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Increasing the status of teachers: a magical approach

Sheila Lawlor, director of the think tank Politeia, is concerned that the status of teachers is low and that too few people apply to become teachers. She regrets that in Britain it is rather easy to get a place in a teaching course whereas elsewhere in Europe the entry qualifications are strict. In an article for the Times entitled Get higher grades from teachers first, she writes:

Would raising entry standards at least to those of comparable European countries help to improve matters? Or would, as one union threatened some time ago, a GCSE Grade B in maths mean that applications to the profession collapse? Probably more terrifying for the Government than bad teachers is the prospect of no teachers. Yet far from threatening the supply of teachers, higher and tougher entry standards bring greater competition for places. In France five candidates compete for each job. Here the highest entry levels set for medical school go along with the most sought after university places.

This is an interesting argument. Well, not exactly argument, since having raised the question of whether making it harder to become a teacher might not reduce the supply of teachers as common sense and two and a half centuries of observed economics might lead one to expect, she simply asserts that the converse is true: “Higher and tougher entry standards bring greater competition for places.”

I think the bit that is meant to be the argument is the next sentence, saying that in France – where, as the article has said earlier, the status of teachers is high, and the qualifications required to become a teacher are also high, there are many people who want to be teachers.

Back in 1974 the physicist Richard Feynman gave a lecture in which he described the beliefs of certain primitive tribes:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.

See, the tribe of the French get the cargo. Let us do as the French do and surely the cargo will flow to us!

Ms Lawlor, like the cargo cultists, is persuaded that by imitating some of the forms (runways, men with headphones, high entry qualifications for teaching) associated with a desired state of affairs (free goodies from the gods, high status of teachers) one can cause that state of affairs to come about.

To be fair to Ms Lawlor, economists do speak of certain goods for which demand, contrary to the usual way of things, goes up as the price goes up. I think they are either called Veblen goods or Giffen goods but trying to nail down which might apply here is giffen me a headache. I will concede that just possibly increasing the entry qualifications for teaching might conjure down a little status from the sky. Perhaps one or two easily-led souls might be induced to apply for a teaching course as a result. But compared to the numbers put off from doing so by the frequent unpleasantness and occasional danger involved in teaching in a British state school, this is very minor magic indeed.

Sorry. No airplanes land.

24 comments to Increasing the status of teachers: a magical approach

  • If you want more teachers, raise wages. If you want better education, abolish schools.

    The status thing is just based on the corporatist presumpton that teaching is a profession- a guild- and that guildsmen deserve high status. There is no rational basis for this.

    Same is true for the other guilds- lawyers, judges, doctors etc. Scrap the lot. Worthless bunch of rent seekers, the bloody lot of them. Throw them into the marketplace, and see how they do.

  • veryretired

    Higher entry standards restrict entry, reduce the number of successful applicants, reduce the number of finished entrants into the trade or profession, and lead to higher costs for the time of the successful candidates.

    This is a classic guild phenomenon, and it revolves around limiting access and higher monetary returns, not prestige. The latter is just a nice added feature of any system which makes it difficult to get into a line of work.

    That’s why so many people who are hairdressers or masseurs or work in a skilled trade try so hard to set up a guild with licensing hurdles of one kind or another to restrict future entrants who might compete for business with those already in the field.

    I have no problem with high standards in any profession, but the idea the entry standards debate is about prestige instead of money is disingenuous.

    The result of Lawler’s proposal might very well be better teachers, but there will be fewer of them, and their pay scales will reflect that scarcity.

  • Bob G

    Natalie, You’ve drawn our attention to a wonderfully useful metaphor for the stupidities of leftist economic wishful thinking: the cargo cultist’s air terminal.

    The idealists amongst us can’t seem to live with the discomforting indifference of markets, so theystrive to create more accomodating “make believe” universes that give more succour to their beset souls.

    And immitating the outlines of a desired model or a drawing a picture of magical technology, is just fine in art. We can even value it highly.

    It’s just considerably less useful in other, less artistic, aspects life. If only artistes and their enablers got this, we might have less idiocies perpetrated on us by the artistically educated governing elites.

