Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell on Teacher Preparation

I love reading the New Yorker.  My dad has given me a subscription to the magazine for as long as I can remember.  What I really appreciate about it is the incredible writing and the fact that I just read it, and I find myself reading whatever is in there.  The article could be centered on just about anything and I will probably read it.  One of the ways I make myself well rounded I guess.

So what am I supposed to do when the New Yorker has a piece about education?  What I usually do is I put off reading it.  I feel that I read a large amount of professional material.  I read books about leadership, teaching, subscribe to several magazines and journals, and in the past year I read about two dozen education blogs.  But when that education piece is in the New Yorker, I put off reading it.  The New Yorker is my fun read, or one of them, and sometimes the two should not mix.  Sadly, when I think about that for a second, that must mean fun and education should never mix.  Which is sad, really.  I don't think that, I promise.  And, just to prove my point, I will read education articles in the New Yorker from now on.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting article about choosing the right people for a job in the New Yorker recently.  He compared picking quality teachers and quality quarterbacks.  Leave it to Gladwell to think of such strange, yet very interesting comparison.  He goes at length to describe how the NFL has such a hard time picking good quarterbacks from college.  School systems, he says, have a quarterback problem.  They have a hard time knowing who is going to be a good teacher.

Studies are being completed that say that traditional teacher credentials do not make much of a difference with student achievement.  Bob Pianta, the dean of my education school at UVA, plays a big role in the article.  So, what are we to do?

I was not really trained before I entered teaching as a Teach for America teacher.  I learned on the job, mostly through a brutal and painful trial and error process and through the help of a school "master" teacher.  I became a good teacher and ended up staying in my placement school for five years.   During that time, I did not take one education course.  I know things are very different now with TFA, both with a much better preparation program and they are required to pursue Master's degrees.  My leadership preparation program at the University of Virginia was unique as well.  I was a full-time intern assistant principal while I took classes on the weekends.  I learned much about being an administrator both through the internship and then through taking a series of classes with the same cohort of people.  It was probably the most useful educational experience of my career.  The program does not exist anymore however.  Not enough people are willing to take the financial hit to go to school full time (even for a year) and so many alternative routes to administration exist as well.

After getting the master's in education administration, I have been pursuing a doctorate in education administration and supervision...for a long, long time.  Part-time doctoral work is a hard, long slog.  The long, hard slog has led me to question what the point of the work is.  Will it help me be a better leader?  Will completing an original work of education research help the students and teachers in my school?  These questions pop up more lately as more and more education leaders seem to eschew the doctorate for just going out and being an education entrepreneur.  Arne Duncan does not have one.  The founders of KIPP do not either.

What prepares a good teacher?  What prepares a good leader?  Life experiences, innate ability, quality mentoring, formal education programs?  The first three are probably the most important but are the hardest for bureaucracies to manage.  In the end, isn't that what it is all about anyway?

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