Kenny Felder should be pleased; his recommendations for improving education – namely, paying professional salaries for teachers, and firing all the bad teachers – have been almost precisely validated in Malcolm Gladwell's latest New Yorker article ("Most Likely to Succeed", December 15, 2008). Gladwell asserted that the teacher is by far the most influential part of the education system. Having a good teacher is far more important than being in a good school, having small class sizes, or having the latest technologies. We could close the education gap between the U.S. and other nations just by replacing the bad teachers with not-so-bad ones.
The problem, of course, is that we can't predict who is going to be a good teacher. The sort of things that good teachers do -- flexibly controlling the classroom, providing useful feedback, engaging individual students, structuring lessons for maximum effectiveness -- can only be judged when you actually see them do it. There is no correlation between academic credentials and certifications and teacher effectiveness.
Which makes me ask: what the heck are they doing in those teacher colleges? I remember when I was in college, and I met with a really good teacher, an intro psychology professor who had literally written the textbook for the course. I told him I was really interested in education -- how we create transformative environments. "Whatever you do," he said, "Don't go to a school of education. That's an academic ghetto."
Then again, I shouldn't be surprised. I felt the same outrage when I saw the difference between what I was learning in a biochemistry undergraduate program, and what doing research was really like. It's possible to get a BS in Biochemistry and never touch a Pipetman -- the tool you would use every day in a real lab. You can get a degree and never read an actual scientific journal with real questions and results. Talking with friends, I find the same holds true in most other fields: you can get a degree in business without ever starting, owning, or even working in a business. Across the board, we seem to have forgotten that the best way to learn something is to actually do it.
Gladwell suggested creating an apprenticeship program for training teachers, which would get them teaching quickly and provide ample opportunity to evaluate performance in real teaching situations. I think the same principle holds true for most any field – apprenticeships work because they provide the most relevant experience, and because both the student and the teacher have financial incentives for the teaching to go well. Apprentices are cheap labor, and the more they can learn, the more profitable they will be. The more successful the apprentices are, the easier it is to attract more apprentices to replace them. All of that, however, requires a lot of freedom; teachers could price themselves appropriately if there was a free market for their abilities. As long as schools of all sorts of government monopolies, we won't have the necessary freedom to drive significant improvement.
Of course I mostly agree, even with the things you said that are not explicitly agreeing with me. I'm a big huge whopping fan of the idea of apprenticeship, in many cases as a replacement for college.
Just a few small caveats, which you may or may not agree with.
First, college is not just about vocational training. There has to be room for that more abstract thing called "getting an education" which involves reading the classics and broadening your mind. I'm not saying everyone has to do that, or even most people, but I don't want it to disappear entirely.
Second, even vocationally, I see some trends in the direction that I think you want, that disturb me. More and more math classes are centering on how to use software such as MathLab or Mathematica. This is undoubtably a real-world skill for mathematicians, and non-mathematicians who use math. But I would rather see them use their precious time in class to teach math, and let the software be on-the-job training. For one thing, software changes too fast to say that anything you learn in 2008 is job training for a job you will hold in 2018. For another, the software is just not that hard, and requires more noodling than teaching. The math requires teaching.
Finally, just a note, it is tricky to find a "free market" solution that really works for the poor. Not that our current solution is working so well either. It depends on what you mean by "free market," I suppose. Charter schools provide a sort of free market in the sense of allowing choice, without actually getting into economics, which I think is a wonderful solution.