  • I think the most destructive illusion of governments is that they can create prosperity by increasing spending.

    The government sees spending and prosperity, and decides wrongly that spending causes prosperity. It then decides to increase spending by any and all means, even if it needs to take the money now or later from some people, to give it to others.

    I get it. People use umbrellas when it rains, so using umbrellas causes it to rain.

    Sad to say, this is a type of Cargo Cult centered around money. John Maynard Keynes is the shaman of this cult.

  • Thomas Ogilvie

    I read an interesting article in the Economist last week which suggested alternatives to simply raising the minimum requirements – an institute which hires the best graduates to teach the worst students, with the promise of a guaranteed interview by one of the big graduate recruiters at the end of it. To date, almost 60% stick with teaching.

    Article in the Economist.

  • Thank you all for your comments. A quick further thought: contrary to my usual practice, I have altered something in this post even though a night has gone by. Upon reading more about the cargo cult in Wikipedia, I changed the original “free goodies from foreigners” to “free goodies from the gods”. Apparently it is only a minority of such cults who worship the cargo-bringing foreigners. Most of them believe that (a) the cargo wasn’t made by foreigners, it was made by the gods, and (b) the cunning foreigners have diverted cargo that should have gone to the tribe by means of malicious but clever magic spells.

    As some of the comments have already said, this quaint belief is not limited to the South Seas.

  • David Snell

    Another reason why French graduates aspire to become teachers is that french teachers are fonctionnaires. That is, they are civil servants with all the benefits of job security, fat pensions and early retirement that go with fonctionnaire status.

  • John K

    That’s why so many people who are hairdressers or masseurs or work in a skilled trade try so hard to set up a guild with licensing hurdles of one kind or another to restrict future entrants who might compete for business with those already in the field.

    I saw the film “Public Enemies” about the life of John Dillinger recently. Not bad at all, if you have a liking for the clothes, cars and guns of the 1930s (I do).

    In one scene, Dillinger had to drive his girlfriend to the City Hall, because she had to apply for her Waitressing Permit. This was in 1934! FDR sure hit the ground runing didn’t he, we wouldn’t want pesky unregistered waitresses messing up the New Deal!

  • manuel II paleologos

    David is partly right, but the other main reason French people aspire to teaching is the rigidity of their education and labour markets. If you study particular subjects, you are expected to go into particular professions. This means that the kind of jobs that are obvious to 11-year olds (teachers, but also outside the state sector things like pharmacists) are highly prized.

    I have plenty of family in France, and the fact that I studied languages means in France I should therefore be either a teacher or a translator. The fact that I instead became a software developer still, 20 years into my career, draws derisive snorts of indignation, no matter how consistently successful I’ve been.

  • RAB

    Well I have always favoured the Mark Twain take on Education myself, namely

    Teach them to read and write, then show them where the library is.

    But compulsory State indoctrination, er I mean Education, isn’t going to go away anytime soon is it so…

    I think that what sheila wants is to basically raise the quality of British education, by raising the level of entry qualifications for teachers.
    Well yes it would, but to think it will increase teacher numbers is daft.
    However It has to be a good idea to go for higher quality student teachers surely?You can get in to a teacher training college with 2 A levels and very crappy grades, and have been able to for 40 years or more.
    According to even OFSTED’s own figures there are 24,000 teachers that are so usesless they should be sacked, but it is damn near impossible to do so. Just think how many hundreds of thousands of kids lives, that shower are fuckin up!

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Here in America, at least, the teachers’ unions aren’t against merit pay so long as everybody gets it. I suspect something similar would happen with higher entry requirements; they’d be used to justify higher pay for all teachers, then the standards would be let slide (to protect the mediocrities in charge) and only the higher pay would remain.

    Mind you, stiffer requirements leading to higher pay leading to more new teachers and better schools is a perfectly reasonable scenario; it just ain’t gonna happen.

  • Paul Marks

    Some schools are good and some are bad.

    As for teaching – two things are needed.

    Knowledge of the subject one is trying to teach – and the ability to communicate this knowledge to the people (or whatever age) that one is trying to teach.

    Getting a whatever grade is some unconnected subject is nothing to do with either of the above.

