Do Piano Teachers Need to Know How to Play the Piano?

By 11/02/2012

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Silly question—it might seem. How could someone be expected to teach piano if they do not know how to play themselves? Yet that is what the public schools are about to ask of teachers more generally. In two years, most public schools will administer new student assessments in reading and math, pegged to the higher academic standards of the Common Core. Although performance standards—how high a student must score to be proficient—are still being set, the bar will likely be at the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) “proficient” level. This will be a huge challenge for students, particularly in high school, as NAEP proficiency is the equivalent of an SAT score in verbal and math of nearly 1200—or 200 points higher than the average student taking the SAT today achieves.

The Common Core standards will be an even greater challenge for America’s teachers. The average SAT score of public elementary teachers today is less than 1000; for secondary teachers a bit higher. In effect, our public schools are asking teachers to help students reach standards that are far above the standards that they have achieved  themselves. A 200 point gap on the SAT scale is huge; statistically, it amounts to two standard deviations. It’s like saying that teachers achieving at the 50th percentile need to help students achieve at the 90th percentile—like asking ordinary pianists to train virtuosos.

Of course, America has many brilliant teachers. And aptitude is but one measure of teaching ability. Lots of teachers will be able to help their students achieve the new higher standards. But numerous teachers are also below average in both aptitude and teaching ability. So, the general point holds: America has not built a teaching force anywhere near the standards that are being set for tomorrow’s students. Our presidential candidates are fond of saying that the U.S. will be number one in the world in education—that our students will achieve with the best in the world. That will never happen if our teachers are not also the best in the world.

In my new book, I make precisely this argument—and suggest how we can do better. The Best Teachers in the World: Why We Don’t Have Them and How We Could observes, as is now customary, that nothing is more important for student achievement than teacher quality. The quality of a nation’s schools cannot rise above the quality of its teachers. The book argues—and this is far from customary—that the nation is just not serious about teacher quality. Our current policies have not a prayer of producing the best teachers in the world. We spend the most per pupil on public education in the world, but over 20 nations compensate teachers more highly. We draw teaching candidates on average from the least able high school graduates. We train teachers in non-selective colleges and universities. We do not recognize merit on the job. These are not practices that attract and retain the best and the brightest in teaching.

Doing better will require much more than currently favored reforms. New teacher evaluation systems, the bipartisan rage today, are a step in the right direction, but a small step. We can’t evaluate and fire our way to a great teaching pool. We must elevate the status of the profession, the attractiveness of the work, and the compensation for doing it. We need to recognize that quality teaching is intellectual demanding, requiring deep academic knowledge, research-based training, and rigorously guided practice. Teaching must uphold standards commensurate with those we aim to hold for our students.

But these are all just platitudes—and familiar ones—if not backed by measures that can truly move the profession. The book makes three recommendations: a much smaller, selective, intellectually engaged, and better compensated teaching force supported by technology; an open, transparent, and accountable system of preparation and professional development that drives out inferior providers and rewards success; and increased responsibility for teacher development in the hands of principals, who may be the strongest determinant of teacher quality on the job. These reforms are decidedly not more of the same. Each would be devastating to some element of the status quo. Each will be fought tooth and nail by vested interests. So be it. Our willingness as a nation to fight for the best teachers in the world is the best measure of our commitment to the future achievement of our children.

-John Chubb

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  • […] this up is because of the catchy title of a provocative Education Next posting by Dr. John Chubb: “Do Piano Teachers Need to Know How to Play the Piano?” I’d like to ask that of my piano teacher, but I’m pretty sure she’d just shake […]

  • Steve says:

    “We must elevate the status of the profession, the attractiveness of the work, and the compensation for doing it.”

    Mr. Chubb, this is the most telling part of your argument. And why it rests on a flimsy assumption. These things will not happen any time in the near, and likely distant, future.

    Republican governors spend all of their educational efforts in slashing funding and opening the doors for alternative certifications that allow pathways for less qualified teachers. Add the daily vitriol of conservative media outlets and you have a profession that is framed as weak or evil.

    Good luck changing that public image. The lack of respect provided the profession in the forum of public opinion is not going to magically turn around.

    Especially on the basis of opinions regarding how to improve education, like yours, that have no research basis. We’re currently engaged in a ton of so-called reforms that make no difference in education (endless testing and charter schools) but simply serve to push public money into the hands of private firms and skilled testing company lobbyists.

    Teaching will never be an option for the best and the brightest because it doesn’t and won’t pay well. Skilled math and science minds can make far more money as engineers. It’s popular to say that teachers should be paid more but no one has the guts to do it.

    And measuring performance of teachers is so inexact as to defy “measurable” logic. As a teacher for the last 16 years, I can tell you that my influence extends far beyond test scores and skills instruction. With today’s society loaded with non-traditional families (single-parent, dual income, blended), the roles of teachers has greatly expanded over the last three decades.

    Teachers are more than transmitters of knowledge these days. We serve as de facto parents, social workers, character builders, role models (far beyond what we should be) and confidants. If you think that we just develop ways to teach information and skills and that’s the job, you’re sadly mistaken.

    Now take those non-academic roles and quantify their value? Got a test for that? And what do we get in exchange?

    Blame for all of society’s ills
    Pay cuts
    Senseless evaluations that measure little of our actual job performance
    Endless attacks from a particular political party
    Pension destruction
    And even more!

    Sorry, to tell you this but when you add it all up, the current climate and attitude toward teachers from our political leaders has led to a demoralized profession. And with that, I suggest that in order for ANY of your ideas to be even remotely practical the image of teachers must be rehabilitated.

    As evidence,every year I ask my outgoing seniors to identify their goals including future profession. Last year, out of 124 outgoing seniors, none said “teacher.” When I asked my classes why they said the pay was weak and the respect was worse.

  • steve nelson says:

    Of course all of this is predicated on the stipulation that SAT scores are actually meaningful, for teachers or students. And that is simply not the case.

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