America’s standardised tests are now “easy, a floor, not of interest”, says Ms Thordarson. She feels that the tool thus allows her to teach better and go deeper. But “You have to be more creative and more flexible, which is challenging,” she says. It’s not for teachers who “want to turn a page in a book”, adds Kelly Rafferty, the co-teacher. They thereby answer one common misconception about KhanAcademy: that it makes live teachers less relevant. Mr Khan, the teachers and Mr Gates all insist that the opposite is the case. It can liberate a good teacher to become even better. Of course, it can also make it easy for a bad teacher to cop out.
The value of teachers
The arrival of a powerful new tool thus does not replace the other necessary element in education reform, the raising of teacher quality. Good teaching is the single biggest variable in educating pupils, bigger than class size, family background or school funding, says Eric Hanushek, an education expert at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. And crucial to having better teachers is evaluating them properly, hiring, firing and promoting on merit.
The teachers’ unions, however, are fighting all attempts to move away from systems in which pay and tenure are linked only to seniority and credentials. In some places, such as Washington, DC, the reformers have won a few skirmishes; in others, such as Los Angeles, the unions are digging in for a long war. The core question is how, even whether, teachers can be evaluated fairly on the basis of exam results or classroom observation (given that some pupils are from educated families, others from poor areas, and so on). The unions are doing their best to ensure that evaluations have no consequences in staffing.
Technology can play a part here, because, in essence, evaluation is an information problem. Today’s standardised tests are deservedly unpopular with teachers and parents because, first, the “standards” tend to be low (and easily lowered further); second, teaching to the test is a form of dumbing down; and third, the tests take place only once or twice a year.