    As for teacher training:

    In theory it sounds like a good idea – but in practice there is no training.

    What happens in Britain is as followers.

    One writes a few “reports” or “reseach papers” (one can not call them essays) and one also has to have a certain number of hours teaching in a school – and fill in detailed paperwork for each of these hours.

    There is no “training in how to teach” involved in “teacher training” at all.

    Full disclosure – I tried this stuff, I went up to a teacher training college but (like various other people) was not given enough hours to “qualify”.

    I suppose what the “course” was really about was to see if one could bribe or bully people into making sure one was given the correct number of hours to get the bit of paper (the “qualifaction”).

  • veryretired

    I started to respond somewhat to Paul’s entry above, but it got too personal, so I scrubbed it.

    Suffice it to say that I admire and respect good, committed teachers as much as any other person or profession, perhaps more.

    I was privileged to have several excellent teachers, male and female, scattered through my schooling years, from grammar school to university, and I treasure their words of encouragement and approval to this day.

    My second son, a recent college graduate two years ago, has been teaching at a public charter high school in a midwestern city. One of his degrees is in American history, but he also studied to gain a certification from the state in math, and teaches that as well.

    I couldn’t be prouder of him if he was an astronaut on his way to Mars. (Those who know my feelings about such things will understand what I mean.)

    We have had several conversations about his experiences, and suffice it to say he is unimpressed with the system and administration under which he operates.

    For him, and others truly committed to teaching for the sake of those students who respond to quality educational opportunities like a flower to the sun, any increased standards and requirements are not a threat. Most likely, they have passed by those standards long before in their search for excellence.

    Our present educational system is set up for indoctrinating pc, multi-culti “truths”, and protecting the many mediocrities who are satisfied doing just that and no more, either as teachers or administrators.

    We are awash in the mediocracy of “halves”—half-educated, half-finished, half-thought through, half-assed, and half-witted.

    I was recently watching a science program which used DNA evidence to deduce that about 74,000 years ago, there was an evolutionary bottleneck that so severely challenged human development that only a few thousand families survived.

    It involved a massive volcanic eruption, followed by catastrophic climate change that went on for years, killing plants, animals, and most of the human race.

    I can guarantee you that the mediocre were not among the number that emerged from the ashes.

  • Laird

    The overall decline in the quality of teachers, and subsequent reduction in their perceived “status” in society, was inevitable. Prior to the War the only quasi-professional fields open to women were teaching and nursing. Afterwards, women realized that they really could be mechanics, engineers, doctors, etc., and the Women’s Rights movement accellerated the trend of the best female minds away from the “nurturing professions”. Certainly a good thing overall, but the inevitable result was that most of the people (not just women) going into teaching tday are far from the top of the class. It is a path of least resistance, an easy route to a secure, reasonably well-paying, white-collar job where one can drift comfortably along with little change for 30 years and retire on a nice pension. (Most experienced teachers don’t have “20 years of experience”, they have one year of experience repeated 20 times.)

    That of itself would have been enough to lower the societal status of teachers, but then they unionized. Education Associations were once true professional associations, devoted to improving the quality of their members’ work, but no more. Today they are nothing more than trade unions, and members of trade unions command no respect whatsoever. They may not have brought this entirely on themselves, but they certainly exacerbated the situation.

    As others have stated here, raising nominal entrance standards won’t improve the overall quality of teachers unless it is coupled with raising retention standards too, which of course will never happen. It would only result in shortages and then a reduction in the standards. Even raising pay won’t do much, as there is no way teacher pay could be raised enough to entice the better quality people away from other careers and professions. I don’t think there is anything much to be done about improving teacher quality; we’ll just have to live with it.

    Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (I’m going to take it as a given here that goverrnment-funded and -controlled education will continue to be the norm.) Most teachers are mediocrities, but so are most students. Frankly, the teachers are good enough (provided they have adequate facilities and materials, of course). What is needed is a means of identifying the top students and moving them to special schools or classes staffed by the top teachers. These exceptional students are the future of economic growth (the rest are the drones who will be figuratively and literally running the machines), and it is worth spending relatively more resources on them. If that makes me sound elitist, well, I am. But I’m also a pragmatist, and that would provide the best return on our education dollars.

