Teaching Profession Opinion

A Response to Checker Finn on Empowered Educators

By Marc Tucker — June 01, 2017 7 min read
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On June 6, NCEE and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education will jointly release a new international comparative study of teacher quality, Empowered Educators, conducted over three years on four continents by a team of researchers headed by Linda Darling- Hammond. On May 24, Checker Finn published a blog critiquing Empowered Educators. In this blog, I respond to the points Finn made in his critique.

Finn begins by saying that he has no quarrel with the quality of the research: “There’s no reason to doubt the accuracy of their accounts and explanations.” Nor does he quarrel with the crux of the findings: "...teaching in those places is more professional, more respected, better compensated, more highly trained, more sensibly structured as a career, and overall more effective than in the United States.” He admires, he says, "...what Finland, Ontario, and Singapore have pulled off.”

So what’s not to like? In a nutshell, Finn thinks there is no chance that these ideas, policies or practices can be implemented in the United States. Why? He gives us five reasons. I’ll tell you what they are and respond to each in turn.

First, teaching is a mass occupation, the single largest occupation in the American workforce. So it is obvious to Finn that there is no prayer of getting our teachers from the upper reaches of the distribution of high school graduates, as the top performers do. He says the reason we have this vast workforce is that schooling is provided by great bureaucracies, school principals are middle managers rather than full-fledged institutional leaders and teacher’s unions insist on treating all teachers in the same way.

But schooling in the top-performing countries is provided by much more centralized bureaucracies than you will find anywhere in the United States, typically with a reporting line that runs from the top civil service professional in the ministry through that person’s direct reports, through their direct reports in the regions and provinces, to their direct reports in the districts to the principals to the teachers. Now that is a bureaucracy!

We have nothing like it. We do have much more bureaucracy at the district level in our larger suburbs and big city districts than the top-performing countries do, but we would not need anything like that number of people in the central office if we had the kind of highly educated and very well-trained teaching force the top performers have. Finn is right in saying that managing first-class professionals requires people with different skills than the typical school principal. It’s a different job. But countless American firms have helped their front-line managers transition from techniques appropriate to the management of blue-collar workers to managing professionals. Peter Drucker wrote a whole book about that transition. Why can’t our school system managers go through a similar transition? As a matter of fact, NCEE is deeply engaged in helping districts do that right now and it is going very well.

The clincher for Finn is that teacher’s unions insist on treating all teachers the same way. But Lily Eskelsen García, the NEA’s President, is on record as being deeply committed to the idea of teacher career ladders of the kind that Darling-Hammond and her team found in Singapore. As far as we know, the AFT is also open to the idea.

Second, Finn correctly points out that the United States poured a great deal of the enormous increase in funding we provided to our schools over the last four decades into lowering class size, which is the largest single reason we need so many teachers. The research shows that, apart from the early grades, there is no evidence that this extremely expensive policy made any difference at all in student achievement. Nonetheless, as Finn points out, most of the adults involved, especially teachers, their unions and parents, think reducing class size was a great idea and would be very reluctant to go back in the other direction. All true. It turns out, though, that teachers and parents in other countries also like smaller class sizes, but their governments, most of them elected, just like ours, chose to invest their scarce funds in recruiting fewer high-achieving high school graduates into teaching and educating them well rather than investing in more teachers from high school graduates who did not do so well in school and investing less in their postsecondary education and they are very happy with the results. One would have to take the churlish view that American voters are uniquely stupid or obstinate to believe that they, unlike voters all over the globe elsewhere, cannot be convinced by overwhelming evidence that their children would be better off if we made another choice. We did not have the evidence 40 years ago. We do now.

Third, Finn correctly points out that a much smaller proportion of the schools budget goes to the regular classroom teacher in the United States than is the case in the top-performing countries. In our country about 50 percent of the total public education budget goes to the school. In Japan, 90 percent goes to the school. I think Finn’s point here is that, under these circumstances, there will never be enough money to pay our teachers enough to attract the best and the brightest from our graduating high school classes. True enough if we maintain the same ratio of teacher costs to total costs. But these ratios of teachers to all other employees are not written in stone. In fact, they are not even in law.

This pattern of organization is a legacy from the industrial age of a century ago, when the designers of the system assumed that teachers (women) would by paid poorly, have very short careers (they were to be fired when they got married or pregnant) and not have much preparation. They would be treated just like the men on the factory floor: told what to do by men who would make a career of school administration and earn much more than the women in that role. In this model, it was pointless to invest in the teachers. All the investment was to be made in the central office staff, who were there to manage the whole enterprise.

Many of the top performers used to have systems that looked very similar to the one we still have. But, as they invested more and more in their teachers and the quality of those teachers kept improving, they realized that they did not need anywhere near as many people telling their teachers what to do, nor did they need anywhere near as many expensive central office specialists sent down to the school, because the teachers already had as much expertise as any of the specialists. The school faculty gained more and more autonomy and status as the ranks of the central office staff shrank. This process often took years. There is no reason why the same process could not work here in the United States. It is the only way we will get enough money to pay our teachers what we need to pay them and it is the only way we will get a form of school organization that will attract the kind of high school graduate that the new model demands.

Fourth, Finn correctly points out that our universities typically treat their teachers colleges as cash cows, spending as little as possible on the education of teachers in order to generate a surplus they can use to run the rest of the university. An institution structured that way will have no interest in raising its standards because it might shut off the supply of applicants and it would cost too much to run a quality operation. All too true. But this is not written in stone, either. Much the same thing was true in Finland years ago. They shut down every single school of education in the country, and then opened up eight new ones, all of them in their research universities. From that moment on the only way to get a teacher’s certificate was to be admitted to a research university and only the best high school graduates were able to do that. It took courage and determination to pull that off, but Finland is a democracy like the U.S., and I do not understand why we should be not be able to do this and they can. Any state could use its program approval and licensing authority to do this if it wanted to.

Finally, Finn was disappointed that Darling-Hammond’s report did not anticipate the coming of digital technology to the teaching profession. Surely, he says, this is inevitable and will change the role of the teacher. Why not talk about what this might mean for teacher quality? But Empowered Educators was not intended to be a work of speculation, peering into the future and telling us what the authors saw there. It was meant to report on what countries as different as Singapore, Canada, Finland and Australia were doing to get great teachers in front of all their students. Technology has not changed that job yet in any important way. When it does, we will commission another study.

I decided to write this blog because, as usual, what Checker Finn wrote was full of accurate assessments, strong insights and plausible views, some of which I obviously disagree with. This all makes for the kinds of discussions on which public policy should be based, but rarely is.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.