01 August 2011

Bad Teacher

Matt Damon just gave a moving speech to a teacher's rally in DC:
My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.
All of which I have great sympathy for. Like Matt, I was raised by a teacher, and the best ones I had in school made an incredible difference. And I am glad to have attended the local state school. But for every great teacher, there was the bad one who managed to put me off an entire subject.

And then there is the evidence, reported in the Guardian, that:
Black children are being systematically marked down by their teachers who are unconsciously stereotyping them, it has been revealed. 
Academics looked at the marks given to thousands of children at age 11. They compared their results in Sats, nationally set tests marked remotely, with the assessments made by teachers in the classroom and in internal tests. The findings suggest that low expectations are damaging children's prospects.
Clearly the correct balance to be struck between freedom for teachers and external accountability is a tough one. We don't know how to apply the correct incentives. Which is why the answer can only be testing - testing the tests - which brings me to New York Mayor Bloomberg's use of RCTs to test out 2 promising education initiatives in the city - conditional cash transfers and cash incentives for teachers. Both programs cost $50 million each. Neither worked, and so both schemes were promptly scrapped. Bloomberg deserves a medal (the Tim Harford award for experiments in social policy?). He just saved $50 million a year (or $100 million, if both schemes were to be run concurrently), on a program that makes plenty of intuitive sense, but that without proper testing could have gone on for years, with nobody knowing that it wasn't having any effect at all. How many other pieces of the education system are doing nothing?

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