  • tdh

    I’ve been reading a book on tutoring literacy written by semiliterate education professionals. The diction is less than stellar, and the applications to real life are boobish. For example, there is a contrast between animals with fur and birds with feathers.

    Instead of a service mentality, in which how to reach customers’ literacy goals might be addressed, there is (at least so far) a PC, um, mentality, in which unconditional, undefined respect for individuals and unconditional respect for grammatical or phonological “dialects” is advocated as essential. It is amazing to me the extent of fluff in a book written by people whom I’d’ve expected to know better.

    This is consistent with my brief experience substitute teaching. A teacher of English wrote that I could get help “next store” if I needed it. In substituting for a relatively good teacher, surprisingly long-tenured, I let the class get noisy in excitement over what we were working on (math-related), and a not-so-bright teacher came in to quiet the class down simply for not being quiet, paying no attention to the noise’s nature. But the worst part of it all was the set of rules under which the teachers had to operate; it must be quite difficult for any competent teacher to remain in such a job for more than a few years.

    IMHO the system is rotten from top to bottom, with relatively few unspoiled apples left in the barrel, and while the unions are quite clearly the rotting front, the political micromanagement imposed partly to counteract them is just as malodorous, in mixture a non-market miasma that is better fled than ventilated. Merit pay in such a bureaucratic framework will simply educe more half-witted micromanagement.

    If I were hiring teachers I’d demand that they either have no “education” degree, or meet a severe burden of proof as to their abilities both specific to the immediate position and general for the team. And I’d shut the place down if teachers unionized, rather than await the inevitable supplanting, by (form-over-function) schooling, of education.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    For example, there is a contrast between animals with fur and birds with feathers.

    That’s a Britishism, or was. “Animals (UK)” = “mammals (US).”

  • Instead of a service mentality, in which how to reach customers’ literacy goals might be addressed, there is (at least so far) a PC, um, mentality, in which unconditional, undefined respect for individuals and unconditional respect for grammatical or phonological “dialects” is advocated as essential.

    No dialect is more right than another. Some are more prestigious.

  • tdh

    No dialect is more right than another. Some are more prestigious.

    No axe is more right than another. Hardened steel axes are simply more prestigious than stone axes.

    On a separate note, I suspect that the assumption that mediocre students need at most mediocre teachers is upside down. Excellent students can prosper without a teacher, or with a poor or overburdened teacher who does not trammel or geld them. IMHO it is the mediocre student who is most in need of good teaching, especially in an ever-more-rapidly evolving economy.

    It was a delight to substitute for a first-grade teacher. The children’s voices echoed in my head for hours after. It was a little disturbing to see children in the same class already tracked, i.e. assigned different levels of work, despite that for the most part this seemed a good compromise. In reading and showing a picture book about moths and butterflies (at least), I pointed out the visible difference in their antennas, since the book had not taken care to do so. The student who had been assigned by far the least work came up afterward and ran her finger over the pictures of the antennas, as if to feel the difference in textures; I wonder now if she was being starved at school, in effect epsiloned. If so, what else could I have missed?

    If products such as “Your Baby Can Read” are as advertised, the disparities among children entering school are probably increasing. Parents not feeding their children expensive crap cereals and other junk food are probably nurturing their children better in other respects, too, perhaps even keeping them out of school, to the extent that encroaching serfdom does not interfere. Maybe this is contributing to genetic evolution, as well, further intensifying disparities, at least as long as poor behavior remains subsidized.

    But will schools evolve accordingly? If at all, poorly. As in the rest of the economy, unions sank their foul fangs deep into the neck of the goose that laid the golden egg, and drained it dry. They lack the power to call it back from the dead.

    (I haven’t finished looking at various definitions for “animal” to see where the inferior usage as “mammal” came in. Webster’s 2nd bothers with the caveat “Often, in popular usage,” as if to note that this usage is substandard but has become too widespread to be commonly received as such. IMHO such usage is far less acceptable than the Latin usage encompassing trees, but not shrubs, in that there was at least mythology attributing spirits — the proximate root meaning — to the former. In any case the use of “animal” for “mammal” ought not be being promoted in a book on literacy, of all things.)

