The recent teacher walkouts in the US serve as an interesting backdrop for an inspired article by the editors of Bloomberg, a piece aimed at sharing ideas on how to make better teachers. The word “make” is vital to understanding the position of the editors, for most of their argument involves creating the right incentive structure for teachers.  Once this structure is put into place, teachers will naturally respond:

“Governments should encourage teachers to keep getting better, promote or give bonuses to teachers who pursue advanced degrees, and give teachers time to study and share best practices.”

The quote above incapsulates two themes that form the thrust of the argument put forth by Bloomberg: use pay/bonuses to incentivize teachers to improve and use credentialing to identify and/or recruit better teachers. If the walkouts informed the Bloomberg article, my latest book choice inspires me to question everything all over again.

The Bloomberg article refers to the latter as “competitive selection,” but does the actual data these conclusions depend upon support the claim? Not according to educator Dylan Wiliam. In his fascinating book, “Creating the School Our Children Need” he communicates a very different reality when examining this complex problem:

“The simple truth is that it is very difficult, bordering on impossible, in fact – to determine who will and will not be good teachers until we can get them into classrooms.  And even then, as we shall see, it is still pretty hard to distinguish between more effective and less effective teachers.” – Dylan Wiliam

Wiliam exhaustively cites, explaining in painstaking detail, the research that went into him making his claim.  Wiliam thus pulls off an impressive – however depressing – feat; he debunks the notion of “competitive selection,” thoroughly, persuasively and compellingly.

Yet our intuition still nudges us, however; quietly urging that merit pay and bonuses for high-performing teachers must increase the quality of teaching.  Once again, Wiliam douses this line of thinking, often proclaimed loudly and enthusiastically, with a sobering dose of facts.

“Paying good teachers more seems like a good idea, but it can’t be done fairly, generally doesn’t work, and when it does work, is very expensive.  There are better ways for a district to spend its money.” 

The editors at Bloomberg often use international comparisons to justify the claims that they feel will make better teachers.  In this particular example, teacher mentoring and professional development programs.

Teachers in Shanghai — which produces some of the world’s highest-achieving students — spend their first year supervised by a more experienced colleague, who provides guidance on teaching techniques, lesson plans and student interaction. Matching young teachers with mentors sharpens their skills and makes them more likely to stick with the profession. In Toronto’s schools, where new educators receive up to two years of mentoring, about 1 percent of teachers leave their jobs after their first year; average attrition rates in U.S. districts are 10 times higher.

The technique of comparing US schools to their international counterparts is predictable to anyone that has picked up a newspaper, but can one draw valid conclusions from these comparisons?  Wiliam notes that one can, but only if the following caveats are kept in mind:

First, countries that appear to be successful many not be as successful as they seem.  Second, even if they are successful, it is not easy, and it may in fact be impossible, to determine why the country was successful.  Third, even when we are sure of the reasons for a country’s success, it may be impossible to reproduce the circumstances that led to the success.

Wiliam masterfully convinces readers of the errors in the “competitive selection” model, and provides much-needed context to the way that many use international comparisons as a cudgel against US schools.  Optimistically, I’d like to second Wiliam’s sentiment that there are “better ways for a district to spend its money” by suggesting some viable solutions to the urgent problem identified by the editors at Bloomberg.

Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

So, just what are the better ways for a district to spend its money?  I would argue that a great first step would be to ensure that teachers have a robust, content-rich curriculum that focuses on big ideas and thus moves students beyond surface-level understandings to more conceptual ones.  While arguably not as glamorous as some of the suggestions in the Bloomberg article, I think it is more valuable to reframe the premise from which to begin, if we have great hopes of conquering the elusive nature of the issues we are confronted with improving.  In this sense, the question becomes, not how to make teachers but instead how can we provide them with the tools and solutions that empower them to solve the challenges they are entrenched in and experience in ways outsiders may never fully understand.