It’s a Rookie Mistake



By 07/02/2014

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NCTQ has another report out ranking ed schools on whether they meet NCTQ’s ideas of what makes ed schools effective.  As I pointed out last year, NCTQ purports to have a strong research basis for claiming that ed schools should adhere to their standards, but that research is actually quite thin and often doesn’t support what NCTQ advocates.  I share NCTQ’s concern about improving the quality of teacher preparation, but I do not share their confidence that we know what works and certainly do not share their willingness to impose their preferences on everyone.  Unfortunately, we do not know the correct recipe for making better teachers even as NCTQ tries to make everyone cook the way they prefer.

Part of the advocacy campaign for NCTQ’s efforts is to lambaste ed schools for the fact that 1st year teachers tend to be less effective in the classroom as measured by valued-added on test scores.  According to the NCTQ narrative, if teachers do worse in their first year or two in the profession, it must be that ed schools are doing a lousy job of preparing them.  If ed schools were doing it correctly, there would be no negative effect for first year teaching.

In last year’s report NCTQ described how the shortcomings of novice teachers motivated their ranking system:

Should first-year teaching be the equivalent of fraternity hazing, an inevitable rite of passage? Is there no substitute for “on-the-job” training of novice teachers? The answers are obvious. We need more effective teacher preparation. Our profound belief that new teachers and our children deserve better from America’s preparation programs is the touchstone of this project.

And in promoting this year’s report, NCTQ’s tweeter feed repeats this same message: “If training & cert are mandatory, should be no reason to accept 1st yr as hazing ritual”  and “Novice struggle = struggle. Every year matters!”

This, of course, is a faulty argument.  Even when professionals are well-prepared, they may still improve with experience.  It is so widely recognized as a normal phenomenon that we even have a saying for people who are less good when they start — we say that they make “rookie mistakes.”  No one blames the minor leagues for the fact that big league rookies tend to be less effective.  No one denounces the Cavaliers for the fact that LeBron James got better with experience after moving to Miami.  It is normal for people to improve with experience, not necessarily evidence of their poor preparation.

But some see rookie mistakes as unacceptable in education because the stakes are too high.  Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the Dean of the Ed School at Michigan opines, with approving retweets from NCTQ, that: “Airline pilots don’t say, ‘My first few years of flying I was a wreck.’  That needs to be gone.”  We would never tolerate rookie mistakes among important professions, like airplane pilot or doctor.

In fact, we do tolerate rookie mistakes among doctors, pilots, and just about every profession.  A review of airline accidents reports that “inexperienced pilots have a 2-3 times increased incidence of mishaps due to pilot error.”  And this study of doctor errors in writing prescriptions found: “The overall detected error rate was 3.13 errors for each 1000 orders written…. First-year postgraduate residents were found to have a higher error rate (4.25 per 1000 orders) than other prescriber classes.”  In almost every profession there are returns on experience.  The striking thing about teaching is not that novice teachers are less effective, but that the improvement with experience is so small and basically flattens out by the third year.

All of us wish that doctors, pilots, teachers and other professionals would make no mistakes.  And we hope that improved training would reduce those errors.  But no matter how much NCTQ waves around the Flexner Report to justify its activities, teaching is not medicine and in teaching we do not have a scientific basis for saying how every teacher should be prepared.  NCTQ is not helped in its attempt to be the Flexner of education by mis-describing what research exists and by making sloppy errors of logic like claiming that the relative weakness of novice teachers is proof of poor teacher preparation.

These are the sorts of errors that people may be more likely to make without doctoral training and academic experience in the social sciences, which most of the staff at NCTQ and most other DC think tank/advocacy groups are lacking.  You might even call these rookie mistakes by novice researchers.

-Jay Greene




Comment on this article
  • Kirsten says:

    Jay–would you elaborate on your assertion “The striking thing about teaching is not that novice teachers are less effective, but that the improvement with experience is so small and basically flattens out by the third year”? I’m interested in the reasoning/evidence from which this claim is based.

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