Teacher talent is the biggest challenge to education reform: notes from Ted Hershberg

Penn Professor Ted Hershberg

A dense, 30-minute look at the past, present and future of education reform in the United States was the focus of a presentation by the celebrated University of Pennsylvania professor Ted Hershberg last week.

Though his lecture was part of a class I’m taking that is officially off-the-record, because I know Hershberg’s work through a friend of mine who is part of his research team and what he said follows what he often speaks on, I thought it was okay to share what I felt was a helpful top-level look at the problems and opportunities.

For context, Hershberg is an open left-of-center thinker, but he has a reputation for being an outspoken critic of the teacher’s unions. I share some easy-to-digest notes below.


See my notes from his lecture below, or start with video of another presentation he gave with similar themes.

  • Lack of teacher talent: Grade school education was traditionally the role of women, but as female career options have expanded in the last century, the attraction of top talent for educator roles have naturally lessened. Today, ineffective teachers rarely leave positions, pushing out younger, newer talent. (Seniority, not meritocracy) This, he says, is the dominant problem in education today, particularly for the expansion of successful reform schools.
  • ‘Authentic and fair’ teacher evaluation still new: So teacher unions are particularly resistant to any conversation challenging tenure-like systems. An agreed upon method for evaluating teachers is the first step to unseating bad teachers and could result in a process of hiring, firing and salary negotiations. “We don’t know yet if we can make mediocre teachers high performing ones.”
  • Acceleration not speed: Achievement test scores (a staple of ‘No Child Left Behind‘) are widely predicted by family income, but growth in test scores (focus of ‘Race to the Top‘) are a nearer predictor of teacher impact.
  • Poverty impacts education but should not be an excuse for schools: Examples like KIPP, Mastery and the Harlem Children’s Zone have eradicated the belief that poor kids can’t learn.
  • Charter schools aren’t the only answer: (a) small footprint — Of 95,000 U.S. schools with 3.4 million teachers serving some 50 million students, fewer than 5,000 are charter schools. (b)
  • Legendary teacher union leader Al Shanker supported charter school origins: From 1964 until his death in 1997, he was the vocal leader of organized teacher labor. His legend has spun out some half-truths, but, despite the divisiveness between charters and public schools of today, he was an early supporter of the charter movement, though he might challenge its place today. He saw charter schools as an opportunity to experiment with education and then bringing those lessons back into the districts.
  • Organized teacher unions have failed to innovate: Though, like most unions, were an invaluable player in protecting wages and jobs, their value has begun to be complicated by their fighting of innovation. Traditional lecture-style classrooms are built for an industrial age of authority, as opposed to the critical thinking knowledge economy of today. They protect ineffective teachers and make education reform a political no-no, says Hershberg, an iconoclast on the subject.
  • The Gates Foundation is an enormous player in the funding of experimentation and best practices in education reform: This has resulted in some well-funded mistakes, but their pushing forward of efforts is a compelling one. It makes me compare what the longterm legacy of Gates will be compared to his longtime rival Steve Jobs, who was more focused on business building.
  • 250,000 students to be educated in Philadelphia: Roughly 150,000 are in traditional public schools managed by the School District, 50,000 are in charters (and growing), and the remaining 50,000 in private and parochial schools, in addition to being home schooled.
  • Technology is at the beginning here: Open courseware and options like ‘MOOCs,’ in addition to videotaped lessons, online supplements and things like the Kahn Academy to make one-on-one instruction possible are all just beginning to have an impact, so their longterm change factor is as yet unknown.
  • By 2020, the United States will have 123 million skilled jobs that, at the present rate, fewer than 50 million Americans will be prepared to do: This is the heart of the skills gap conversation. How and what we’re teaching is stalled.
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