What are your doctor’s MCAT scores? Strange question, I know. How about this one: where did your doctor go to medical school? Maybe more of us know the answer to this question, but not many.
Studies by practioners like Harvard’s Ashi Jha (whose byline is “an ounce of evidence is worth a thousand pounds of opinion”) and organizations like WebMD and the American Medical Association are justifiably concerned with using data to learn what makes an effective doctor good at her job. Their analysis demonstrates we generally don’t think of test scores or diplomas, but “soft skills” like confidence, empathy, compassion, thoroughness and respectfulness. Standardized test scores or matriculation data? Forget the MCATs: in general, patients didn’t even consider technical competence—their trust was in the field. Moreover, individual patients sometimes idolize their doctors so much that even basic public scrutiny is lacking toward the field.
Teachers lack this public trust. This is sadly ironic, because time and again, when students and parents and organizations asked what makes an ideal teacher, their responses also focus on “soft-skills” like the ability to create a strong rapport with students and the ability to maintain strong relationships built on trust and caring, as well as mastery of their subject and setting high expectations. All of these are meaningful and measurable traits of the ideal teacher—and neither public nor professional observers (including the students of Mott Hall and President Obama) place more value on exam results or alma mater for either doctors or educators. So why do education observers consistently focus on these measures of natural potential rather than trusted measures of mature accountability?
This approach is illustrated by the recent commentary of education enthusiasts like Jill Barshay and Jon Alfuth, Barshay “debunks” the myth of low SAT scores among U.S. teachers (with hazy conclusions for the field, as if to say that higher SAT scores speak for themselves), whereas, referencing Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons 2.0. Alfuth alleges similarities between Teach for America and Finland’s teacher preparation program, centering the comparison on the rigorous selection process candidates for both programs undergo. (Sahlberg succinctly addressed Alfuth’s claims via Twitter and more thoroughly in the Wall Street Journal.)
A frequently cited claim is that the best-performing education systems recruit their teachers from the pool of brightest graduates. Whatever that means, it’s a myth not supported by evidence. –Pasi Sahlberg
A far more suitable comparison between the Finnish teacher preparation program and teacher preparation in the United States would have centered on National Board Certification—a process that teachers cannot even begin until they have served at least three years in the schools.
We know post-apprenticeship certifications based on assessed practice work: both for students and for professionals—Finnish or American. This is why doctors undertake internships and residencies while completing advanced degrees, and why National Board Candidates evaluate their mature performance through varied assessments including a portfolio, reflections, filmed interactions with students, and even a standardized exam. In conjunction, this battery of assessments can clearly demonstrate the acquisition and growth of those sought-after, but less tangible, “soft-skills,” as well as content mastery.
Well-intentioned as their work is, Barshay and Alfuth remain mired in the one overarching fallacy that stymies rapprochement between reformers in the stands and transformers in the field. They continue to bend their pens to a false narrative wherein Superman is born, not made. He swoops into the schools not with an S but a “2200” emblazoned on his chest and saves the day for truth, data and The High-Stakes American Way. Ask any first-year teacher with high SAT scores if her first day in the classroom was an epic, or an epic failure: I think we all know it went just as well as the first time the kids with the high MCATs experienced a day in the ER.
(This entire discussion leaves aside arguments of the vailidity of the SAT in the first place. A test that Bard College president and polymath, Leon Botstein, has called, “Part Hoax, Part Fraud.”)
Of course we want a profession populated by qualified candidates, but scholastic aptitude is only one minor characteristic possessed by the educators who will transform the field. We need to be serious and design a system that does more than count our teachers before they hatch.
Imagine this instead: a professional covenant wherein the system didn’t have three years to prove teachers weren’t living up their natural potential and terminate them, but one that protected teachers from termination for at least three years in order to give them the time to develop the skills they need to be maturely accountable to a field and a public that demand nothing less.