  • Laird

    I understand your point about mediocre students, tdh, and if there were an infinite supply of excellent teachers I might agree with it. Unfortunatly, there is not, so I don’t. Students who have demonstrated superior academic ability can certainly make do (although I would question “prosper”) with mediocre teachers, but in too many cases they are held down to the level of the class, lose heart, and eventually give up; their potential isn’t realized. These are the ones for whom the expenditure of extra effort (and resources) is clearly justified; the investment will be repaid manyfold. On the other hand, it is not justified with the vast bulk of mediocre students, and we simply don’t have the resources either to identify the occasional “diamond in the rough” who might have been overlooked or to treat all students as exceptional on the off chance that a few might be. Tough luck, but that’s life. If they are truly exceptional they’ll just have to “prosper” (your word) on their own; they’ll be no worse off than at present.

    If we’re going to invest tax dollars in education I want the best possible return on that investment, which means spending more on the better students. It’s like being a venture capitalist: you invest a little bit in many startups, but when the cream rises you “double down” on those and cut your losses on the others. It’s simply the intelligent allocation of limited resources.

  • tdh

    Students who are “held down to the level of the class” are hardly untrammeled. A trammel (for which I can’t find any good photographs or diagrams anywhere, unless a “trammel bit” gives a visual hint) is a horse version of a speed governor.

  • Paul Marks

    Veryretired has a good point.

    There are lot of people out there who are ignorant (in that they do not know very much) and appear stupid. But actually are not inevitablly stupid – they have inate ability that could be brought out (so that they would no longer be ignorant).

    So the “Progressives” are correct about that much – the problem is that “Progressive” methods are terrible at bringing out the inate potentional of outwardly stupid seeming people.

    So yes there are stupid seeming people who are not really stupid (i.e. they have ability “deep down” and could be taught to use it), but “progressive” methods hurt these very people more than they hurt everyone else.

  • tdh

    This WSJ article says that public school systems are now spending millions engaging in product advertising. Presumably advertising smiling schoolkids is about as convincing as would be advertising smiling Yugo owners, and advertising magnet schools, a geographical form of tracking, is as attractive to parents of ordinary kids as advertising high government-employee pay packages would be to taxpayers; the screwee is rather easy to spot. Talk about magical thinking! This is a case of putting the, er, crap before the horse and calling it a cart.

    In many states, IIRC, there are severe limits on parents’ voting with their feet. Tightening such limits is probably high on the agenda of teacher unions; certainly preventing loosening is, and the recent snuffing out of education in DC is revealing.

  • ian

    In responding to this:

    No dialect is more right than another. Some are more prestigious.

    tdh said:

    No axe is more right than another. Hardened steel axes are simply more prestigious than stone axes.

    I can’t let this pass because it goes to much of the discussion about standards in education and I am surprised to see it made by tdh whose under contributions here have been pretty much on the button, if a tad pedantic re things like colloquialisms.

    The original quote is entirely correct (although I would have used higher status rather than prestigious). The fact remains that how something is said is independent of what is said. To equate dialect with technical advancement is simply silly.

    There is no objective test of dialect. Who decides which one is ‘better’? Who decides that ‘Geordie’ is better than ‘Brummie’? Until recently it was the state – I was certainly encouraged at my Grammar School back in the 50s to moderate the way I spoke towards ‘standard English’ or RP back and that persisted for quite a while.

    I also must take issue with Paul – I’ve done some training (for adult education) and I was taught ‘how to teach.’ In fact that was the entire content. So it does happen.

    Attacking ‘progressive’ teaching methods usually boils down to attacking anything ‘later than the way I was taught’. ‘Progressive’ is never defined of course. Education seems to be the only area of activity where invention and development are derided.

  • ian

    For example, there is a contrast between animals with fur and birds with feathers.

    That’s a Britishism, or was. “Animals (UK)” = “mammals (US).”

    It isn’t especially British – it is just a colloquial expression. How precise we are in expressing ourselves varies with context. Nothing wrong with that.