Cargo Cult Science: McKinsey’s Report on Teacher Recruitment
The late Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once criticized some educational and psychological studies as cargo cult science:
In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They are doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things (some educational and psychological studies) cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they are missing something essential, because the planes don’t land (Richard Feynman & Ralph Leighton, 1985, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, New York, Norton, p. 340).
The recently released report Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top third graduates to a career in teaching by the international consulting firm McKinsey certainly qualifies as cargo cult science. It contains numbers and figures, including quotes and comments. So it has all the forms of a scientific study but as I said to Education Week’s Liana Heitin when she interviewed me last week: “It’s misleading. There are more questions than answers.”
The essential message of the report is best summarized on its opening page: “Top performing nations recruit 100% of their new teachers from the top third. In the U.S., its 23%–and 14% in high poverty schools.” It basically argues that “the world’s top performing school systems—Singapore, Finland, and South Korea” have smarter teachers than the United States and suggests that U.S. should find ways to recruit new teachers from the top third.
Initially I was troubled by how it came up with the numbers but then decided there are bigger problems. For example, the whole report is built on the assumption that Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are “the world’s top performing school systems” and the U.S. not. While it may be true that these nation’s students get better scores on international testing, it is arguable whether they are truly the world’s top performers in education unless we accept that the sole and ultimate purpose of education is to produce good test scores in a limited number of subjects. Test scores have been repeatedly shown to be a poor predicator of national prosperity or individual success in life. Thus we should view these systems simply as top performers in producing good test takers in a few subjects. There are many other qualities we want in our citizens that are not measured by these tests. It is quite possible, as I have argued in my book, that the U.S. education system is the top performer in preserving talent diversity, cultivating creativity, respecting differences and offering a more balanced education through a broader curriculum.
Even if we accepted the assertion that Singapore, Finland, and Korea as top performers, it is questionable how much of this performance came directly from their teachers. Teachers of course are important and I have no intention to minimize the importance of teachers, but we know that student factors (families, SES, communities, and cultures) account for much of the variation in learning outcomes and these “top performing” countries have different student populations from the U.S.. For example, these countries have a national health system, which provide much better health coverage for their poor families and children, less income disparity, more homogeneous culture, and are significantly smaller than the U.S. in terms of both geographical area and population. Moreover, students in these countries spend much more time in and out of school on the tested subjects than students in the U.S..
Even if teachers made all the differences, the report’s assumption that grades and test scores of teacher candidates before they enter the teacher training process are significant predicators of teaching quality and student achievement is not proven. In fact, the report admits:
U.S. research on whether teachers’ academic backgrounds significantly predict classroom effectiveness is very mixed, and it suggests that merely sprinkling teachers with top-third academic credentials into our existing system will not by itself produce dramatic gains in student achievement.
Even if it were true that selecting from the top candidates makes a significant difference, the report’s explanation of why the selection process in other countries is more competitive is at best tentative. For instance, the report lists financial incentive as one of the primary reasons and includes a figure in the Appendix to show that in Singapore and South Korea teachers make more than lawyers. Teachers from Korea told me that it is not true—some of their lawyers’ income is not reported. Also given the low turnover rate in Singapore and Korea, is it possible that there are simply fewer openings in the teaching profession? Is it also possible that in these countries there are fewer career choices than in the United States? Is it also possible that people in these countries are looking for more stable, less adventurous professions?
I actually like what the report suggests for making teaching more attractive: pay teacher more, respect and trust teachers, give teachers more autonomy, and give teachers more job security. But how the report arrived at these suggestions is trouble some. Even more troubling is the suggestion that U.S. education is not doing well because we have “dumber” teachers than other countries because their high school grades or entrance test scores are lower.
Rather than trying to figure out how others achieved good test scores and imitating them, I’d suggest that we stop the current education reform efforts exemplified by NCLB and Race to the Top, which do not give teachers more compensation, take away autonomy, threatens job security, and increases government interferences. When we stop trying to imitate the forms of education from other countries and focus on solutions are grounded in the realities in the United States, perhaps the airplanes will land.