Matthew Kraft, researcher: “If we don’t change what teachers do in the classroom, the laws won’t change anything”
Matthew Kraft (St. Louis, Missouri, 41 years old) began working as a high school teacher in California shortly after graduating in International Relations from Stanford. It was at that time, while he was developing a program that the director of a Berkeley institute had commissioned him to engage adolescents at risk of dropping out of school —“It was a huge challenge and my students taught me a lot”— that he decided he wanted to contribute. improve the education system as a whole. Today, with a PhD in Quantitative Analysis of Educational Policy from Harvard University, associate professor of Education and Economics at Brown University, with his experience as a regular teacher and trade unionist, he is one of the leading researchers on the profession. teacher in the United States. He also about individualized tutoring programs such as the ones that the Joe Biden government is financing to recover learning losses caused during the covid pandemic. Kraft has taken a sabbatical year at Brown to travel to Spain as a visiting researcher at the Carlos III University and the Center for Economic Policy of the Esade business school (EsadeEcPol), where this Thursday he will offer one of the conferences of the annual meeting of the think tank in Madrid.
Ask. What do you mean when you talk about tutoring?
Answer. I mean basically individual instruction. There is a huge private market for these kinds of private lessons. Also in the United States. It is a market of about 6,000 million dollars a year (just over 5,600 million euros). There is a lot of demand. And also a lot of scientific evidence that shows that its effectiveness is enormous, far greater than almost any other intervention that has been measured in primary and secondary schools. So the idea is to find a way to offer it in public schools, that is, to give students more personalized instruction and to democratize access to this type of education. The idea is to offer classes totally dedicated to this individual instruction or in very small groups, never more than four, because otherwise you start to get too close to a classroom, with its dynamics and its needs.
P. We are talking, then, of tutorials that would be integrated into the school schedule, not extracurricular reinforcements after classes.
R.. That is. And it is very important to do it that way because when they are offered outside of the school day, many barriers arise: some students have difficulties with transportation if they have to go to another center, or they have problems accessing the Internet if they have to use some resource. on-line… In addition, it is a program that I believe can be not only academic support, but also socio-emotional, due to the fact that each student can have someone who knows them, who supports them and helps them through their school journey.
P. But for that, many, many teachers would be needed.
R. Of course, it would be an intensive program on a human level and, of course, if we are thinking of applying it in public schools, we should have an offer that goes beyond teachers. But if, as I propose, we also want it to be sustainable in the long term, we cannot do it solely on the basis of volunteers (this is what is being done in many of the programs that are being launched in the US). For example, they could act as intern university tutors who are studying Education majors, which would give them a lot of experience with students. Secondary school volunteer programs could also be established to work with primary school students, obviously with training and support… I see the figure of tutors as a portfolio of possible profiles: university interns, volunteer high school students, retired teachers, volunteers from associations, but also, as a specific profile within the teaching career. Because we don’t want tutors that change every week; The idea is to establish a personal relationship that is maintained throughout a term, an entire course. The basis of this intervention is that relationship.
P. Would it then be a kind of evolution and development of the unfolding system?
R.. Something like that. I see tutorials as an advanced version of an educational system. I think we can complement teaching with more personalized group instruction that helps students overcome their difficulties, but also relieves teachers of the continuous burden of working alone, in isolation, with a class of 30 students.
P. Precisely, you have studied in depth the situation of the teaching profession in the US. How would you describe it?
R.. There has been a boom and a bust of the teaching profession over the course of five decades and right now it is at an all time low. And it is not something that happened suddenly, after the pandemic; the fall began around 2010 and the consequences can be seen, for example, in the decrease of interest in the career of the new generations. Only 37% of parents say they would like their children to be teachers, 50% less than 12 years ago. But that is only part of the problem, that of the teachers of the future. Those who are already working show very low levels of satisfaction and very high levels of burn out (burnt teacher syndrome). This has caused a growing level of turnover and dropout, which impedes the professional development of teachers and impairs student learning.
