The Infinte Regress

There is no problem to which more education is not the proposed solution.  Teachers aren’t as effective as they should be?  Increase professional development.  Professional development isn’t as effective as it should be?  Increase training for providers of professional development.  Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.

So, when Mathematica found that intensive mentoring for first year teachers had no effect on those teachers’ practices or their students’ academic achievement, what did folks have to say?  Improve the training of the mentors

Similarly, when Mathematica evaluated a broad range of education technology in schools they found: “Test scores were not significantly higher in classrooms using selected reading and mathematics software products. Test scores in treatment classrooms that were randomly assigned to use products did not differ from test scores in control classrooms by statistically significant margins.”  But, critics of the study said that it “didn’t take into account the critical factors of proper implementation and curriculum integration, professional development for teachers, planning, or infrastructure issues, among others. ”  That is, the results would be better if only we provided more education to teachers and administrators to implement the technology appropriately.  Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

And again when the Department of Education’s evaluation of Reading First showed no advantage for students’ reading achievement, others responded that the schools studied had not properly implemented the program or trained their teachers.

The problem with offering more education as the solution to each failure is that it assumes that the only thing educators are lacking is knowledge of the right thing to do.  If only we bother to tell them, educators are hungry to learn the right thing and implement it well.  But as I’ve argued in the past, educators are also lacking the motivation to learn these techniques and implement them well.

All of these interventions — mentoring, technology, and increased reliance on phonics — may very well be desirable.  But unless we address the incentives that educators have to identify effective practices, learn them, and use them well, no amount of additional education will solve the problem.

18 Responses to The Infinte Regress

  1. Greg Forster says:

    There was a great political cartoon a while back (I tried to find it on the web this morning) with an announcement about how three-year-old children are dangerously unprepared for pre-kindergarten, so we need a major new investment in pre-pre-kindergarten to get them ready . . .

  2. Yes. And we need in utero training, and then expectant-parent training, and then finding a spouse training, etc… But when we make the new scientific man in the re-education camps all problems will be solved. Did I say “re-education” camps? I meant happy camps.

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    I would say that yes, motivation is a factor, as well as supervision and monitoring in some form or fashion. There is no reform, apparently, that cannot be sabotaged on the groundfloor by personnel who actively disagree or just can’t be bothered.

    Yet, we do tend to give training short shrift and live in the results–this creeping sense that nothing works, ever. Most teachers thought that they were “doing” standards based education until someone sat them down and walked them through a process. so that they could see what it looks like. Positive Behavior Supports gets watered down into an understanding that all it takes is giving lollipops to the good kids (about what you can put into a 45 minute power point) and misses out on all of the environmental factors that influence behavior (within the school environment).

    I am very interested in the results of the Mathematica mentoring study, primarily because it was carefully controlled, did provide some intensive training, and appears to be looking at something that mimics sucessful practice in other countries. I will be very interested in the Year 2 results, as well as any further parsing of the data that takes place (teachers with higher SAT scores vs those with lower, perhaps)

    I wish I knew what would motivate educators to seek these things out on their own. I had high hopes for NCLB. Somehow I thought that teachers would see the data and want to improve. The opposite seems to have taken place. There seems to be an ongoing concerted effort to throw off any and all improvement efforts–or to prove that they can’t possibly work.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    Jay, a proposal for in utero education would be a fantastic way to drive a wedge between the unions and the feminists, for whom it is an article of faith that there is no such thing as a human being inside the womb. Somebody notify Karl Rove to plant that with one of his deep cover mole operatives in NEA headquarters. If we get started now we can have initiatives on the ballot for the 2010 midterms.

    Margo, you say you wish you knew what would motivate educators to seek out better pedagogy on their own. Have you considered this?

  5. I believe my daughter received in utero training in parent/grandparent manipulation. She was born with brilliant skills.

  6. […] Training doesn’t solve every problem, writes Jay […]

  7. Greg Forster says:

    We all get that training, Joanne. It’s called human nature. Didn’t you get yours? 🙂

  8. Yes, Joanne, but what about the training of the people providing the in utero training? We have to make sure they have it down right also.

  9. Greg Forster says:

    Perhaps we could train them in utero.

