Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Education Roundtable: Increasing Teaching Quality

Corey: Last week, we discussed how to deal with disaffected students in the classroom. One theme that emerged in the discussion was the potential influence of teachers on such students.

Here’s a timely, and relevant, piece on the subject that was just published. In the piece, Robert Pondiscio reviews the book Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov and, I think, does an excellent job. While I don’t agree with everything that Pondiscio writes, I think he makes a number of important and insightful points.

One of these is in this excerpt:

His focused, obsessively practical study of what makes teachers effective could—and should—shift the terms of our increasingly vitriolic national debate from “teacher quality” to “quality teaching.” This is no mere semantic distinction. The difference is not who is in the front of the room. The difference is what that person does. Lemov’s achievement is to examine teaching at the molecular level. By doing so, he may have rescued education reform from its implicit dependence on classroom saints and superheroes. It is an indispensable shift. If teaching effectively is something for the best and the brightest, rather than the merely dedicated and diligent, education reform is finished, now and forever.

I’m not sure that teacher quality and teaching quality are quite that distinct from one another -- a smart, hardworking, teacher will be more likely to do something worthwhile in front of a class -- but, nonetheless, I think it’s an important distinction.

We could take this discussion any of a million different ways, but let’s try to focus on the issue of “quality teaching” that Pondiscio identifies. I think he’s correct that it would be easier to train every teacher to teach well than it would be to recruit millions of superstar individuals into the classroom (and keep them there), but that doesn’t make it an easy task. Lemov, Pondiscio and others argue that we need more practical lessons that focus on day-to-day details in our teacher training programs. I agree that my program would have been more helpful to me had it done that, though I can see the other side as well -- that if we only focus on classroom management techniques, our teachers will ultimately lack the vision they need to be truly transformational leaders.

What do others think? Is Pondiscio on to something here? Is “quality teaching” something that can be accomplished in the foreseeable future? Do we know how to accomplish this? If so, how?

CEP: I agree with Corey’s assessment that teacher quality and quality teaching are not that distinct from one another. In many ways, who a person is determines what that person does or is capable of doing. To say otherwise implies that anyone can teach and all that is required is an effective, scripted curriculum that is “teacher-proof.” The current trend in education towards stricter certification requirements for teachers, a shift towards the professionalization of teaching, indicates that teaching should require some discretionary activity, rather than the constraint of a teacher-proof curriculum.

That aside, quality teaching is something that can be accomplished. Modes of teacher education and professional development are the place to start. The field knows little about what actually goes on in teacher preparation programs, be they traditional or alternative, much less how the discrete elements of preparation programs may lead to effective teaching. Conversely, we do know something about what makes professional development effective: content focus, active learning, coherence, sufficient duration, and collective participation. In spite of a growing amount of evidence to support the effectiveness of professional development when these characteristics are present, the vast majority of professional development continues to be one-shot workshops, disconnected from teachers’ perceived needs. Understanding what goes on in teacher preparation programs, with the goal of restructuring them and improving professional development to focus on quality teaching could go a long way to improved teaching practices.

ClassroomView: I like Lemov’s ideas a lot, and I agree that good teaching is done minute by minute, rather than just created as a large symphony, if you will, by a magical teacher. I will say, though, that some people are clearly better suited to teaching than others. While great teachers are made, they have to be cut from the right cloth. I think it would do teacher education programs well to follow the lead of the Teaching Fellows by requiring incoming students to audition in, if you will, to programs. I’ve seen way too many teachers simply sign up for a degree in education with absolutely no performance element required, and as a result a lot of completely uninteresting people end up in front of children. I think this is a mistake, and that we should assess raw teaching ability before we start to apply the step by step guidelines that Lemov so convincingly suggests.

Corey: I think the causes of quality teaching are more complex than we’re willing to recognize. Yes, raw ability matters. Yes, training can influence teaching. And, yes, we have a lot more to learn about how to identify both. But I think the causes go well beyond identifying and training talent. My personal theory on the former is that there are a few people who will succeed in almost set of any circumstances, and a few that will fail, but that most will perform very differently in different environments. How they’re trained and mentored probably matters, but so does the curriculum that they’re (not) given, the administrator(s) who evaluate and manage them, the climate and context of the school in which they teach, and the subjects and students they’re assigned to teach.

What is taught (and how) in our classrooms is hugely important -- nobody disputes that. Recruiting, training, and retaining good teachers is part of that equation. But it’s not everything, and I’m not even sure it’s most of the puzzle.

CEP: Are you suggesting that yet unmentioned policy-driven solutions specific to education are part of the equation or are you thinking more along the lines of the need for better understandings of cognition/ how people learn, in order to better inform what drives good pedagogy? Or, are you driving at something outside the parameters of schooling, along the lines of social policy?

Corey: Unless I misunderstand you, I don’t think I’m suggesting any of those. What I’m suggesting is that the quality of teaching to which children are exposed relies on a large number of factors. We tend to focus on teaching ability defined in two different ways when we talk about teacher quality: the first is what I’ll call natural ability (smart, hard working, charismatic, etc.) and the second is what I’ll pedagogical ability (structuring lessons, passing out papers, managing a class and many of the other things Lemov talks about). I’m suggesting that the context of the school and the class in which a teacher teaches also greatly influence the quality of the teaching to which students are exposed. Curriculum is certainly a large part of this, but even beyond that I think the effectiveness of individual teachers will vary widely depending on the particular subjects and children they’re asked to teach, the climate of the school, the support (or lack thereof) from administrators, and any number of other factors. In other words, I’d suggest that the quality of teaching students experience may have as much to do with the context of the school and classroom as it does any particular aspects of the teacher in the front of the classroom.

If I’m right, the policy ramifications would be that we should be hiring administrators who can facilitate teacher development, help create a positive school climate, assign teachers to their areas of strength, and generally design schedules and implement policies that will help teachers succeed.


Attorney DC said...

Corey makes a very good point: "My personal theory on the former is that there are a few people who will succeed in almost set of any circumstances, and a few that will fail, but that most will perform very differently in different environments."

In my experience as a former teacher, my ability to teach well depended to a great extent on the context. At one school, I was assigned a full day of honors history classes. There, my lesson plans went smoothly and the students eagerly participated in the class. At another school, I was assigned (at the last minute) three different subjects (none of which I had taught previously), and my class contained difficult students (those with probation officers, significant behavior disorders, etc.). There, my "teaching quality" was much lower, and, to be honest, I struggled to simply make it through the day.

The context in which each teachers teaches matters greatly.

Attorney DC said...

Sorry, the last sentence should have read, "The context in which each teacher teaches matters greatly."

Parry Graham said...

"[W]e should be hiring administrators who can facilitate teacher development, help create a positive school climate, assign teachers to their areas of strength, and generally design schedules and implement policies that will help teachers succeed."

Couldn't agree more. As a working principal, I can tell you those are incredibly complex skill sets to find (not that we shouldn't be looking for them and developing future administrators to have them).


Roger Sweeny said...

"[W]e should be hiring administrators who ... assign teachers to their areas of strength ...

In some schools (and to some administrators), this would be considered unfair. Many feel that "no teacher should get all good classes," "no teacher should get all bad classes," "every teacher should have experience with all kinds of students," etc.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that no principal can say, "You do really well with hard to reach kids. I'd like to give you all the CP-2 classes. I know that's harder than your present schedule so it would come with a $10,000 salary increase."