Harvard economics professor, Edward Glaeser, writing in The Boston Globe, says that the key to achieving Obama’s education goal — “provide every child a world-class education” — is to drastically improve teacher quality. Glaeser says it’s simple: if we want better schools, we must find better teachers.
I disagree with Glaeser’s prescription. Yes, it would be good to improve teacher quality, but, putting more qualified teachers in the present system would have little impact. The present system would eat them up, just as it does enthusiastic and highly qualified new teachers every year. The system itself is what must be changed.
I agree with Glaeser – “Improving our schools may be the most important way that President-elect Obama can leave America stronger than he found it. He must avoid any small plans. America doesn’t need an $18 billion Band-Aid. The country needs a massive education overhaul” — but I disagree with Glaeser’s solution. Improving teacher quality is simply not the key issue.
Pouring huge amounts of money into improving teacher preparation would be enthusiastically welcomed by the educational community. Obama must resist this popular and easy remedy. Real change means changing the system. This change will be difficult, real transformation will not be popular with those embedded in the present system.
I wrote, In Education, Let’s Stop Trying To Improve a Horse and Buggy System: “The buggy empire sees all questions of improvement in terms of improving the horse and buggy system and, funded year after year by the government, the buggy empire has little motivation to make upsetting change. Creating a new design for our system of education is an unwelcome notion to the many individuals whose income and professional life is anchored in the current paradigm.”
Public education needs transformation that goes far beyond simply “improving our schools,” or improving the quality of teachers. We need a profound change that:
- Redefines the purpose of public education.
- Radically redesigns the present system.
- Transfers resources from the present system to the new system.
What is needed is a clear vision of a transformed system, one that will work to create a consensus for fundamental change, and a clear plan that will show how, over time, this transformation can proceed. Presidential leadership could play a vital role in formulating and articulating such a vision, and in showing a safe path by which radical transformation can be accomplished. Obama’s desire for change will require a lot more hard work and a lot more in-depth thinking than what Glaeser suggests.
We must stop simply replicated the present system. Improving teacher quality sounds attractive, but, at best, it will simply beef up the present system. Improving teacher quality is simply not sufficient. What is needed is transformation.
I’m a believer W. Edwards Deming’s insight that it is the system that determines quality — not the individuals in the system. What needs to happen is a radical rethinking of our whole educational design. Students, parents and teachers are easy targets to blame for poor quality results of the present system. But it is the system itself that is primarily at fault.
Deming is the most notable guru of Total Quality Management discipline. I wrote here: “TQM sees quality as flowing from the system itself, and emphasizes that the key to quality is organizational structure and overall management. Deming made the astounding claim that 85% of quality issues are determined by organizational structure, and that only 15% of quality issues are determined by personnel qualifications, work rules, etc.”
What most school reforms emphasize is strategies for tinkering with the 15% of quality issues, and this tinkering, usually expensive, always results in disappointment. If Glaeser’s suggestion was accomplished and teacher quality drastically improved, according to Deming, this change would have less than a 15% impact on the quality of outcomes.
TQM demands that management deal with the crucial 85% — the system’s organizational structure. The reform of organizational structure is the reform that public education needs.
There are interesting comments that react to Glaeser’s Globe article. One person commented, “The problem first and foremost is lousy students. Lousy students come from lousy broken families. Throwing more money and better teachers at the problem does not solve the problem. And education degrees? Please pass
Another wrote: “The most important factor in a student’s success is the value placed on education by the parents. When you talk to parents of children in nonpublic schools, they are satisfied with the teachers efforts and their students progress. Does this mean that these schools are getting the most able teachers? I think not.”