Sunday, November 18, 2007

It's the Teachers!

Plenty of PhD types have made their careers researching and reporting on what is wrong with our education system and how to fix it. Most research leads to here-today-gone-tomorrow education fads. These fads consume precious resources and impose extra responsibilities on teachers, but in the end, education reform remains as elusive as ever. The research does not even agree on the characteristics of academic achievement except for ONE factor.

Over and over again, the most important factor contributing to the academic achievement of students is THE TEACHER. Just this week yet another testimony to the importance of the teacher appeared in “Education Week”
summarizing a recent report ten “top performing” education systems and seven other “rapidly improving” systems, and concluding that what all the systems had in common was a commitment to attracting and keeping the highest quality teachers. Encouragingly, three of the seven rapidly improving systems were in the United States: Boston, Chicago and New York.

“Top-performing systems, for instance, are typically both restrictive and selective about who is able to train as a teacher, recruiting their teachers from the top third of each group leaving secondary school.” Once top performing systems have their high quality recruits, they train them well, pay them well, and accord them professional respect and esteem.

In typical fashion, critics justified the poor performers. “Tom Loveless, a senior fellow in education at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said the report “needed to define the variables [that affect school performance] and measure them carefully” across systems hitting the full range of performance. Identifying the practices of the better-performing school systems does not mean much if less successful systems do the same things, he said.“

That is the question, is it not? Do less successful systems in fact do the same things as the better-performing systems? For example, can the less successful systems show that their teachers came from the top third of each group leaving secondary school? One of the top performing systems cited in the report, Japan, because of various factors, tend to have more consistent quality of secondary schools across the country than the US. So how does the top third from one community differ from the top third of another community within the United States? There's a great research question.

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