Posted by Jon Eckert on Wednesday, 08/14/2013
The warning on this fire extinguisher is a rule follower’s worst nightmare – “DO NOT OPERATE UNLESS TRAINED.” (Imagine it: A fire is blazing. I go to grab the fire extinguisher. “NO!!! I can’t use this. I am not trained!”)
Seriously, this is the fire extinguisher outside one of the classrooms where I teach—and that was the scenario I imagined as I snapped a picture of it with my phone. Absurd, right?
But a couple weeks later, it hit me: When it comes to educating kids, maybe we should pay more attention to the Fire Extinguisher Principle: “Do not operate unless trained.”
In addition to working as a K-12 teacher for 12 years, I have worked for the U.S. Department of Education in both the Bush and Obama administrations. I am now a college professor. I’ve witnessed a variety of attempts to solve education’s big challenges, and I have some pretty strong evidence that the Fire Extinguisher Principle is worth heeding in our schools.
Exhibit A: Teach for America
Some of the smartest people I know in education entered the field through TFA. However, we have well-meaning college graduates becoming teachers-of-record in some of our nation’s most challenging schools after a 5-week summer crash course.
The “success” of TFA is nicely summarized here. However, in math, the statistically significant growth TFA touts is that in TFA classrooms students moved from the 14th percentile to the 17th percentile. In reading, students in those classrooms moved from the 13th to the 14th percentile. Comparison classrooms remained constant at the 15th percentile in math, and moved from the 14th to the 15th percentile in reading.
The real finding here: we are struggling to educate these children well.
Now the Walton Family Foundation has given $20 million to TFA to place 700 “effective” corp members in Los Angeles public schools. Interesting that TFA’s co-chief executive officer has determined they are “effective” prior to spending a single day in a classroom.
Wouldn’t more (and better) preparation and support help?
Exhibit B: Charter Schools
Some charter schools are doing amazing things. However, most are no better than their traditional counterparts and many are worse (See the most recent CREDO study). Businesspeople with no experience in education beyond being students might not be the best people to design new schools. Maybe Rand Paul can dismiss research in favor of Waiting for Superman, but can’t we do better?
Exhibit C: Policymakers Driving Education Reforms
I have worked with many smart, well-meaning policymakers and not all of them have to be great teachers. However, how many local, state, and federal policymakers were outstanding teachers? I don’t have that study, but if you know of one, let me know. We need more great teachers contributing to policy development at all levels. Policymakers need teachers for their expertise, not for buy-in or as rubber stamps after policies have already been written.
Exhibit D: College Professors
Currently, I work with many bright colleagues. However, very few professors receive any training in how to teach. Their level of content expertise is somehow enough to qualify them to teach. How many of you remember professors who could have used a little preparation in how to teach?
Now, maybe the education world is on fire. Maybe anyone should be able to teach, start a charter school, or make education policy.
Or maybe we need to heed The Fire Extinguisher Principle by welcoming great teachers to transform education with bold ideas grounded in research and practice.