry-picked the bulk of his data, treating readers to misleading facts and figures about American schools.

That’s where we’ll go tomorrow. Today, we’ll restrict ourselves to that one semi-comical presentation from Mehta’s column. As we do, try to recall that Mehta is troubled by the lack of professionalism he has spotted in others.

To what indignities are readers exposed by “educational experts” like Mehta? Consider one small thing he said, as he tried to convince his readers that our educational system is just an ungodly mess:
MEHTA (4/13/13): In the nations that lead the international rankings—Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada—teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.)
The PISA is a major international testing program. That said, does Canada “lead the international rankings?” Not exactly, though we’ll postpone that till tomorrow.

For today, just consider the way Mehta discusses teacher training in the U.S. and Finland. The latter country has “many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards,” he writes. Then, to help us agree with his claim, he thoroughly clowns us, like this:

“Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.”

For the record, Finland actually is “a perennial leader in the PISA rankings.” It’s also a very small, unicultural, largely middle-class nation.

Could those facts be part of the reason for Finland’s high scores on the PISA? Not in this column they can’t be! In this column, Mehta wants you to see the terrible breakdown in American educational practice. Toward that end, he clowns you with a statistical comparison that is completely absurd, even by New York Times standards.

Good lord! Finland has only eight teacher-training universities—but the United States has more than 1,200! From that comparison, we are supposed to see how crazy our practices are.

Let’s state the obvious. Demographic advantages to the side, Finland may be doing many things well in its schools. It may be that the United States can learn from observing Finland.

But why does Finland have only eight universities training its teachers? In part, the answer lies in these statistics, statistics the professor failed to mention:
Population of two famous nations
United States of America: 313.9 million (2012)
Finland: 5.4 million (2011)
Finland is a very small nation. In total population, the United States is sixty times its size!

Those who have studied ratio and proportion will note that Finland still has fewer teacher-training universities on a per capita basis. It’s possible that the U.S. could gain from restricting the number of such schools—though it’s also possible that such an action would produce no improvement at all.

That said, forget the narrow question about the optimal number of such schools. Ask yourself a different question: In what world does a Harvard professor, in the New York Times, advance a presentation like that?

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the disgraceful way Mehta cherry-picked data from domestic and international testing programs right at the start of his column. Unmistakably, his cherry-picking was designed to make readers think that our academic performance and progress are substantially worse than they actually seem to be.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at that cherry-picking; in our view, the offense is quite large. For today, just consider the sheer absurdity of that one presentation concerning little small Finland.

Are you able to see the societal breakdown which is peeping out at you from that absurd presentation? That tiny point about teacher-training schools doesn’t exactly matter. But can you see how completely absurd that presentation is?

Tomorrow, we’ll return to the start of Mehta’s piece, where his deceptions really do matter. If you lived in a rational world, this young professor would have a lot of explaining to do at his school. So would the editor who was willing to put his cherry-picked claims into print.

But for today, can you see how wonderfully clownish that one paragraph is? Or do names like Harvard and the New York Times make it hard to see the familiar mediocrity of this professor’s performance?

Tomorrow: We the people get conned again

36 comments:

  1. I get so tired of hearing about Finland when the entire population of the country is only one-tenth the size of the U.S.'s school age population and nowhere near as diverse.

    It's totally apples and oranges.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice column, Bob.

    I don't agree with Mehta's recommendation, that “Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields.”

    A good teacher is a person who teaches effectively. AFAIK, unlike in the professions, there isn't a single specialized body of knowledge that guarantees that someone will be a good teacher.

    Also, the professions have tough requirements that take many years to fulfill. Candidates may spend years trying to fulfill the requirements, but fail to do so, thus never becoming a full member of that profession.

    I don't think it's practical to have a teaching profession where it takes many years to qualify and where many people are forced to leave teaching after years of study and effort.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, I think you can specify a common core body of knowledge to make someone a good teacher. It would include developmental psychology (to understand children's capacities at different ages), cognitive psychology (to understand how people think and learn, how memory works), behavioral psychology (to understand motivation, reward and punishment, key to classroom management), and sociology (to understand social problems and cultures from which children come), communication skills (public speaking but also interpersonal communication and social skills), and specialized knowledge about how to create lesson plans, organize and present material, diagnose and address specific learning needs, set up and conduct group activities, manage classroom behavior and misbehavior, do required paperwork and deal with school bureaucracy, communicate with parents, address health and safety concerns, etc. Someone might have some natural teaching abilities, but without the rest of this, they are unlikely to be a good teacher. Someone who knows all of this, even without natural talent, is more likely to be a good teacher, in my opinion. This idea that people need to have charisma in order to teach has been shown to be wrong in numerous studies. Students like teachers with charisma, but they learn from teachers without it just as readily and learn little from those with nothing but charisma, no matter how popular that teacher might be.

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  3. I wonder what teaching experience or training the good doctor from Harvard has. What I have always found fascinating is that to teach ata the college or university level one needs no training at all in the art of teaching. When I began in the fall of 1977, the chair asked for a syllabus for the classes I was about to teach. I was bright enough to ask for a template. I had never seen a syllabus nor taken a class in measurement or testing. I had never taken a class in law and only because I was in communication had I any knowledge of interpersonal communication or public speaking. Would you not like to sit in the back of one of his classes and watch?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At most institutions, graduate students acquire teaching experience by working as teaching assistants under the supervision of professors. They may construct and score exams, may conduct discussion sections or prepare lectures which are then critiqued by the supervising professor, and they conduct office hours with students. They have already observed a variety of teaching styles and techniques from the perspective of being a student. This is combined with a thorough education in the content of what they will later teach. Most universities now have staff who provide services to faculty by offering seminars in teaching methods and technologies and evaluate teaching one-on-one, often with video. Training on how to do advising and how to set up and conduct online or hybrid courses or use more interactive techniques, is common on most campuses. This idea that professors do nothing to acquire good teaching skills is out-dated, in my opinion. But it does nicely support the general meme that all teachers are mediocre and that all of our schools are a mess and ought to be replaced by massive online courses taught with exams graded by machines. The hiring situation is such these days that one cannot be hired without prior teaching experience and good teaching is essential to being hired anywhere, even at research institutions.

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    2. With 20 years experience in higher ed, I've got to agree with David. It's true as anon points out, that there are avenues available for professors who want to improve their teaching, but it's entirely optional and will do nothing to advance your career at most institutions. This really is higher ed's dirty little secret.

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    3. Just a quick response to the above. I do realize that some graduate programs do give some graduate students some experience in teaching. I also did not mean to imply that college professors are all rotten teachers--they are not. As Bob has pointed out there are good, bad and rotten in all professions. The point was the difference in requirements for teaching fourth grade and teaching at a university. We all know that "research" gets one ahead at the university. And, just as a side note, the cancelled the Center for Teaching and Learning, several years ago during budget cuts. They are enlarging class sizes and on-line teaching. They do not really seem to care about the students.

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