Author Topic: Building a Better Teacher  (Read 1004 times)

Monirul Islam

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Building a Better Teacher
« on: May 15, 2018, 12:50:17 PM »
ON A WINTER DAY five years ago, Doug Lemov realized he had a problem. After a successful career as a teacher, a principal and a charter-school founder, he was working as a consultant, hired by troubled schools eager — desperate, in some cases — for Lemov to tell them what to do to get better. There was no shortage of prescriptions at the time for how to cure the poor performance that plagued so many American schools. Proponents of No Child Left Behind saw standardized testing as a solution. President Bush also championed a billion-dollar program to encourage schools to adopt reading curriculums with an emphasis on phonics. Others argued for smaller classes or more parental involvement or more state financing.

Lemov himself pushed for data-driven programs that would diagnose individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. But as he went from school to school that winter, he was getting the sinking feeling that there was something deeper he wasn’t reaching. On that particular day, he made a depressing visit to a school in Syracuse, N.Y., that was like so many he’d seen before: “a dispiriting exercise in good people failing,” as he described it to me recently. Sometimes Lemov could diagnose problems as soon as he walked in the door. But not here. Student test scores had dipped so low that administrators worried the state might close down the school. But the teachers seemed to care about their students. They sat down with them on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them. The classes were small. The school had rigorous academic standards and state-of-the-art curriculums and used a software program to analyze test results for each student, pinpointing which skills she still needed to work on.

But when it came to actual teaching, the daily task of getting students to learn, the school floundered. Students disobeyed teachers’ instructions, and class discussions veered away from the lesson plans. In one class Lemov observed, the teacher spent several minutes debating a student about why he didn’t have a pencil. Another divided her students into two groups to practice multiplication together, only to watch them turn to the more interesting work of chatting. A single quiet student soldiered on with the problems. As Lemov drove from Syracuse back to his home in Albany, he tried to figure out what he could do to help. He knew how to advise schools to adopt a better curriculum or raise standards or develop better communication channels between teachers and principals. But he realized that he had no clue how to advise schools about their main event: how to teach.

Around the country, education researchers were beginning to address similar questions. The testing mandates in No Child Left Behind had generated a sea of data, and researchers were now able to parse student achievement in ways they never had before. A new generation of economists devised statistical methods to measure the “value added” to a student’s performance by almost every factor imaginable: class size versus per-pupil funding versus curriculum. When researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school’s control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to. Some teachers could regularly lift their students’ test scores above the average for children of the same race, class and ability level. Others’ students left with below-average results year after year. William Sanders, a statistician studying Tennessee teachers with a colleague, found that a student with a weak teacher for three straight years would score, on average, 50 percentile points behind a similar student with a strong teacher for those years. Teachers working in the same building, teaching the same grade, produced very different outcomes. And the gaps were huge. Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, found that while the top 5 percent of teachers were able to impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one school year, as judged by standardized tests, the weakest 5 percent advanced their students only half a year of material each year.

This record encouraged a belief in some people that good teaching must be purely instinctive, a kind of magic performed by born superstars. As Jane Hannaway, the director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute and a former teacher, put it to me, successful teaching depends in part on a certain inimitable “voodoo.” You either have it or you don’t. “I think that there is an innate drive or innate ability for teaching,” Sylvia Gist, the dean of the college of education at Chicago State University, said when I visited her campus last year.

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That belief has spawned a nationwide movement to improve the quality of the teaching corps by firing the bad teachers and hiring better ones. “Creating a New Teaching Profession,” a new collection of academic papers, politely calls this idea “deselection”; Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, put it more bluntly when he gave a talk in Manhattan recently. “If we don’t change the personnel,” he said, “all we’re doing is changing the chairs.”

The reformers are also trying to create incentives to bring what Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor in Washington, calls a “different caliber of person” into the profession. Rhee has proposed giving cash bonuses to those teachers whose students learn the most, as measured by factors that include standardized tests — and firing those who don’t measure up. Under her suggested compensation system, the city’s best teachers could earn as much as $130,000 a year. (The average pay for a teacher in Washington is now $65,000.) A new charter school in New York City called the Equity Project offers starting salaries of $125,000. “Merit pay,” a once-obscure free-market notion of handing cash bonuses to the best teachers, has lately become a litmus test for seriousness about improving schools. The Obama administration’s education department has embraced merit pay; the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which finances experimental merit-pay programs across the country, rose from $97 million to $400 million this year. And states interested in competing for a piece of the $4.3 billion discretionary fund called the Race to the Top were required to change their laws to give principals and superintendents the right to judge teachers based on their students’ academic performance.

