Current Events

Scaling Quality through “The Missing Institution”

Many people will acknowledge the existence of extraordinary teachers, such as Jaime Escalante (immortalized in the film “Stand and Deliver” as the teacher who created one of the best AP calculus programs nationwide in an East L.A. school).  Because none of these educators have succeeded in scaling their successes, the conventional wisdom is that they are idiosyncratic pedagogical geniuses and that their work cannot be replicated.

An alternative interpretation for the failure to replicate pedagogical genius might focus on the fact that there are no institutions in our society that support the replication of pedagogical success.  Teaching is fundamentally a performance art – real time interactions  in chaotic and complex human situations.  There are no institutions in our society that provide for an environment in which master practitioners of this performance art systematically transfer their expertise.

Instead, academic departments of education have an effective monopoly on teacher training.  In order to become a professor of education one must complete a Ph.D. and publish a series of research articles.  The ability to produce academic research articles is not related to the ability to practice a pedagogical performance art.  The analogy that I find compelling is musicianship – while there is nothing wrong with the academic study of music, one would never imagine that academic courses taught by music scholars provide the optimal path to becoming a performing artist.  We don’t require Placido Domingo or Adele to take courses taught by music Ph.D.s in order to perform.

There are brief student-teaching assignments at the end of many teaching credentialing programs, but they are the lost stepchild of an education department – one doesn’t climb the academic ladder for creating a better student teacher program.  Moreover, even these programs are designed and controlled by education professors rather than by virtuoso teachers.

Imagine, instead, if Escalante had been a great martial arts teacher.  He might have established his own school.  Students from around the world would have flocked to learn directly from him.  Gradually, some of his best students would open up their own schools.  They would prominently display their lineage, the fact that they had studied directly with Escalante.  People who were interested in becoming serious about a particular martial arts form would ask around to discover who were the best teachers.  Those schools could charge a premium.  Sometimes such schools would trace their lineage back through several generations of great teachers.

I describe the fact that there is no Escalante School of Mathematics Teaching as “The Missing Institution.”  In the absence of government and academic domination of education for the past century, we would have seen the creation of many such training centers founded by brilliant educators, each designed to transmit their artistry.

Indeed, the Montessori and Waldorf educational systems were each designed by inspired educators whose work has existed outside of the system for nearly a century, despite considerable hostility from the establishment.  Both have their own teacher training and school accreditation systems.  This demonstrates that distinctive pedagogies spontaneously generate distinctive teacher training systems when they are able to do so.  “The Missing Institution” is not missing in the case of Montessori and Waldorf (though in each case the training institutions are imperfect and financially precarious).

KIPP Academies succeed in part because of a year-long internal administrator’s training program.  Thus despite the fact that they are working completely within the dominant standard, they have found it necessary to create a small version of “The Missing Institution” with respect to educational leadership.  Hi Tech High is a celebrated charter school focusing on project-based learning.  It is unique in that it has been allowed to license teachers through an internal training system – it too has been spontaneously driven to create “The Missing Institution.”  The Comprehensive School Mathematics Program (CSMP) was a well-funded public school mathematics innovation in the 1970s that was dropped by public schools because it required too much teacher development.  Its developers have since created a chain of private mathematics teaching centers where they can ensure quality by means of more extensive training of teachers – yet another example of the spontaneous creation of “The Missing Institution.”

The absence of “The Missing Institution” has been especially harmful for children whose parents are least likely to model intellectual engagement at home.  These are the children who do not have access to the crucial cultural capital needed to succeed in life.  It is critical that we create pipelines of talent to improve the lives of those children.  Technological innovations in education will have the least significant impact on underprivileged children precisely because the human relationships that are key to motivation, meaning, and dignity cannot be transmitted by technology alone.  “The Missing Institution” is essential to transmit crucial cultural capital across the boundaries of class and ethnicity.

I’m acutely aware of the absence of this institution because of the discrepancy between what I can achieve myself with students by means of classroom conversation and what the average teacher can achieve.  If I’m allowed to identify intelligent people and train them for a year, that then I can promise significant improvements in SAT critical reading scores and AP humanities test performance among underprivileged populations.  Whereas education majors typically score the lowest on SAT and GRE exams, there are countless intelligent, underemployed humanities majors and mid-career professionals who could be great Socratic educators given adequate training.  Most such people find such careers emotionally rewarding and intellectually stimulating when they are able to work in a school that supports the perfection of their craft.

