If you’re moved by all the handwringing over the results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to read only one book on education this year, make it The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. The product of superb research, reporting and writing, the book offers insight and acute observation unmarred by polemics on every page.
Reasonable people disagree about how much importance we should attach to American students’ middling performance on PISA. Some, including Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, say it’s evidence of a “crisis.” But plenty of other people thiink that PISA doesn’t merit the attention it gets.
Nothing qualifies me to referee this dispute. Instead I’ll riff on one especially arresting feature of American education that Ripley treats. Not even those rejecting Duncan’s alarmist view would deny that we could be doing better at educating our kids. After reading Ripley, I think I understand one factor anyway that’s getting in our way.
Finland routinely eats our lunch on PISA, scoring at or near the top among participating countries. And Ripley thinks Finland’s ranking is due largely to the way it trains teachers. There are only a handful of teacher-training institutions there and they’re so selective that the odds of getting into one are comparable to the odds of getting into MIT here.
In marked contrast to Finland’s practice, teacher-training programs abound in the United States. But, Ripley reports, just one out of every twenty of our education schools is located at a highly selective institution. Far more have no admission standards at all. To educate our children, we invite pretty much anyone to try their hand at it.
The assumption that “anybody can do it” was, I believe, what drove both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Though the first applied stiff doses of the stick while the second relied more heavily on carrots, both assumed that teachers already know how to boost student achievement. All that’s missing are the right incentives to induce teachers to stop “slacking off.”
This optimistic belief that teaching ability is very widely distributed was even evident in a recent column by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. Arguing for reinstating the draft, he proposed among the alternatives for those opposed to military service a period of civilian service as—what else?—teachers. And while Teach for America, adapting the Peace Corps model to the task of teaching our most disadvantaged children, doesn’t exactly claim that “anybody can do it,” it does say that its corps members need not have “any prior experience in the education field.”
What Ripley doesn’t talk about is what’s behind our “anybody can do it” view. I’m guessing, and that’s all it is, that we set the bar for entry so low for pre-college teaching because a lot of us think that schools at that level are basically extensions of the home and teaching an extension of parenting. In fact, for a still small but rapidly growing number of children—1.5 million as of 2007—the school isn’t just an extension of the home. It is the home.
But even for the vast majority of parents who send their children off to school every day, what they think should happen there is what would happen if they were standing in for the teacher to whom they entrust their child. And since there’s hardly any role for which the bar is set lower than it is for parenthood, we don’t set the bar for teachers much higher. Just as parenting is something that we think people just sort of “know” instinctively how to do, we don’t see why pre-college teaching, being an extension of parenting, calls for the super-rigorous training that the Finns think is absolutely essential. (Finland’s leading education expert recently noted in print that Teach for America would be unthinkable there.)
This “parent proxy” notion of teaching helps me, though maybe nobody else, understand some of the hottest flash points in our education wars. For example, one of the few things that both conservatives and progressives agree on is the bedrock importance of local control of schools. Both sides bristle at what they see as federal and in some cases even state interference with the ability of local school districts to operate their schools according to their lights. And that’s exactly what you’d expect if parents, thinking that teachers are supposed to be collaborating with them in rearing their children, want as much control over what goes on in their children’s schools as possible.
I think something similar is feeding the mania in many quarters for school “choice.” It appeals to alarmed parents frantic to get their children into the hands of teachers who provide the sort of proxy parenting that they don’t think their kids are getting in the schools they want to extricate them from.
It’s not until our kids reach college level that we expect their teachers to be rigorously trained, because we understand that college and university faculties aren’t proxy parents. The Dean of Students used to be back in the “in loco parentis” days, now gone probably forever. But even then, hardly anybody thought the chemistry professor was acting “in loco parentis.”
So when Ripley says we should stop trying to “reverse engineer” our education system and instead put first things first, I’m skeptical. “Following Finland’s example,” she argues, “education colleges should only be allowed to admit students with SAT scores in the top third of the national distribution or lose government funding and accreditation.” And the retirement of 1.6 million American teachers between 2011 and 2021, she believes, gives us the perfect window to up our game in that way.
But unless my story about what’s behind our “anybody can do it” attitude toward pre-college teaching is just crazy, then it’ll take more than a wave of retirements to move us in Finland’s direction. It’ll take a deep cultural shift that I’m not holding my breath for.
Be that as it may, if you’ve squandered a few minutes reading this, I hope you’ll make the vastly more profitable investment of a few hours reading Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. It deserves the widest possible audience.