Tag Archives: Teacher Professional Development

Should We Strive for More Generalists and Fewer Specialists in Education?

I’ve been thinking about generalists and specialists lately, and I’m beginning to think that the education field has fetishized specialists and forgotten about the value of generalists.

My thinking on this question has been prodded by a few articles on health care. In January, Atul Gawande published a moving article in The New Yorker about the “herosim of incremental care.” Gawande, a surgeon by training, explains a debate he had with his friend Asaf, an internist, about the relative merits of generalists versus specialists:

[Asaf] showed me studies demonstrating that states with higher ratios of primary-care physicians have lower rates of general mortality, infant mortality, and mortality from specific conditions such as heart disease and stroke. Other studies found that people with a primary-care physician as their usual source of care had lower subsequent five-year mortality rates than others, regardless of their initial health. In the United Kingdom, where family physicians are paid to practice in deprived areas, a ten-per-cent increase in the primary-care supply was shown to improve people’s health so much that you could add ten years to everyone’s life and still not match the benefit…. Further, the more complex a person’s medical needs are the greater the benefit of primary care.

Gawande spends the rest of the article trying to figure out how this works, and he spends time visiting his friend’s clinic:

“It’s the relationship,” they’d say. I began to understand only after I noticed that the doctors, the nurses, and the front-desk staff knew by name almost every patient who came through the door. Often, they had known the patient for years and would know him for years to come. In a single, isolated moment of care for, say, a man who came in with abdominal pain, Asaf looked like nothing special. But once I took in the fact that patient and doctor really knew each other—that the man had visited three months earlier, for back pain, and six months before that, for a flu—I started to realize the significance of their familiarity.

For one thing, it made the man willing to seek medical attention for potentially serious symptoms far sooner, instead of putting it off until it was too late. There is solid evidence behind this. Studies have established that having a regular source of medical care, from a doctor who knows you, has a powerful effect on your willingness to seek care for severe symptoms. This alone appears to be a significant contributor to lower death rates.

Observing the care, I began to grasp how the commitment to seeing people over time leads primary-care clinicians to take an approach to problem-solving that is very different from that of doctors, like me, who provide mainly episodic care.

The summer issue of The Washington Monthly gave more evidence in the case for generalists through Samuel Jay Keyser’s personal story: a sophisticated surgical procedure saved his life, but a team of generalists really helped him take steps toward a productive life.

I find these arguments compelling.

Both Keyser and Gawande point to the growing body of research that health care patients are often better off with a close relationship to one generalist than they are to a poorly coordinated network of specialists. We see this especially in end-of-life care. Patients with hospice and palliative care live longer and cost less to keep alive than those who receive the usual cocktail of specialists and hospitalizations.

Education, however, keeps trending in the opposite direction. There’s been an ever-increasing push to ensure teachers are given specialized training and licenses to fill specialty roles within schools. As a field, we’ve been operating as if more and more specialization will be a good thing, but hardly any of this is linked to actual outcomes for kids. Still, that hasn’t stopped us.

There’s very little evidence behind the specialist trend, and one study I’m aware of points in the opposite direction. When Houston experimented with creating specialized teacher roles in elementary schools, the generalist elementary school teachers who spent all day with their students helped their students learn more than their peers who specialized in only one subject. The author of the study theorized that the generalist teachers who spent more time with their students could better tailor their instruction. We also see this in other studies of teacher credentials, where deeper content knowledge is far from a guarantee of more effective teaching.

To be sure, there are some elements of schooling where having a specialist is clearly better. If one of my children was being tested for a hearing or learning disability, I’d want a specialist to perform the test. But from my conversations in the education space, I’m worried we’ve taken this concept too far and applied it to everything a school does. Whether that’s a good thing or not is worth further investigation.

Trump’s Proposal to Eliminate This Teacher-Focused Program Could be an Opportunity

President Trump’s newly released budget would slash $9 billion or 13.5 percent of funding from the Department of Education. That’s a dramatic change. It’s important to remember, however, that Congress controls the country’s purse strings, so a President’s budget proposal serves more as a statement of priorities than a concrete action plan.

For those of us who work on teacher quality issues, that’s a relief. For one, Trump’s proposed Education Department cuts include the complete elimination of the roughly $2.3 billion Title II program. States and districts use Title II’s Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants for teacher quality activities, like recruiting teachers and supporting effective instruction.  

Unsurprisingly, the mention of defunding Title II has teachers unions and advocacy organizations up in arms. Many state departments of education, districts, and schools have relied on this funding to support teacher-related activities for years.

But the effectiveness of the Title II dollars spent is questionable. Although states and districts are given a wide array of choices on how to spend Title II dollars, they tend to stick to the same activities. A closer look at the data on Title II use reveals that for more than a decade, districts have been using at least three quarters of Title II funding on just two activities: class-size reduction and professional development.

Title II

Data via U.S. Department of Education; Chart via author.

This funding allocation is problematic because there is no data to suggest that class-size reduction or professional development widely or consistently impact student achievement. Research shows that the effects of class-size reduction are restricted to only certain grades, with particular influence on students in early elementary grades. And while some districts and schools have been able to crack the code to ensure that teacher professional development positively impacts student learning, it is not happening at scale. Continue reading

Student Learning Should Matter for Teacher Evaluation Ratings, But It Still Doesn’t

Students are not learning, but teachers are told they’re doing their jobs effectively. This oxymoron is not new in American education, but recent teacher evaluation laws were supposed to demolish it by better aligning teacher evaluation scores and student learning outcomes.

NCTQ Report PicThe problem is: the laws aren’t working as intended. Even with new laws in place, the vast majority of teachers across the country continue to receive a rating equivalent to effective or higher. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) provides a new explanation for the phenomenon.

The report reveals that in almost all states, there are teachers who receive an overall evaluation score of “effective” or “highly effective” despite receiving a low score for leading students to academic achievement. This is possible because these teachers receive high scores on other parts of the evaluation such as principal and peer observations, student and parent surveys, and other district and state measures. As NCTQ’s new report details, the guidance and rules that structure states’ evaluation laws allow teachers who receive uneven scores throughout their evaluation to still be rated as effective practitioners — even when data show their students are not learning.

NCTQ’s report provides a new opportunity to discuss the negative consequences of misalignment between teacher evaluation and student learning outcomes. The following are a few damaging outcomes of such misalignment: Continue reading

The Teacher Evaluation and Improvement Merry-Go-Round is Dizzying

Last week, my colleague Andy Smarick weighed in on the conversation about TNTP’s report, The Mirage. Andy questions if TNTP’s findings about teacher professional development—in short, that the system is largely failing—are accurate. That’s because the measure that TNTP used to track teacher improvement is teacher evaluation systems. Although TNTP looked for improvement on a wide range of multiple measures including summative evaluation ratings, classroom observation scores and value-added scores, Andy rightly challenges the measure because teacher evaluation systems on the whole lack the ability to accurately assess teachers’ knowledge and skills. Let alone teachers’ growth. Or even more, if or how the kinds of supports and trainings teachers’ receive lead to any kind of improvement in their practice.

Andy caught the eye of TNTP’s CEO, Dan Weisberg, who wrote in response that evaluation systems don’t have to be perfect to give meaningful trends about teacher improvement or lack thereof. So, Dan argues, we need to at least try to measure the impact of professional development.

Andy and Dan are both right. And their back and forth represents an important, ongoing, and frustrating conversation about how to measure teacher effectiveness and use the results to improve teacher practice.

The piece missing in Andy and Dan’s conversation that could halt the merry-go-round involves something much fuzzier than evaluation metrics and indicators: culture. Continue reading