Law, medicine, and . . . teaching?

April 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

It continues. Another story today (the fourth or fifth in as many days) on education in the op-ed pages of The New York Times. Jal Mehta, of Harvard, has essayed on some of the false debates and signs of promises in education reform. Although I take issue with a few points, there are some places inviting vigorous nods. An excerpt:

Sorry, “Waiting for Superman”: charter schools are not a panacea and have not performed, on average, better than regular public schools. Successful schools — whether charter or traditional — have features in common: a clear mission, talented teachers, time for teachers to work together, longer school days or after-school programs, feedback cycles that lead to continuing improvements. It’s not either-or.

A few of Mehta’s suggestions:

Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.

By these criteria, American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance. It is not surprising, then, that researchers find wide variation in teaching skills across classrooms; in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.

This is intriguing, as I practiced law before I began teaching, and I see the value in drawing upon that profession and others for what I do now. But I’m not sure what he means by  saying that, in other professions, “consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge.” I was certainly individually accountable when I practiced law. Also, I’m not sure what he has in mind when he calls for a “body of knowledge.” A body of knowledge concerning teaching practices and curriculum? Something like the body of case law that all young lawyers have to know? Or the body of medical knowledge that all young doctors learn?

This begs the question: is there such a body of knowledge for teaching? There are so many models of what constitutes good teaching, so many approaches to “best practices,” and such a variety of examples of good teachers, it’s not clear there is actually a “body of knowledge” out there. Every day someone offers a new theory about schooling and education. Moreover, people — good, well-intentioned, smart people — disagree on the nature and purpose of education, and I’m not certain that professionals in other areas possess the same internal disagreement about their own fields. I can certainly speak for the legal profession in saying that most lawyers don’t dwell on the nature of law the way educators dwell on the nature of education. Education is, perhaps, inherently more slippery.  That might be a really good thing, and may explain why it hasn’t “professionalized” as much as some would like. Or perhaps there is something unique about the American approach to education that makes it less susceptible to the kind of structures that Mehta sees in other countries.

Having said that, there is probably a core list of characteristics that are essential for good teaching and for good schools. I’d like to see what South Korea, Finland, and Singapore are doing (those are three countries Mehta praises for their education systems) and see how the U.S. system might adapt.

I hope to blog a bit more about this solid op-ed throughout the weekend, as I also undertake to read Tony Wagner’s book Creating Innovators. Mehta’s full column is found here.

In the meantime, I’ll share a few of my own attempts to connect law and education, particularly in curriculum design and course planning. See the links below.

What law school can teach high school: Part I

What law school can teach high school: Part II

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