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Bruno: The Fixed Mindset Of TNTP's "The Irreplaceables"

3428588480_d8b20d36c4Would the folks at TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) accept the argument that because many students of color and students from low-income households do not improve their academic achievement over time that we should not prioritize helping them do so? I doubt it, but I'm not sure how to make sense of their recent report on selectively retaining teachers who are most effective in the classroom without resorting to a similar sort of logic.

The Irreplaceables argues that one of the "fallacies" of teacher retention systems is the idea that "most low-performing teachers will improve to an acceptable level in the future". Their evidence is that, on average, low-performing teachers do not, in fact improve very much, even when their principals report that staff development is a high priority. 

In other words, TNTP is operating with a "fixed" theory of teaching ability rather than a "growth" theory, and they are doing so explicitly.

Their support for this theory is not very strong, as far as I can tell; the fact that principals claim to care about professional development doesn't mean that they're promoting effective interventions, and there actually is evidence that teachers can significantly improve even well into their careers.

We can probably all agree that there are some teachers who, even with reasonable evaluation, intervention, and support, will not improve enough and should be dismissed. The Irreplaceables, however, writes off large swathes of teachers altogether and unecessarily dismisses the possibility improvement for all teachers on the basis of a theory of ability that is probably wrong.

To see what's wrong with TNTP's report, though, it's not necessary to get that far into the weeds of the research. All we really need to do is stop and ask ourselves if we would be comfortable using TNTP's logic to talk about students instead of their teachers. I'm guessing most of us would not casually accept the idea that most kids' skills and abilities are basically fixed when they arrive at school, so it's hard for me to understand why we should assume that same about teachers. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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This is an argument by analogy, and is therefore inherently invalid. Teachers are not children. There is considerable evidence that the pliability of human intelligences reduces over the human lifespan, so that it is literally harder (though not impossible) to teach the old new tricks, when compared with the young, and there is less (though not no) reason to expect older teachers to improve, when compared with the younger. And teachers do not have equally established rights to further training, compared with the established rights to protection and education that children enjoy. Instead, adults have to compete in order to make a living in most endeavours, and this is likely to be increasingly true in education as well.

Bruce, obviously all analogies break down at some point but it doesn't follow from that that they are inherently unacceptable ways of making an argument. The question is whether the analogy breaks down in a relevant and meaningful way. I'm not sure this one does.

I'm not sure what you mean about the evidence around "pliability of human intelligences", and in any case we're not talking about "intelligences", but rather skills, and I am not aware of much (if any) evidence indicating that adults cannot develop their skills, even if we expect them to do so less frequently than we expect/demand of kids.

I also think it's a mistake to think of this in overly moralistic terms, like whether adults "deserve" meaningful opportunities to improve (including support, etc.) I don't see why we would doubt they deserve such opportunities, but regardless a better way to think about it is probably whether supporting adult skill development is likely to produce the outcomes we want. My guess is that we're better off treating adult teachers as capable of growth than assuming that they're stuck with whatever fixed or innate ability they happen to walk into the classroom with.

Thanks for your response, Paul. Nonetheless, while argumentation by analogy is frequently rhetorically effective, it has no logical force at all.

In my phrase "pliability of human intelligences", I am combining two notions, the multiple intelligences theory of Howard Gardner along with notions of brain plasticity and associated behavioural changes. Under the former, the distinction between intelligences and skills becomes unimportant here; the notion of aptitude for change is my main point, and while never lost, it steadily declines with age, for neurological reasons as much as any other. But I do agree with your point in the third paragraph of your response: it's wrong to simply throw teachers away without attempting to help them, in part because of the bad effects of such a practice on professional and school morale, and also in part because to not attempt to teach teachers is hypocritical and in fundamental conflict with basic beliefs about the worth and effectiveness of our profession.

If we agree that teachers can improve and should be given meaningful assistance in improving, then I'm not sure we disagree at all! (With the small caveat that Gardner's MI theory is probably bogus: http://educationnext.org/reframing-the-mind/)

Is that the right link, Paul? It took me to a completely unrelated article about the Gates. Anyway, I’m pretty sure most research has pointed to brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to reform its thinking process entirely) being pretty much confirmed in humans, regardless of age. For example, the study mentioned here: http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/science-proves-you-can-improve-your-mind/

I did a quick check of multiple intelligences theory at Stanford, the institution with the highest rated psychology department: it looks like the theory is still in use there, although that by no means suggests that it is established science. Calling it a theory, as Gardner does, appears appropriate in this fast-moving field.

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