Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Teacher shortage or Teacher Leakage?

One way to hold teachers accountable is to simply fire the bad ones.

To focus on this kind of Test and Punish form of high-stakes accountability places far too much emphasis on a reactive kind of educational reform.

As a classroom teacher, I teach my students everyday how collaboration is far more productive than competition. I think all good teachers promote a classroom environment that believe that no one is as smart as all of us, and it is amazing how much we can get done when we don't obsess over who gets the credit.

What's good for the students is good for teachers. Educational reform will never succeed unless teachers are bought in - this is no more or less true than to say good learning will never succeed unless students are bought in.

At the heart of the problem are the policy makers driving educational reform by 'teacher-proofing' education.

They don't trust teachers.

John Merrow offers this way of rethinking the 'teacher problem' in America:
We don't have a teacher shortage problem. We treat them so badly, they leave. We have a teacher leakage problem.
Other countries like Finland have an immense amount of respect and trust for the teaching profession, and so teaching is usually in the top two in Finnish opinion polls of desirable professions and is among the hardest to break into.

Progressive education advocates such as Pasi Sahlberg help to explain how Finland has done educational reform so differently, compared to most other European and North American countries.

Finland understands the following paradoxes to be true:

  • Teach Less, Learn More
  • Test Less, Learn Better
  • The better a high school graduate is, the more likely she will become a teacher

These paradoxes at first glance seem counter-intuitive; but sometimes common sense doesn't make sense, and is all too common.

Rather than simply doubling the current dose of high stakes, test and punish accountability, which only serves to scare off teachers and treat children as drop-outs in waiting, we need to rethink educational reform.

We can start by closely examing educational systems in Finland and even some of the changes that Alberta, Canada has begun to institute. (Alberta has eliminated their Accountability and Reporting Division  and are eliminating the grade 3 Provincial Achievment Test)

Only then will we attract the best and the brightest teachers to teach our children to become the best and the brightest who will grow up to teach their children to be the best and brightest so they can grow up and...


  1. I agree, and love the "paradoxes" from Finland.

    There definitely needs to be a transformation in our cultural norms as they relate to teachers. Too often the ineffective teachers (either by their own lack of ambition or a failure of leadership) are held up as the poster children of the profession. As the profession comes to be seen as such, it cannot attract/sustain the attention and/or efforts of the best and the brightest for long, if at all.

    Part of the challenge is moving beyond the horse race mentality of test scores as reform litmus tests. Each year the stakes for high scores becomes higher and higher. And the pile of legislation moving through the various legislative branches down here in the states is frightening in its overwhelming lean toward more testing.

    Japan, as a contrast, doesn't even begin standardized testing until 6th grade! Here in Florida, a Senate bill is moving through that will introduce testing in Kindergarten -- pre and post tests -- "to measure learning gains"!

    Its like a witch hunt to get rid of the few teachers who aren't able to pull off teaching. There's gotta be a better way to trim the hedges of our profession. While also thinking systematically by introducing policy that cultivates the best in administrators and teachers.

    How can we get the job of just studying other countries' education systems?

  2. Great insights, Joe! I am one of those teachers who abandoned the classroom after the overall teaching lifestyle became too much. Sadly, I'm not alone. As you are well aware, in Alberta, we have a teacher drop out rate hovering around 15% prior to ever actually using their B.Ed and 25% as the number who don't make it through 5 years of teaching.

    I too saw the speaker at convention last year who discussed the merits of the Finnish system and the glaring differences between their system and ours. Thank you for pointing out some of the root causes of "teacher leakage".

  3. I agree. Australia has a similar teacher leakage of around 25% in the first 5 years of teaching, but often it's viewed as being a result of teachers 'unable to handle it' in the classroom. Rarely is it acknowledged that poor policies and administration are at fault. It sounds like Finland could teach us a thing or two about running an educational system - do you happen to know anything about how Finland uses technology or its policies on internet/tech use in education?

  4. First of all, great post. Second, I wanted to mention that two thirds of teachers that leave the profession primarily cite job dissatisfaction as the reason for leaving. So that means 1 out of every 10 teachers - people who went into the profession not to make money, not for an easy job, but because they care deeply and passionately about education - decide that the job is bull**** and quit, every year. What other profession can take intelligent, passionate people and turn them over at that rate? That alone should be a sign that something needs to change, right away and drastically.


    finally, I also wanted to let you know that the "Teach Less, Learn More" and
    "Test Less, Learn Better" links are broken.

  5. Thanks Chris! I fixed the links. And as always. I love reading your comments.

  6. I was one of those high school students who voted with their feet. I got out of there as soon as I could. It not only looked like a prison but felt like one.

    After getting a GED as an adult and entering a community college for a while, I transferred to a rigorous small honors college that was run like high school should have been. Faculty-controlled, dialog and writing-based, most classes with no more than 15. I graduated highest awarded in my class. Go figure.

    I then taught GED classes for two years while earning an M.Ed. My classes were Freirian-inspired. One thing I did was throw the GED curriculum in the garbage until the last few weeks, when we began to use them not to learn their content but to pick apart the GED test itself. My students typically got 600-range scores rather than the typical 450 (barely passing) scores and were actually ready for college afterward.

    I later had to move and have considered teaching high school. I know I could be great at it. But in our era of authoritarian education I'd not have the freedom I'd need to actually do so.

    Real education reform has to start with job-training for 95% or so of the "educators" not teaching. Schools and school districts just do not need them, and they are only a drag and drain.

    Check out Clay Shirkey's The Collapse of Complex Business Models http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collapse-of-complex-business-models/

    And then if you want to have your mind blown and understand our era of authoritarian education like never before, read Seeing Like a State by James. C Scott http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=ubers-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0300078153&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr


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