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Teachers as Virtuosos

The debate over teacher compensation is so familiar by now that I won't bore readers with the details. Instead, I want to address a related but different concept. It has to do with the notion of teachers as virtuosos: how to identify them and how to pay them.

I was reminded of this view after reading an op-ed written by Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia ("The Trouble With Online Education, The New York Times, Jul. 20). Although his comments pertain to lecturers in academe, I think they have direct relevance to K-12. The best lecturers are "highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this - tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips away. And they do something about it."

What Edmundson is talking about often runs counter to the instructional principles taught in schools of education that tend to make teachers effective. There's nothing at all wrong in making future teachers aware of these principles, but they will not make them much more than average. Virtuosity cannot be taught, no matter how much time and effort are devoted to achieving it. If this were not true, then performing arts departments would be graduating Beethovens, Rembrandts, Brandos and Nureyevs.

This is particularly the case because of the sheer number of teachers needed in the U.S. At present, there are 3.7 million teachers in 133,000 elementary and secondary public schools who are responsible for educating about 56 million students. Finland, which is constantly cited as a model, has only 62,000 teachers in 3,500 schools ("Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?" Smithsonian, Sept. 2011). As a result, Finland has the luxury of choosing candidates from the top 10 percent of their graduating class. For example, 2,400 candidates competed for 120 openings in 2010 in the fully subsidized master's program for teachers ("From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model," The New York Times, Dec. 12, 2011). You can see why standards are so high.

In light of these realities, I'd like to see more attention paid to performance assessment in licensing and compensating teachers. This would be akin to auditions for actors, singers, musicians et al. I wrote about this in a letter to the editor ("Training Those Who Guide Young Minds," The New York Times, Aug. 6). The practice has worked extraordinarily well over the years in the arts. I don't see why it can't be applied to teaching. If teachers can demonstrate their ability with a class in front of a panel of trained evaluators, then why not hire and pay them accordingly? They certainly won't all be virtuosos, but their performance speaks for itself. I believe it's far more indicative of their competency than the present system. This idea is gaining traction. Twenty six states are considering the way they grant teaching licenses by what is known as Teacher Performance Assessment ("To Earn Classroom Certification, More Teaching and Less Testing," The New York Times, Jul. 30). I expect to see more states adopting the practice.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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