Monday, March 21, 2011

What is this job?

I just saw the final episode of a Swedish TV-show called Class 9A.  The idea is very interesting: a school is in trouble because the teachers and principal are not doing their jobs well, and one ninth-grade class in particular is singled out to receive help from expert teachers. These experts come a few times per week during one term (August through December) and coach the regular teachers while at the same time teaching the troubled class. This is the second season of this show, the original aired a few years ago in a different city and school than the current season. Interest for this show has been very high, probably in part because it ties in well with the current political emphasis on school reform.

The team of expert teachers - come to save class 9A at Mikaelskolan

One prominent feature that distinguishes the expert teachers from the regular teachers is the amount of effort the experts put into each student. For instance, at one point Stavros, the expert math teacher, spends 2 hours giving one student private tuition and in the previous season of this show, one teacher fetched one student from home every morning to help the student come to school. Overall, the experts imply that one reason things are not going well is because teachers are not doing enough for the students.
In general, it's not difficult to understand that these expert teachers are probably given MUCH more time and many other resources not usually afforded to regular teachers. I understand that what they are doing is not realistic for regular Swedish teachers who, on average, have a little more than one hour for preparing (and marking) each class.
But then, how can you tell what amount of effort is realistic, how much is enough?

Another issue, related to the first, is what it is we are aiming for. In this show, the goal is phrased exclusively as "getting all students to pass and be admitted to high school". The principal says this, the experts say this, the regular teachers say this. Yet, surely this is absurd.
First of all, education for me is about learning, not passing. I would find my job utterly meaningless if I thought of it primarily in terms of getting students to pass, or even getting students to achieve high marks. I teach because I love and believe in the power of education - because education opens a window on understanding this world we live in, and gives tools which increase ones chances of leading a rich and meaningful life, and because it is a privilege to see and assist students' growth.
However, there is a second problem with the goal that the point of school is to get students to pass: in Swedish school systems the teachers themselves are setting the grades. Guess what happens if the teacher is aiming to pass as many students as possible? They pass. And then they come to high school and I wonder what on earth they have been doing for nine years when in tenth grade they cannot even do multiplication with negatives.
This becomes especially ludicrous in the context of Class 9A, because it is set like an experiment and everyone is asking all the time "how is this going? are we seeing any results from this awesome and costly and highly publicized intervention we're conducting?"  There is a reason scientific experiments are often conducted blind. Researcher expectancies can have a tremendous effect, and doubly so when the researchers are the ones evaluating their own work and under great pressure to succeed.
Yet passing rates and grades and standardized tests remain the most clear cut and simple way we have to measure and compare learning. So how can we formulate goals that do justice both to education for its own sake, and to the reality of grades and test-scores?

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