Incentives are intuitively appealing: if a teacher could make real money, maybe more people would choose teaching over finance or engineering or law, expanding the labor pool. And no one wants incompetent teachers in the classroom. Yet so far, both merit-pay efforts and programs that recruit a more-elite teaching corps, like Teach for America, have thin records of reliably improving student learning. Even if competition could coax better performance, would it be enough? Consider a bar graph presented at a recent talk on teaching, displaying the number of Americans in different professions. The shortest bar, all the way on the right, represented architects: 180,000. Farther over, slightly higher, came psychologists (185,000) and then lawyers (952,000), followed by engineers (1.3 million) and waiters (1.8 million). On the left side of the graph, the top three: janitors, maids and household cleaners (3.3 million); secretaries (3.6 million); and, finally, teachers (3.7 million). Moreover, a coming swell of baby-boomer retirements is expected to force school systems to hire up to a million new teachers between now and 2014. Expanding the pool of potential teachers is clearly important, but in a profession as large as teaching, can financial incentives alone make an impact?

Lemov spent his early career putting his faith in market forces, building accountability systems meant to reward high-performing charter schools and force the lower-performing ones to either improve or go out of business. The incentives did shock some schools into recognizing their shortcomings. But most of them were like the one in Syracuse: they knew they had to change, but they didn’t know how. “There was an implementation gap,” Lemov told me. “Incentives by themselves were not going to be enough.” Lemov calls this the Edison Parable, after the for-profit company Edison Schools, which in the 1990s tried to create a group of accountable schools but ultimately failed to outperform even the troubled Cleveland public schools.

Lemov doesn’t reject incentives. In fact, at Uncommon Schools, the network of 16 charter schools in the Northeast that he helped found and continues to help run today, he takes performance into account when setting teacher pay. Yet he has come to the conclusion that simply dangling better pay will not improve student performance on its own. And the stakes are too high: while student scores on national assessments across demographic groups have risen, the percentage of students at proficiency — just 39 percent of fourth graders in math and 33 percent in reading — is still disturbingly low. And there is still a wide gap between black and white students in reading and math. The smarter path to boosting student performance, Lemov maintains, is to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.

But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,” Gates said. “I’m personally very curious.”

When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. “Stand still when you’re giving directions,” a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.

It was the tiniest decision, but what was teaching if not a series of bite-size moves just like that?

Lemov thought about soccer, another passion. If his teammates wanted him to play better, they didn’t just say, “Get better.” They told him to “mark tighter” or “close the space.” Maybe the reason he and others were struggling so mightily to talk and even to think about teaching was that the right words didn’t exist — or at least, they hadn’t been collected. And so he set out to assemble the hidden wisdom of the best teachers in America.

LEMOV WAS NOT the first educator to come to the conclusion that teachers need better training. In the spring of 1986, a group of university deans sat in an apartment near the University of Illinois at Chicago, tossing bets into a hat. They had come together to put the final touches on a manifesto that would denounce their own institutions — the more than 1,200 schools of education — for failing to adequately train the country’s teachers.

They planned to mail the document to about 100 universities, along with an invitation to join their crusade, a coalition they named the Holmes Group, after a Harvard education-school dean from the 1920s and ’30s who pushed to prioritize teacher training. The bets they scribbled on pieces of paper were their guesses as to how many of their colleagues might agree to join them.
“People were saying, ‘Well, you’re lucky to get 30,’ ” Frank Murray, the dean of the University of Delaware’s school of education, and one of those present, recalled recently.

By the end of the year, nearly every invited dean had signed on. The process of studying their own sins was “painful,” Judith Lanier, the chairwoman of the Holmes Group and then the dean of Michigan State University’s education school, wrote in an introduction to the final report. But the consensus was inescapable. Three years before, a report from a presidential commission declared the nation to be “at risk” because of underperforming schools, citing dipping test scores and frightening illiteracy. “Our own professional schools are part of the problem,” the Holmes Group’s report declared.

