Matthew Kraft, education specialist: ‘In the US, teachers are forced to have a second job simply to be able to afford a shared apartment’

The Brown University professor – one of the leaders in educational research in the United States – advocates for individualized tutoring and the need to value and promote the development of educational professionals

Matthew Kraft
Matthew Kraft, education specialist at Brown University, at his home in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez
J. A. Aunión

Matthew Kraft, 41, began working as a high school teacher in California shortly after graduating with a degree in International Relations from Stanford University. Around that time, the director of an institute in Berkeley commissioned the Missouri native to develop a program to engage adolescents at risk of dropping out of school.

“It was a huge challenge. My students taught me a lot,” he recalls.

After this experience, he decided that he wanted to help improve the educational system across the board. Today – with a PhD in Quantitative Analysis of Educational Policy from Harvard University – he is an associate professor of Education and Economics at Brown University, putting to use his experience as a teacher and trade unionist. He is now renowned as one of the leading researchers in the field of education in the United States.

Kraft is a strong advocate of individualized tutoring programs – such as those being funded by the Biden administration – to help students recover from learning losses caused over the course of the pandemic.

He’s recently taken a sabbatical year from Brown to be a visiting researcher at Carlos III University and the Center for Economic Policy of the Esade Business School in Madrid. This week, he will be giving a lecture that will be attended by Spain’s minister of education.

Question. 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. In the USA alone, there’s a market of about $6 billion a year. There’s 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.

The idea is to find a way to offer this private tutoring in public schools, to give students more personalized instruction and to democratize access to this type of education. [We need 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 all the related dynamics and needs.

Q. We’re talking, then, about tutorials that would be integrated into the school schedule – not extracurricular reinforcements after the school day is over.

A. Exactly. And it’s very important to do it that way, because when [these sessions] 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.

I believe that this kind of programming isn’t only about academic support, but also about socio-emotional support, due to the fact that each student gets to have someone who knows them, who supports them and helps them go through their school routine.

Q. But for that to happen, many more teachers would be needed.

A. Sure, it would be an intensive program on a human level and, of course, if we’re thinking of applying it to 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, neither can we 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, [the schools could use] interns – university tutors who are pursuing education degrees – which would give them a lot of experience with students. Volunteer secondary school student programs could also be established to work with primary school students – obviously with training and support.

There are many possible profiles for tutors: university interns, college students, secondary school volunteers, retired teachers, volunteers from associations… but also, [there must be] 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.

Q. Would this require a kind of evolution and development of the current system?

A. 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.

Q. You’ve studied the situation of the American teaching profession in depth. How would you describe it?

A. There’s been a boom and a bust within the teaching profession over the course of five decades. Right now, it’s at an all-time low. And it’s not something that happened suddenly, after the pandemic. The decline began around 2010 and the consequences can be seen, for example, in the decrease of interest in the career felt by the new generations. Only 37% of parents say they would like their children to be teachers… 50% less than 12 years ago. But that’s only part of the problem. Those who are already working show very low levels of satisfaction and very high levels of burnout. This has caused a growing level of turnover, which impedes the professional development of teachers and impairs student learning.

Q. And how is that fixed? Because I suppose it’s a question of money, but not only that.

A. When you talk to teachers, you quickly realize that no one chose this profession to get rich. They love working with young people and 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 US, in some states, teachers are being pushed out of the middle class. They’re forced to have a second job simply to be able to afford a shared apartment. In the US, we have to increase teachers’ salaries. That’s how it is. Period. But that’s not going to change the system. We must pay them more, but not all the same. The teaching career is too stagnant – 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 have one foot in school and the other in the university, researching, developing their skills, supporting their colleagues...

Q. 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, etc. But it’s never worked out. How can legitimate labor claims be combined with the need to improve the system?

A. I believe that the teachers themselves should have the opportunity to drive the development of their profession and change it from within. But, when they’re 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 and the politicians see that there’s 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, rather than against them. Then the politics come crashing down on everyone. But teachers can put themselves at the forefront, by proposing a system of evaluation and accompaniment that would give them a basis to demand salary increases and incentives that manage to attract and keep the best people within the profession.

Matthew Kraft, at his home in Madrid.
Matthew Kraft, at his home in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

Q. Do you think it’s necessary to evaluate teachers?

A. 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 identify them and fire them. And I’m not saying that this is the only reason for the loss of the profession’s attractiveness… but it’s one of them.

We seem to have forgotten that it’s a very difficult job. It’s 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 and promoting a culture of continuous improvement. With this, they can avoid external evaluation policies.

Q. A process to re-establish the teaching career in Spain has started again. What lessons can be learned from the US case?

A. 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 won’t 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’m not saying that, if [the teachers] are against a law, we should stop it. What I’m saying is that their proposals on how to carry out the reforms must be taken into account.

Another thing to remember is that working conditions not only impact whether the profession can attract 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. Infrastructure, for example, is important, as 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 psychologists and social workers.

Q. In Spain, there’s been much talk about educational decentralization and autonomy of the schools. In your opinion, what are the benefits and problems of a system as decentralized as the USA’s?

A. On the one hand, it’s 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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