Measurable academic performance aside, Socratic Practice amounts to focused development of the prefrontal cortex,  “implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making and moderating social behavior.”  What institutional systems exist that would develop, refine, and disseminate these practices to those students who most needed them?  Suppose there were an entire set of habits, attitudes, and practices that could be developed that were especially important for the long-term well-being of inner city children from dysfunctional families.  Where, exactly, would people learn how to develop, refine, and transmit these traits?

In 1988 Charles Reavis published a short book titled “Extraordinary Educators:  Lessons in Leadership,” in which he noted that some educators consistently outperformed others:  A cheerleading squad in Kentucky that repeatedly won the national championship, a debate team in Texas that repeatedly won the state championship, etc.  How is it that some educators consistently out-performed the norm by a wide standard?  His answer was that these educators (who, incidentally, almost all excelled in coaching extracurricular activities rather than teaching academics) held their students to very high standards, they clearly cared about their students, and they were capable of coaching expert level performance in the given activity and provided real-time feedback to their students in order to coach great performances.

Reavis’ research rings true to my own experience.  What is most relevant in this context is the critical role that The Missing Institution would play in training others how to provide the real-time feedback needed to provide expert level performances.  A choral teacher can’t allow the sopranos to sing flat – she needs to correct a flat note IMMEDIATELY.  Likewise a great Socratic Practice teacher can’t allow one student to intimidate another student into shutting up – such behaviors must be stopped IMMEDIATELY.  If we are going to coach impulse control and develop the prefrontal cortex in a systematic way, we need to have individuals who care about the children, set high standards, and coach impulse control in real time.  In a room full of hormone-laden and animated teens, this is a complex performance art that is not cultivated by means of enrolling in education courses at a university.

Tomorrow:  How can we create an educational system that helps all young people achieve their full potential?

  • Fred Foldvary

    The Great Courses has a DVD on teaching.

  • If I’m allowed to identify intelligent people and train them for a year,
    that then I can promise significant improvements in SAT critical
    reading scores and AP humanities test performance among underprivileged

    An education reform article written by a guy who believes that he has the obvious solution and if everybody only listed to him, we would solve all of our education policy problems.

    Usually, it’s the people in favor of activist government who buy this magic bullet hooey from self-proclaimed saviors, not the libertarians.

    • michaelstrong

      I cite evidence that diverse educators from diverse traditions spontaneously develop idiosyncratic training programs featuring direct training by experienced educators when possible. While this is consistent with my experience, you don’t need to “buy this magic bullet hooey” in my particular case in order to understand the broader argument. Or are you arguing that having Ph.D. education professors train teachers is somehow a better way to train teachers than having experienced classroom teachers train teachers? Do you not think it would have been a good idea to have Jaime Escalante train cohorts of math teachers? Are you arguing against the entire concept of “The Missing Institution” as sketched above?

      • You can cite all the evidence and ask all the rational questions you want, but it doesn’t matter when you’re responding to a troll.

        Anyway, your posts the last few days have been excellent. I’m extremely concerned about our cultural turn from education-as-free-inquiry to education-as-information-transmission, and you’ve fired me up and given me much to think about.

        • michaelstrong

          Thanks much.

  • TracyW

    I think this is an excellent post. Teaching is a really difficult job to do well, and teachers are so often left to find their own way on how to do it, in front of students, which isn’t good for anyone. Particularly given how cumulative learning is.

  • SimpleMachine88

    This article is absolutely right. We should train our teachers in kung-fu.

  • This dovetails with my own experience. I came out of industry and went into early retirement and wanted to teach. I ran into a wall in pursuit of an alternate teaching certification in my state until they recently changed the law to allow you to gain more on the job training under an experienced teacher. That really made a difference.

  • Counsellor

    It is precisely because those are “institutions” are facilities whose objectives and means of their attainment have been taken over by those within the establishments who were charged originally with the tasks of carrying out the objectives determined by others, by means determined by others who established the facilities.
    As a result, the objectives and means of their attainment are determined in accordance with interests that do not conform to the original purpose of the establishment of the facilities.

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