Teacher Quality: For Teachers Only to Judge?

(Note: The following is an e-mail response to a public school teacher who questioned the Mackinac Center regarding the qualifications of those who study teacher quality.)

Thank you for contacting the Mackinac Center. I’m sorry you could not attend our teacher quality forum yesterday. About 50 people attended, including some public school teachers.

I want to address your question about Mr. Holley’s qualifications because I had a role in commissioning Mr. Holley to conduct his research for the Mackinac Center.

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You asked, "Am I correct if I assume Marc has never taught in the public school system? How many of his six years were spent teaching? I would like to see more experience in the classroom on the resume of a presenter who is going to speak directly to teacher issues."

I can understand your impulse to trust information that comes from people whose experiences closely mirror your own. The fact that education researchers may not all spend several years teaching in public schools might, in fact, be a good reason to critically examine all their findings. We certainly expect and encourage scrutiny of all we publish. You would be unwise if you accepted anyone’s ideas uncritically.

But what would teaching, or any other field, be like if teachers insisted on learning only from themselves? I’m sure you didn’t mean to suggest that would be a good idea, just as I am sure you do not teach your own students to think that way. Yet you seem to be saying that Mr. Holley wouldn’t have much worthwhile to say since you don’t know how many years he taught in public school.

That’s like saying doctors shouldn’t have listened to Wilhelm Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays. To my knowledge, Mr. Roentgen never practiced medicine, but his ideas have certainly saved countless lives.

I bet if I were to visit your classroom, I would find within the first two minutes that you would be teaching your students something you learned from someone who was never a public school teacher. What would science, history, literature, art, math, music, and all the rest be like if teachers didn’t explore the very best ideas that came from the very best minds in those non-teaching disciplines?

Would I be right if I guessed that a good number of your ed school professors had extremely limited public school teaching experience? Surely some of them had good ideas that help you every day in your career, in spite of their own lack of public school teaching.

Non-teachers might have a different perspective on teacher quality than teachers themselves, but that doesn’t mean it is not a valuable perspective. Even if we completely discount the experience of those whose only contact with public schools is 13 years of learning under the tutelage of dozens of public school teachers, there are millions of others who have to judge the effects of teacher quality.

They are parents who see what their children are or aren’t learning. They are employers who gratefully hire well educated graduates and those who have to spend large sums remediating less educated ones so they can do their jobs. Surely some of those people have useful insights on teacher quality.

I have yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t agree that public schools need innovation and reform. Have you heard of "The Innovator’s Dilemma?" One of the author’s central findings is that it’s hard to produce innovation from within an institution. In fact, most innovation comes from outside of the institution, either by adopting ideas that weren’t discovered by those inside, or by competitive pressure from outside institutions. The book is available at Amazon.com.

You’ve probably never run a think tank, yet I bet you have a good idea or two about how a think tank like the Mackinac Center could be improved. And I’d be foolish to reject your ideas based on your resume alone.

A researcher’s resume doesn’t tell you what you need to know about his work. His ideas and findings should be judged on their own merits. I urge you to critically examine Mr. Holley’s work and let us know what you think. Let me know if you’d like a copy of Mr. Holley’s study.


Joseph G. Lehman is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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