Quality Teachers Are Developed — Not Found

Jaime Escalante
The real Jaime Escalante did come from computer programming into teaching, but his celebrated success came after years of developing his own teaching skills and math program at the same high school. Photo credit: MyHero.com

Are quality teachers found or developed? This is not just a rhetorical exercise. The answer has everything to do with how we go about the whole management of our teacher workforce. 

Born or made?

Do we think that the effort is to just keep weeding out “bad teachers” until we have only the good ones per Bill Gates’ ideas? Or do we develop good teaching by a broad spectrum of research, practice, and observation that starts in our teacher education programs and follows the teacher through a long career of constant development?

Current education “reformers” decisively side with the Gates approach seeing computers and technology as a way to multiply the effects of those few teachers who they perceive as having the necessary talent.

And for all of the noise of Teach For America‘s feverish PR work, their approach really is to find perceived talent and intelligence and couple that with a prescribed curriculum that the newly-minted teachers had little to do with developing. It’s why in that program is just six weeks, and boom! You’re out in that classroom.

Gates’ approach of finding “natural” teachers to multiply by way of technology and sending the rest out the door is a perfect fit for someone who wants to sell a lot of computers — like maybe Microsoft computers.

From professional to service worker

It is also a perfect approach for those who want to de-professionalize the teacher work force so that teachers become fully compliant service workers instead of independent thinkers who ask too many questions when bosses doesn’t know what they are talking about.

And if school raiders can just turn teachers into the current popular model of service workers who are expected to do a job and not think, then they can save investors a lot of money and convert the whole education “thing” into a big-money enterprise.

And as I pointed out in an earlier post, that is what they are after.

Command and control vs. development

Gates’ approach does not stand up to what experienced teachers and administrators know about actual education, which is a complex process that takes years and much effort to master.

While Gates fashions himself to be some sort of Renaissance man, in practice he has always been the classic command and control boss resembling the many union-hating auto makers of the recent past rather than any kind of great intellectual light.

My education blogging colleague Rob Miller recently wrote a very good post about how education “reformers” want to see themselves busily doing something about education no matter what, rather than first getting their information from the teachers and administrators who are doing the work.

He does an excellent job of introducing us to the concepts of industry thinker W. Edwards Deming, whose Total Quality Management (TQM) concepts have had a large impact on the best of industries world-wide.

Rob correctly points out that Deming’s concepts call for investigation and correction of the systems at work when outcomes don’t meet our goals rather than blaming individuals within the system.

Total Quality Management in education

TQM concepts were picked up and used in education back when local districts actually had control of their own school systems before “reform”, high-stakes testing, and Value Added Measurement of Teachers came to the front.

I was fortunate enough to actually work in a school system early in my public teaching career where the superintendent had led the entire district in developing TQM systems throughout the school district.

In the infancy of my teaching practice, I was resistant at first to the concepts of a system where input and decision-making flowed freely in all directions through the system among students, teachers, administrators and parents. In the beginning, the deep level of democracy coupled with data-based decision-making was foreign and unfamiliar.

Eventually I began to understand how effective and important that process was to the success of that county seat school system. And it has shaped my teaching practice up to the present day.

TQM actually works very well in education as long as the top leaders in a school system are willing to let it.

Today there is a vast difference between how “reformers” and TQM practitioners use data.

“Reformers” use it  to identify, blame, and fire educators, never really getting that education is a system and must be addressed as such.

On the other hand, TQM practitioners provide data as a set of tools for educators to use in their constant improvement.

In effect, the “education reformers” — whose real goal is raiding the public property of schools — have decisively sided with the command and control bias in American business and industry. It’s the same bias that has resulted in years of lost productivity and the loss of billions from our economy as other countries have financially out maneuvered us.

A deeper look at why America can’t accept TQM

One especially good commentator on this divide is long-time business reporter, educator, and author Andrea Gabor.

Gabor has a deep knowledge of Deming and the various responses to his concepts that have evolved in industry throughout the world.

With that as background, she is now pointing out similarities the “education reformers” have with the command and control bosses in American industry.

In an in-depth review of Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher, Gabor makes some important comparisons of American educational and industrial innovation showing how American education and industry basically rejected our own best thinking as Japan adopted it, and won in both areas.

While Japan rebuilt it’s industry from almost nothing after World War II to dominating industry world wide by the 1970s, Japan’s education system paralleled it’s industry in the same way.

Japan, for example, took inspiration from three key thinkers, all of them American: John Dewey, the philosopher; George Polya a Stanford Univ. mathematician; and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which was inspired by Magdalene Lampert and written in part by Deborah Ball of Spartan Village. 

Gabor goes on to offer her own commentary on what happened to American education reform.

The reasons U.S. education reformers failed to adopt their own best teachings recall the experience of U.S. industry, which came to be clobbered by the Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s after they embraced quality ideas long neglected by American companies. American education-reformers established goals and standards (management-by-objective in biz-school parlance) and tests (accountability) but they didn’t develop the systems and tools for helping teachers achieve those goals. By contrast, Green tells us that Japanese educators pursued a continuous improvement philosophy called jugyokenkyu or “lesson study” that was the educational counterpart to Japanese industry’s kaizen, which is all about developing the training, mindset and processes for the continuous improvement culture that, for years, made Toyota the world’s leading auto manufacturer.

Diane Ravitch has done an excellent job of pointing out how the education reform movement was quickly compromised in her book Reign of Error where she identifies the privatization of American public education as a present and future danger.

The reason that the education reform movement was overtaken by quick fix test-and-punish proponents in only about a decade is because our culture had a built-in bias against what would have been meaningful education reform.

In order to have meaningful reform, American education would have developed processes that included the ongoing input from, and development of, those closest to the process: professional, long-term teachers and building principals. But that is the opposite to what has happened.

Instead, mirroring American industrial mistakes, an increasingly isolated management culture has chosen command and control over interaction and development.

Rather than using the best data analysis capability that we have ever had to empower the professional teacher and principal to improve education, we have chosen to use data to command better performance, or else.

Command and control has an extremely poor track record in industry. It has an even worse track record of numerous and extreme failures in privatizing public education through the investor charter school movement.

The cultural divide

Manager culture resentment for any unionized workforce has been the tail that wags the dog when it comes to education reform.

Manager culture thinking goes like this: Unions give a voice to those who don’t deserve to have one. So, we hate unions. Professional teachers are in unions. And so professional teachers just have to go, even if it wrecks the education of our nation’s children in the process.

Acknowledging that teachers can improve when given a system that facilitates it would violate the deepest biases that manager culture has in American society. It would run against our bias toward command and control as the way to success.

The work to be done

Anyone who has actively invested themselves in teaching and education leadership knows that the best teachers don’t just fall out of the sky with magical qualities. They develop. And they develop faster and better when they are in a well-organized, affirmative, financially supported process.

That’s what we should work toward as we work against the cultural bias toward command and control methodologies that consider teachers, students, and parents to be isolated entities rather than parts of a larger society.

At this point it is clear: We can’t have development and improvement in the teaching profession without first winning the political fight against the command and control ideology of education privatization.