Though the Holmes report stirred controversy in some quarters — the dean of the College of Education at the University of Cincinnati denounced it as “divisive” and “exclusionary” — almost nobody denied the need for change. Yet reform proved difficult to implement. The most damning testimony comes from the graduates of education schools. No professional feels completely prepared on her first day of work, but while a new lawyer might work under the tutelage of a seasoned partner, a first-year teacher usually takes charge of her classroom from the very first day. One survivor of this trial by fire is Amy Treadwell, a teacher for 10 years who received her master’s degree in education from DePaul University, one of the largest private universities in the Chicago area. She took courses in children’s literature and on “Race, Culture and Class”; one on the history of education, another on research, several on teaching methods. She even spent one semester as a student teacher at a Chicago elementary school. But when she walked into her first job, teaching first graders on the city’s South Side, she discovered a major shortcoming: She had no idea how to teach children to read. “I was certified and stamped with a mark of approval, and I couldn’t teach them the one thing they most needed to know how to do,” she told me.

The mechanics of teaching were not always overlooked in education schools. Modern-day teacher-educators look back admiringly to Cyrus Peirce, creator of one of the first “normal” schools (as teacher training schools were called in the 1800s), who aimed to deduce “the true methods of teaching.” Another favorite model is the Cook County Normal School, run for years by John Dewey’s precursor Francis Parker. The school graduated future teachers only if they demonstrated an ability to control a classroom at an adjacent “practice school” attended by real children; faculty members, meanwhile, used the practice school as a laboratory to hone what Parker proudly called a new “science” of education. But Peirce and Parker’s ambitions were foiled by a race to prepare teachers en masse. Between 1870 and 1900, as the country’s population surged and school became compulsory, the number of public schoolteachers in America shot from 200,000 to 400,000. Normal schools had to turn out graduates quickly; teaching students how to teach was an afterthought to getting them out the door. Thirty years later, the number was almost 850,000.

In the 20th century, as normal schools were brought under the umbrella of the modern university, other imperatives took over. Measured against the glamorous fields of history, economics and psychology, classroom technique began to look downright mundane. Many education professors adopted the tools of social science and took on schools as their subject. Others flew the banner of progressivism or its contemporary cousin constructivism: a theory of learning that emphasizes the importance of students’ taking ownership of their own work above all else.

At the same time, well-educated women and racial minorities who once made up a core of teachers began to see that they had other career options, and in increasing numbers, they took them. That left the ever-growing number of teaching jobs to a cohort with weaker academic backgrounds. The labor pool was especially shallow in cities, which, abandoned by the middle class, faced perpetual teacher shortages. Nancy Slavin, the head of teacher recruitment for the Chicago public schools, described to me a phone call in 2001 that particularly alarmed her. A prospective substitute teacher wanted to know why she hadn’t been selected for an assignment. Slavin explained that her conviction for prostitution made her ineligible. “Well,” the woman replied, a bit indignant, “I’m in a teacher-training program.”

Traditionally, education schools divide their curriculums into three parts: regular academic subjects, to make sure teachers know the basics of what they are assigned to teach; “foundations” courses that give them a sense of the history and philosophy of education; and finally “methods” courses that are supposed to offer ideas for how to teach particular subjects. Many schools add a required stint as a student teacher in a more-experienced teacher’s class. Yet schools can’t always control for the quality of the experienced teacher, and education-school professors often have little contact with actual schools. A 2006 report found that 12 percent of education-school faculty members never taught in elementary or secondary schools themselves. Even some methods professors have never set foot in a classroom or have not done so recently.

Nearly 80 percent of classroom teachers received their bachelor’s degrees in education, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet a 2006 report written by Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, the esteemed institution at Columbia University, assessed the state of teacher education this way: “Today, the teacher-education curriculum is a confusing patchwork. Academic instruction and clinical instruction are disconnected. Graduates are insufficiently prepared for the classroom.” By emphasizing broad theories of learning rather than the particular work of the teacher, methods classes and the rest of the future teacher’s coursework often become what the historian Diane Ravitch called “the contentless curriculum.”

When Doug Lemov, who is 42, set out to become a teacher of teachers, he was painfully aware of his own limitations. A large, shy man with a Doogie Howser face, he recalls how he limped through his first year in the classroom, at a private day school in Princeton, N.J. His heartfelt lesson plans — write in your journal while listening to music; analyze Beatles songs like poems — received blank stares. “I still remember thinking: Oh, my God. I still have 45 minutes left to go,” he told me recently. Things improved over time, but very slowly. At the Academy of the Pacific Rim, a Boston charter school he helped found, he was the dean of students, a job title that is school code for chief disciplinarian, and later principal. Lemov fit the bill physically — he’s 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds — but he struggled to get students to follow his directions on the first try.