  10. rpondiscio says:

    <<<The problem with offering more education as the solution to each failure is that it assumes that the only thing educators are lacking is knowledge of the right thing to do.

    The problem with offering more incentives as the solution to each failure is that it assumes that the only thing educators are lacking is the motivation to do the right thing.

    Or do I misread you, Jay?

  11. I don’t dispute that teachers need quality training and information. I’m just suggesting that they are more likely to acquire effective training and information if they have the proper incentives and motivation to do so.

    ADDED — In that sense incentives take priority over information. Without the proper incentives effective information is unlikely to be sought, learned and implemented. With the proper incentives effective information is much more likely to follow.

  12. Greg Forster says:

    Besides that, when has Jay ever said that incentives are the solution to every problem?

  13. Margo/Mom says:


    I have seen some small effect from the entrance of charter schools in my community, as I saw some concern when middle class parents were fleeing the system for the suburbs. Most of the concern is at the upper levels–where they are really keyed in to the dollars and cents of things. I also see a lot of cynicism and denial. The district had to lose a lot of kids (and subsequently lay off a lot of teachers) before it realized that the numbers weren’t going to rebound and the charter schools weren’t going away. The year after the big teacher layoff was a very bad year. Teacher morale was low, very low, and there was a lot of anger directed at the administration (and the parents, if they should happen to get in the way). The same year, there was an effort to implement Positive Behavior Support. I can’t say anyone was over-trained for that one. They used a “train the trainer” model–about the only thing that gave reason to hope was that they required principals to take the training, along with a special ed and a regular ed teacher. But the motivation was to show up the administration for getting rid of teachers and shortening the school day. No one was interested in signing on for something that might work. Dollars that were set aside to provide tutoring to struggling students went unspent because teachers refused to take those assignments.

    So, long term, might it work? Well, we will see.

  14. Jeff says:

    At the same time, there is talent at stake here, which cannot be taught. There are people who have a knack for teaching. Many of them choose not to do that, at least not in a public education environment. A talented teacher with a chalkboard and etch-a-sketch could out-teach many of the teachers my four kids have had – especially at the elementary school level – regardless of how much technology/training/etc. in their possession.

    A truly free market, competitive environment would attract better teachers, IMO, simply because they would have a shot at gaining higher pay reflecting their ability.

  15. Jeff says:

    Meant to say “talent at issue”. Thinking of something else while typing is not a good idea. At least not for me.

  16. rpondiscio says:

    Isn’t it pretty to think so? My reaction to incentives as a solution to everything is in part visceral, I will confess. I took a 75% pay cut to become a 5th grade teacher. The idea that I’d be more likely to seek out effective training and information for a few more shekels is a little demeaning, to be honest. I was plenty motivated. It’s also a pretty cynical view of teachers to suggest major gains can be made for incremental pay. I’m not against incentives and higher pay, mind you. I just don’t share your optimism that they’d be a difference-maker on a large scale. Money is a motivator, but you’re not going to improve the quality of teachers or teaching by sprinkling a few extra dollars around here and there.

  17. I agree with what Margo, Jeff, and Robert are saying. And Jeff helps me answer Robert. By incentives and motivation I don’t mean a year-end bonus for increasing test scores. I’m using the terms much more broadly to include all of the factors that influence the recruitment and retention of quality people into teaching in addition to the motivation of people who are already teaching.

    How do we increase the likelihood of attracting people like Robert to teaching? Part of that is structuring the pay so that it rewards a job well-done. But it also involves giving principals the incentives to hire the best people in the first place. People like to work with other effective people. So, it would also be important to have ways of more easily getting rid of less effective teachers. Incentives don’t just refer to merit pay. They can shape all of the systems for recruiting, retaining, and motivating the best people in education.

  18. rpondiscio says:

    I appreciate the explanation, Jay. I’m not sure I’d agree we need more people like me in teaching, but I appreciate the thought! I think you’re on the right track in suggesting that it’s the culture of schools that needs to change to attract higher quality teachers. Retention is also key. In schools like mine, there were plenty of veterans, but few master teachers. There was no incentive (now you’ve got me using the word) for them to stay for any number of reasons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s