P. And how is that fixed? Because I suppose it’s a question of money, but not only.
R.. When you talk to teachers, you quickly realize that no one chose this profession to get rich, but because they love working with young people and because they want to change the world and contribute to their community. But, at the same time, they have to be able to live with dignity. And in the United States, in some states, teachers are being pushed out of the middle class; they are forced to have a second job simply to be able to afford a shared flat. In the US we have to increase teachers’ salaries. That’s how it is. Spot. But that’s not going to change the system. We must pay them more, but not all the same. The teaching career is too flat —a characteristic that discourages many young people— and I believe that we should associate salaries with different stages of the profession, with teacher trainers, teachers who are with one foot in school and the other in the university, researching, Developing resumes, supporting your colleagues… There are positions that do have certain salary increases, but do not carry any other recognition outside the system…
P. In Spain there have been attempts, for more than three decades, to establish a teaching career of this style, with some steps and a progression that has to do with positions, profiles, merits… But Administrations and teachers have never managed to get OK. How are legitimate labor claims combined with the need to improve the system?
R.. I believe that the teachers themselves have the opportunity to drive the development of their profession themselves and change it from within. But, when they are not valued, they have no choice but to focus on equal pay increases for all, without any consideration to the characteristics of each position. I think that sometimes what happens is that the administrators, the politicians see that there is a need to improve the system, but they don’t bother to sit down with the teachers to open a dialogue about how to move forward with them, not in his against. Then the politics come crashing down on them. But teachers put themselves at the forefront of the improvement by proposing a system of evaluation and accompaniment, that would give them arguments to demand salary improvements and incentives that manage to attract and keep the best within the profession.
Q. So, do you think it is necessary to evaluate teachers?
R.. In any profession there is some form of evaluation. But measuring the quality of a teacher, doing it well, in a rigorous way, is expensive, because you need many evaluation elements. Ideally, the principal, peers and someone from outside the school would observe them working in the classroom and analyze their teaching practice. But in the United States we focus mainly on the idea that there are bad teachers and, therefore, you have to measure their performance to locate and fire them. And I am not saying that this is the only reason for the loss of attractiveness of the profession, but it is one of them. Besides, we seem to have forgotten that it is a very difficult job. It is a huge challenge to become an effective teacher. There are two ideological paths to the accountability process: improving the faculty by firing the worst and replacing them, or improving the work of the vast majority, those who are not so good at it and those who are already good, who can become very good. Obviously, certain minimums must be guaranteed, but for this very reason, instead of defending everyone regardless of their performance, the unions could be in charge of maintaining that minimum level, promoting a culture of continuous improvement and with this, in addition, they can avoid external evaluation policies.
P. Now that a process to establish a teaching career in Spain has started again. What lessons can be learned from the US case?
R.. A key lesson is that the implementation of a policy is the most important thing to achieve its success. We can write a beautiful law, but if we implement it in an unbalanced or merely bureaucratic way, it will not change the way we teach. And if we don’t change what teachers are actually doing in the classroom, the laws won’t change anything. And to be successful you have to involve teachers. I am not saying that, if they are against a law, we should stop it, what I am saying is that their proposals on how to carry out the reforms must be taken into account. Another idea is that working conditions not only impact the attraction or not of new teachers, but also the effectiveness and efficiency of those who are already working. A teacher is not a robot, capable of offering the same teaching in any context. Obviously, the salary is important, but there are plenty of possibilities to improve working conditions in other ways. Infrastructures, for example, are important and so is the number of students per classroom, but our research has shown that what teachers value most are issues such as the leadership of the principal, cooperation and trust among peers, time to plan their curriculum and meet in teams or the support of other profiles such as psychologists and social workers.
P. In Spain there has also been much talk about educational decentralization and autonomy of the centers. In your opinion, what are the benefits and problems of a system as decentralized as the US?
R.. On the one hand, it is quite difficult to achieve the same level of rigor in the achievement of the curriculum, due to the independence of the schools and their distance from the policies at the federal level. It’s really hard to generalize policies that have worked locally. But, on the other hand, that independence allows the best directors and teachers to innovate and generate new ideas; It’s amazing what they can do when they don’t have limitations and barriers. Again, however, such a decentralized system makes it difficult to replicate those good practices.
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