Russ Roberts  

Afterthoughts on Elizabeth Green EconTalk episode

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I've done a lot of interviews on education at EconTalk and there's always more to learn. There were two moments that really stuck with me from this conversation with Elizabeth Green about her book, Building a Better Teacher.

One is the importance of coaching. Having taught for 30 years, I did spend some time thinking about how to do my job better. But nobody coached me. As some of you know, my wife is a math teacher and the head of the math department in her school. She has been deeply influenced by Doug Lemov and has come to believe that you can become a better teacher and that coaching makes a difference. I think it's huge at the K-12 level, especially for new teachers. The analogy that I mentioned in the conversation has stuck with me--teaching is a craft and not unlike others crafts such as hitting a baseball. Professional baseball players who are extraordinary at what they do still have coaches who help keep them in a groove. Probably a good idea for teachers.

In the response to the Extra for this episode, Dan Winters--a teacher and an administrator--mentions the idea of a Kickstarter to help train teachers. Amy Willis points out the challenge of certification--how would people know that the teachers had learned something? I think equally challenging is the incentive problem. I think Doug Lemov could start a national teacher training program or a program that trained coaches to go into schools to help teachers. The problem is that too few public schools have an incentive to send their teachers to such schools or to hire coaches.

The importance of coaching and the difficulties of teaching well help remind me that wanting to be good at something isn't enough if you don't know how to get better. Incentivizing teachers is very important but even if they want to do better, I fear they often do not know how to get there from here. I do believe in a truly private system, ways of getting better would come more naturally and be part of the entire process.

The other point I got out of this episode was the point about power. It's hard for teachers to remember that they have a lot of power over students. Adolescents particularly dislike being told what to do. The grading process and that feeling of having someone with power over you can really disrupt the classroom and the learning process. That's what I meant when I said that it's not about you, the teacher. It's about them, the students. When student believe that the teacher wants them to learn as opposed to believing that the teacher wants to control them or punish them with a bad grade, it changes everything.

Coming Monday, Thomas Piketty talking about inequality and his book, Capital in the 21st Century. It gets lively. Here is a sneak preview:


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
JFA writes:

I think the conversation should have engaged more with the idea of pay for performance paired with flexible hiring and firing rules. People ask the question of teacher training "how do we know they learned anything?" You say about giving teachers incentives and whether that will lead to better teaching, "even if they want to do better, they often do not know how to get there from here." The thing about pairing pay for performance with flexible hiring and firing rules is that the teacher training courses would not need to be certified, the ones that are effective will be the ones used by teachers because their livelihood depends on being a successful teacher. And if at first the teacher does not know how to become a better teacher, certainly making their pay based on student performance will incentivize the teacher to learn what to do to become a better teacher.

This is all dependent on a reasonably strong link between teacher quality and student performance, but if the link is weak and student performance is more determined by the student's social environment and family life, then even becoming a better teacher may not make much of a difference.

Mark Brophy writes:

Teachers, lawyers, and actors are entertainers who tell stories for a living but only actors regularly rehearse their lines. Lawsuits are settled out of court, lawyers hardly ever litigate, so lawyers have little incentive to improve their ability to tell stories. Teachers are rewarded for years of service and credentials like college degrees, so excelling at entertaining often is not a high priority for a teacher.

LD Bottorff writes:

Comments on the original post raise the issue of supplemental education businesses which Manabu Watanabe calls juku or cram schools. The United States has chains and individuals that provide tutoring or supplemental learning opportunities. It appears that the percentage of students enrolled in juku is rather high in Japan (70% of junior-high students). Perhaps as our own schools continue to decline, we will see a higher portion of our students enrolled in private supplemental education. The existence of these businesses indicates that the craft or science of imparting knowledge is certainly something that people are willing to pay for. There don't seem to be any incentives for public schools, as organizations, to improve their product. The private supplemental education services only have to be better than the public schools, so I don't see that their incentive to improve is all that high. The hope I have is that individual teachers will take it upon themselves to improve their product when they realize that spending their lives actually teaching is much more rewarding than spending their lives griping about the kids, the administrators, the parents, and the evil society that doesn't respect educators.

John Fembup writes:

"When student believe that the teacher wants them to learn as opposed to believing that the teacher wants to control them or punish them with a bad grade, it changes everything."

True. And it's not just students.

Students eventually grow up and most go to work for some company. Do they continue to respond with greater commitment and effort where they believe their company is more interested in helping them succeed vs. throwing obstacles in their way? I think most do. That management insight is not nearly so surprising as the fact that so few managers seem to realize how powerful it is.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Russ Roberts wrote:

"Doug Lemov could start a national teacher training program or a program that trained coaches to go into schools to help teachers. The problem is that too few public schools have an incentive to send their teachers to such schools or to hire coaches."

I think you may underestimate the interest of teachers in such a program and the ability to fund it with existing resources. Today, teachers - at least where I live (Mass.) - have both continuing education requirements and financial incentives for advanced degrees. Yet, some teachers I know personally find that most of these programs (both con. ed. workshops and whole Masters programs) to be worthless. They play the game anyway because they are required to and/or because they can get a big raise.

I think that those teachers who, like your wife, care deeply about their teaching and their students, would readily opt in to a Lemov program if it would count as continuing education/could be structured as a Masters program. The status quo is that governments are already investing very heavily in these activitites - for a questionable return. Reallocation of some of those funds could have a meaningful improvement.

Floccina writes:

Glad you resisted the temptation to write:
Sneak Piketty peak.

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