Surowiecki on Teacher Training

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

James Surowiecki takes his time getting to the punchline in this sports/education analogy and makes a loose assertion or two of the journalistic sort, but is still worth a look. Cliff Notes version: sports training has vastly improved in the last 40 years, most everything has done the same, but our training of teachers still stinks.

One thought that occurred to me in reading this article. Let’s assume that teacher training is a rotten as this and many other articles assume. The former dean of Columbia Teachers College laid out in painful detail the shortcomings of American teacher training in a series of searing reports, so I can’t see much reason to believe otherwise.

Having said that, I’ve always been a bit mystified by the Finland narrative. If someone brought the Finnish Minister of Education over to the United States to run the show with the imperial power of fiat, it seems to me that the first thing he or she would do would be to close the nation’s Colleges of Education and start over. What am I missing here?

I’m all for attempting to improve teacher training, but the system we send new teachers into has plenty of other problems. It would be great to be able to train people to overcome all to often dysfunctional district systems of schooling marred by low-turnout elections heavily influenced by organized employee interests, but that sort of immunization sounds a bit far-fetched. Best to train teachers well and give them a reasonable system in which to thrive imo.




4 Responses to Surowiecki on Teacher Training

  1. Peter Ford says:

    Using another sports analogy: Take a college QB who played in a spread system and drop him into a traditional under the center, drop-back system, and that QB struggles.
    Even if you trained teachers in Finnland and dropped them into LAUSD they would struggle.
    Since when do we blame the soldiers in the foxholes for losing wars? Those in education positions of authority who complain about education need to look in the mirror to find and fix the real sources of our issues, or else parents/voters will fix for them.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I know you only used the Finnish minister of education as a cheap illustration, but I just have to say this: Even if all the hype about Finland were true, why assume that the success of the Finnish schools has anything whatsoever to do with the Finnish minister of education? I have no information about this, but if I had to guess, I’d say the minister of education in Finland is likely to be just another politician on the make, who neither understands nor values the factors that make Finnish schools successful (if indeed they are all that successful), and – here’s the key point – if dropped into the American political system would immediately accommodate himself to the balances of power here and do whatever would enrich and empower himself.

    I say this not to be pedantic but to draw attention to what I think is a huge missed point in all these discussions about Finland and all that: each nation’s culture and political constitution have an enormous effect on its education system, and are essentially non-transferrable.

    The other day someone challenged Marc Andreesen’s case for free enterprise by pointing out that income inequality is more severe in San Francisco than in Rwanda. He replied: “So then move to Rwanda and see how that works out for you.”

  3. matthewladner says:

    So you are saying even if the Finnish story has internal validity it still lacks external validity. If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to guess why the story is repeated it would be that this lack of external validity is both true and understood by the storytellers. Telling the story however would serve the purpose of pretending to have a reform agenda for K-12.

    But I could be wrong about that given the vigorous activity we see all over the country to revamp teacher education, training and certification on the part of forces who used to fight to keep the status-quo in place. What’s that? An example? Oh, well, I can’t really think of one now that you ask…

  4. Tunya Audain says:

    Teacher Training Is A Key To Societal Benefits

    It wasn’t the “performance revolution” which produced such enormous benefits for Finland. Nor was it competition from other countries for markets. It was the notorious reputation Finland had for being the suicide capital of the world. The incidence of teen suicides was particularly troubling.

    Deliberate and vastly improved public education was the main approach adopted. Along with augmenting other social services, teacher training became a high priority for longer and more concentrated training. Each graduate was skilled in identifying and addressing special needs. About 25% of students are at one time or other receiving specialized, customized education assistance.

    This New Yorker article — Better All The Time: How “performance revolution” came to athletics – and beyond (Nov 10, 2014) — is really, bottom line, about teacher training. Yes, it’s a long article, with most of the content about athletics, then somewhat about manufacturing, then at the end is the QUESTION. “What are the fields that could have become significantly better over the past forty years and haven’t?”

    The author, James Surowiecki answers: “In one area above all, the failure to improve is especially egregious: education.”

    It’s teacher training where the author would recommend the application of insights gained from the sports and manufacturing fields. The very nature of sports — highly competitive — lends itself to application of skills mastery. Competition, choice and reliability were the leading factors in improvements in consumer goods — cars, TVs, etc. “Lemons, for the most part, have become a thing of the past,” says the author.

    Not mentioned, but certainly known by the readers, is the fact that many legal actions for “wrongful deaths”, for example, were also a stimulus for improvements as well as Nader’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

    What’s to be done about education? Unfortunately, we have no Nader. The closest we’ve seen was an article by Nat Hentoff, a long-time writer for the Village Voice who wrote: The Greatest Consumer Fraud of All, Social Policy, Nov/Dec 1977. He proposed the usual, obvious, intuitive solution — consumer/client/parent power and suits for damages. Of course, those in the education reform cause know the fierce opposition to that approach. And, we know how the “floodgates” argument has been used to quash malpractice suits.

    Furthermore, the education field has become not just any field of endeavor like sports, manufacturing or medicine but a conduit for political transformation of society. Leaders of this intended transformation in the teacher unions and university teacher training faculties strategically oppose any drift away of their captive consumer audience.

    We are awaiting a Review of Teacher Training in Australia. When a new conservative regime took over from a Labour government two reviews were launched. The one on the Curriculum is now being examined and we’re expecting the second soon.

    Australia is a highly politically polarized nation and feathers are starting to fly. The curriculum review had two controversial commissioners in charge — of course, seen as government messengers. Interesting that Kevin Donnelly, one of the two, had this to say about Australia’s teacher training just two years ago: “Many of the academics involved in teacher training have never been classroom teachers or worked in schools. Many are also committed to a cultural-left, progressive view of education that uncritically celebrates fads like open classrooms, critical literacy and personalized learning . . . students are often indoctrinated with ineffective theories like constructivism . . . much of the theory in teacher education is postmodern, neo-Marxist, politically correct and new-age.”

    In my opinion, North America will find relevance in both reports.

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