The Best Teachers in the World, According to John E. Chubb (A Review)

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One of the great things about working at a university is easy access to books. By training and desire, I’m inclined toward contemporary novels. I’ll read the occasional dead writer, but there’s something about knowing the writer I’m reading is sitting in a room somewhere struggling to turn a phrase. Like sticking your toe in the Pacific and knowing you are connected to someone in Japan, reading someone alive creates one of those unspoken bonds that seem both inexplicable and unbreakable.

Periodically, though, I’ll pick up other kinds of books that look interesting. (I’m a big fan of judging books by their covers.) A while back, I read through Michael Hess’ Cage-Busting Leadership. Hess reminds us that leadership is more than simply managing. Leaders break out of the cages bureaucracies create and accomplish great things.

More recently, I’ve been reading John E. Chubb’s The Best Teachers in the World: Why we don’t have them and how we could. I’ll admit I picked the book up initially because there is this cool graphic of an apple that looks like a globe but I’m interested in how America can improve our educational system. As Chubb points out, America spends as much on public education as most developed countries, but we have the least to show for it.

On the one hand, and Chubb readily admits this, we are also one of the only industrialized nations that tries to educate everyone. Far too often, critics of education fail to recognize or admit that external factors play a major role on student achievement. Essentially, 10 year olds don’t learn math if they are hungry or dealing with emotional stress.

But Chubb also points to examples of schools that overcome these external pressures and produce high achieving students despite the emotional and physical issues facing them. The core idea of Chubb’s argument is relatively simple (and, it seems, obvious): good schools are mostly a combination of good principals and good teachers.

Duh.

I’m not downplaying Chubb’s argument. He does an excellent job, like Hess before him, of reminding us that teaching is complex and difficult, but running a school that educates kids isn’t rocket science. If we want the best teachers in the world, Chubb tells us, we need to ensure the best and brightest students become teachers and we need to let the school leaders reward those stars (and fire the duds). Chubb gives us a variety of stunning statistics, but the most impressive among them is the relatively low average SAT scores for college students who go into teaching.

Thirty years ago our teachers were smarter than the students who graduated. Not so much anymore. Too many teachers, Chubb tells us, would not meet the target SAT scores we’ve set for our high schoolers.

It’s a little bit like the blind leading the blind. No offense to the blind.

Chubb also reiterates for us that good schools are run by good principals who have the power and ability to truly run their schools. Too many principals are hamstrung by school boards, state regulations, parents, and teacher groups, effectively forcing them into defensive management roles. The live through the day simply putting out fires without ever having the power to get rid of the arsonist.

But what makes Chubb’s book so interesting is his discussion of teacher education programs. There are, Chubb tells us, around 3.2 million public school teachers in America. These teachers, on average, not the best and brightest. Certainly, a major part of the problem is compensation. Teachers “once earned over 80 percent of the wages of other college graduates, today teachers earn about 65 percent.” Worse yet, at the rate with which we churn through teachers (some estimates tell us 50% of all new teachers quit within 5 years), 20% of all new bachelor’s degrees will need to be in teacher education.

So, we need 1/5 of all graduates to choose a low wage, high stress job.

You don’t need a fully developed frontal lobe to know that’s a bad idea.

While I think Chubb puts a little too much faith in the use of technology to help solve our problems (he estimates we could reduce our teacher workforce by around 17 %), he argues nicely that we can leverage some technology, especially in skills based instruction, to free up our teachers for better (and more useful) interaction with small groups.

But the most important thing Chubb points out is that we simply must change the way we certify and train teachers.

We must create schools and colleges of Education that emphasize the intellectual complexity of teaching not by focusing on educational theory but by re-emphasizing the importance of content mastery.

In other words, if you are going to teach math, you should have a math degree. He points to Peabody College at Vanderbilt as the prime example of a program that is rigorous and successful. The basics are pretty simple: students start in the classroom their freshman year of college and they must double major. The classes are rigorous, demanding, and intellectually stimulating, classes that tend to attract the brightest kids.

In essence, Chubb shows us that teaching is not for below average students.

Yet, we are consistently filling classrooms with such graduates.

And wondering why our students under-perform.

Clearly, education is a complicated and difficult task but the solutions are often far simpler than we imagine. Like any other profession, if we higher the best people, hold them accountable for specific, realistic goals, and reward them, we get better performance. Chubb, like Hess in his book, shows us a path.

The rest of us simply need to start walking down that trial. We need to push universities to revise teacher education programs and pressure politicians to let them. Schools need to focus on hiring strong principals and getting out their way.

Most importantly, though, we need to all begin creating a climate where teaching is a profession that we respect and reward.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to The Best Teachers in the World, According to John E. Chubb (A Review)

  1. Coming from a lackluster Elementary Ed program myself I definitely see the the necessity of re-visiting our teacher education programs. As for strong principals running schools…I feel that’s more tricky. From my experience in the private realm of education a strong principal doesn’t necessarily mean a strong school. Strong can be very subjective with a whole lot of variety depending on one’s philosophy of education. I think at the end of the day the teachers (most, definitely not all) know what’s best for the children and are invaluable resources that are hardly ever recognized or utilized. And you’re right, education is falling into shambles because of that, and respect towards teachers needs to be our starting point, as well as consistently maintaining our children’s interests at heart at all times.

  2. lsurrett2 says:

    I’m not disagreeing with you, in fact I mostly agree with what you’ve written. However, you imply that teachers today (in general) are not required to have content knowledge of what they plan to teach. In my state, which I will glumly admit has stayed in the bottom 10 for who-knows-how-long, not only requires secondary teachers (6-12) to major in their subject matter, equaling 30+ hours of content; they must also pass the Praxis II content exam. After they have received official licensure, then they may add on certifications in other/related disciplines (i.e. History certified, add on Geography, Government, and Economics).

    I do agree that multitudes being cranked out by teacher programs do not take into account neither the red-tape which awaits them nor the fall-out of being ill-prepared. In almost every other field, industry drives the amount of interested college students (minus liberals arts). If the powers-that-be kept universities and colleges accountable for the rigor and relevant material covered, as well as the sheer number of education graduates, in the manner that federal/state governments “appear” to, education might have a chance.

    • John Wegner says:

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t necessarily mean to imply teachers don’t have content knowledge, but Peabody College requires that students double major in the Educational area plus their primary field. Elementary Ed students also double major. Texas requires that secondary Ed students major in a content area also, but the major is “tailored” to the teaching area. In English, for instance, we have 1 course specifically for passing our certification test, and others designed for teachers. These classes tend to focus less on the content and more on teaching. That, I think, defeats the purpose since Chubb shows students who go the alternative certification route teach just as well as those from Ed. programs. I agree with you, though, someone should hold universities more accountable for rigor in our Ed. programs.

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