Monday, March 8, 2010

The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Teachers

With the latest NYT Magazine piece on training better teachers putting the subject front and center, it's worth adding this month-old Atlantic article to your reading list. Over the past decade, Teach For America has overhauled their application process in the hopes of getting a higher number of teachers who are effective in the classroom. It turns out that the best way to do this is to (a) hire candidates who have demonstrated  some organizatoinal managment and/or who have overcome adversity, and (b) pick candidates who's performance during a practice teaching session demonstrate instincts that are similar to the advice given in Lemov's Taxonomy. Here's the money quote:

Strong teachers insist that effective teaching is neither mysterious nor magical. It is neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance," Farr writes in Teaching as Leadership, a book coming out in February from Farr and his colleagues. The model the book lays out, Farr is careful to say, is not the only path to success. But he is convinced it can improve teaching--and already has. In b2007, 24 percent of Teach for America teachers moved their students one and a half or more years ahead, according to the organization's internal reports. In 2009, that number was up to 44 percent.

As best I can tell, this is a real golf shot in the field of education. There's a huge difference between a school where a quarter of the teachers are great and a school where almost half the teachers are great. Now, Teach For America is obviously in the fortunate situation of having a large applicant pool of high caliber students for a small number of slots, but even an urban school district could use this knowledge to try to shift teachers who met TFA's criteria to high-need schools.

Improving teacher quality will probably involve a two-track approach. If the average teacher salary were around $75,000 instead of $50,000 that would make a big difference in the set of people that apply for teaching jobs. But even then, the country simply needs so many teachers that we will have to identify classroom techniques and lesson plans that help turn low-performing teachers into mediocre teachers, mediocre teachers into good teachers, and good teachers into great teachers. There's no reason that we can't do both of these things at the same time.

1 comment:

Rashad said...

A teacher friend of mine emailed me the following in response to the NY Times article.

Arrrgh! Thanks for sending this article, because it's good to see what's out there (I hadn't seen it). Three pages into this article, I'm completely bowled over by the lack of respect for teaching as a profession and the lack of understanding of what teaching is. Teaching is just a "series of bite-size moves"?! What the f? The writer would never, ever, say that about the other professions, such as playing soccer and being a lawyer, to which she compares teaching.

This apparently total lack of ability to separate "teaching methods" from "small tricks" might help to account for the other astonishing display of ignorance in this article: "the field doesn't have a very clear view of what characterizes good teaching?" Are you out of your mind? There is an entire *literature* on what characterizes good teaching! It's as though I've been told by somebody who, refusing to look anywhere but the ceiling, insists that the building he's in has no furniture. Unfortunately, much of this literature doesn't talk about "bite-size" moves and certainly doesn't isolate *one* bite-sized move and do a controlled experiment with 100 teachers to determine the relevance of this one move. Again, though, if teaching were afforded any respect, people would probably realize that there's a lot that statistical analysis could tell you about good teaching, but an awful lot more that it couldn't.

One last thing that may help all kinds of people be fooled into believing that teaching can be reduced to "bite-sized" bits so easily is that the skills emphasized by our curriculum, especially for younger kids, are so stupid. Elementary school level math tests tend to measure procedural fluency rather than conceptual understanding or mathematical *reasoning*. The result is that teaching becomes a matter of covering a checklist of routine skills, which is what makes it even possible to say things like "a good teacher imparts a year and a half's worth of material".

An education researcher named Alan Schoenfeld describes a study in which 97 first and second grade students are asked the following question: "There are 26 sheep and 10 goats on a ship. How old is the captain?" Seventy-six of the 97 students "solved" the problem, providing a numerical answer by adding 26 and 10.

Studies like this make it clear that the problem is not the amount of material we are imparting on students, but that we are approaching our teaching in a way that actually encourages our students to be dumber! Thus, the idea of judging a teacher by the amount of material they impart is simply not a useful way of measuring good teaching.