Train to be great: Can teachers do it?

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice isn’t enough, says Anders Ericsson, known for the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert. In his new book, Peak, Ericsson explains how to practice to be awesome, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in a rave review.

The key to achieving awesomeness is “deliberate” practice, writes Willingham, summarizing the book. Three points stand out for me:

  • It’s for skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques exist.
  • You typically work on one small aspect of the skill when you practice.
  • It requires meaningful feedback, and meaningful response to the feedback.

For example, to create better doctors, “the medical field needs to identify experts in each field, figure out what underlies their superior performance, and develop the logical steps to build those mental representations in novices.”

What about teachers? Peering Around the Corner, a Bellwether Education Partners research paper, argues that teacher trainers
don’t know how to make great teachers — or even competent ones.

Teach Like a Champion shows expert teachers' strategies for getting student's attention.

Teach Like a Champion shows expert teachers’ strategies for getting student’s attention.

Every year, nearly 27,000 teacher preparation programs turn out 200,000 would-be teachers, Bellwether notes. Yet there’s no evidence that preparation requirements — licensure tests, grade or SAT minimums, student teaching hours and performance assessments — guarantee effective teachers.

It’s also not clear how to help experienced teachers develop their skills, the report found. “At every stage of a teacher’s career we simply don’t know how to help her improve.”

Doug Lemov focuses on improving teaching practice in Teach Like a Champion. Is this the way to greatness?

Stop hazing new teachers

It’s time to stop hazing new teachers, writes Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News. Without training in classroom management, new teachers are set up to flounder and fail.

In The Battle for Room 314, Ed Boland refutes the “hero teacher” narrative, writes Pondiscio. Boland didn’t save his tough, inner-city students. He struggled for a year at a New York City high school, then quit.

Pondiscio recalls being a new fifth-grade teacher at a low-performing public school in the South Bronx. He was saved by a mid-year transfer to take over an experienced teacher’s class and by reading Ron Clark’s book, The Essential 55, which listed “classroom rules . . . to teach his students to be attentive, engaged and respectful.”

Taking over a new class gave me a fresh start in my first year and an opportunity to undo my rookie mistakes; Clark’s 55 rules helped me develop a hard-nosed action plan to address my prodigious classroom management struggles. It’s worth noting that Clark’s book was a direct repudiation of the training I’d received, which encouraged us to allow students to create their own classroom rules so they would feel “ownership” of their “classroom community.” The only thing that got owned was me.

Boland followed the traditional teacher prep route with two years of graduate school and six months of student teaching. “I had taken courses in lesson planning, evaluation, psychology, and research,” he writes. “Next to nothing was said about what a first-year teacher most needs to know: how to control a classroom.”

“We treat the first-year teaching like it is some sorority or fraternity hazing,” notes Kate Walsh, the head of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “Educators expect a new teacher to be sick to her stomach every day at the thought of how she is going to survive the day just because that’s what they once did. It’s appalling!”

Often, schools “are filled good people trying their best and failing,” writes Pondiscio. Boland was “failed by those who trained him, hired him and left him to crash and burn.”

Crazy about math

THUMBNAIL_IMAGE“Hell hath no fury like a mathematician whose child has been scorned by an education system that refuses to know better,” writes Barry Garelick in Math Education in the U.S.: Still Crazy After All These Years.

After a career in environmental protection, Garelick earned a teaching credential and began teaching and writing. He criticizes “the well-intentioned but highly injurious nonsense that passes for math education.”

“I often feel that I am explaining in detail why jumping out of an airplane without a parachute will result in death,” he writes.

The way up

51ek6vWlGBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Education for Upward Mobility, edited by Fordham’s Michael J. Petrilli, asks how schools can help children born in poverty to “transcend their disadvantages and enter the middle class as adults.”

I wrote the chapter on high schools — a dual-enrollment public school, a charter and a private school — that work to prepare lower-income, minority students for college.

Other chapters question the “college for all” movement, look at “non-cognitive skills” and analyze the role of early childhood education, poverty-fighting elementary schools and middle-school tracking.

‘Mockingbird’ will cost more — and be read less

imagesTo Kill a Mockingbird is taught in 74 percent of U.S. schools, according to a 1988 survey by the National Council of Teachers of English. That number may decline, reports the New Republic. Harper Lee’s estate will no longer allow publication of the low-cost, mass-market paperback edition. Schools will have to pay more to buy a “trade” paperback.

“The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is both so accessible to young readers and so widely taught in America is crucial to its cultural importance,” writes Alex Shephard. Next to Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Huckleberry Finn, it’s probably the most assigned novel in America’s middle- and high schools.

Lee’s legacy appears to have fallen into the hands of stupid, greedy people.


Good textbooks raise achievement

Image result for shelf of textbooks

Good textbooks can boost student achievement significantly, especially in math, concludes new research by Thomas Kane at Brookings.

. . . if all schools could be persuaded to switch to one of the top quartile (math) textbooks, student achievement would rise overall by roughly .127 student-level standard deviations or an average of 3.6 percentile points. Although it might sound small, such a boost in the average teacher’s effectiveness would be larger than the improvement the typical teacher experiences in their first three years on the job, as they are just learning to teach.

Identifying “more effective curriculum materials can yield outsized bang-for-the-buck, because schools are already buying textbooks and better textbooks do not cost more on average than less effective ones,” notes Kane.

“Textbooks have no unions and it’s easy to replace one textbook with a better textbook,” adds Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution.

Educators are turning to free, open-source texts — with backing from the U.S. Education Department, writes Hechinger’s Nichole Dobo.

At an event tagged as the #GoOpen Exchange, the department praised pioneering educators who were working to upend the traditional model of textbooks and materials. To assist with that work, the Department of Education has recruited a full roster of supporters, both public and private, including Amazon Education, Microsoft and Edmoto.

The Department unveiled a website, the Learning Registry, to help teachers find free textbooks and materials.

However, identifying which non-traditional materials help students learn is a huge, time-consuming job for teachers.

I’ll add that my husband is updating his computer engineering textbook. It takes many hours of work to do it well. He hopes to be paid for his labors. I don’t see how we’re going to get high-quality learning materials without compensating the writer/developers.

Beyond the hero teacher

Inspired by “movies like Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver, in which heroic teachers reach into the lives of at-risk adolescents and make a difference,” Ed Boland left a well-paid job to teach disadvantaged students at a New York City school. He lasted a year. The hero teacher is a myth concludes the New York Times review of Boland’s book, The Battle for Room 314.

Math teacher Jaime Escalante

Math teacher Jaime Escalante

The Times is right about the folly of expecting a single teacher to defeat poverty, writes Stephen Chiger, director of literacy for Uncommon Schools,  on The 74 Million. But it’s wrong to give up on educating poor kids, he writes.

Educators are working together to build effective schools for children in poverty, he writes. It takes “better training and support for teachers” and “a character-building discipline system” and “a curriculum that challenges students to think at the highest levels” and “regular follow-up with students even when they are in college” and more.

School improvement doesn’t need to wait for the country to heal poverty, writes Chiger.

Take the most recent PARCC exams in New Jersey. About 41% of the state’s 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on the test.

In Essex County, high-income Millburn High School (2.2% economically disadvantaged) saw 57% of students scoring proficient or advanced on the assessment. The juniors at Livingston High School (1.5 % economically disadvantaged) earned 56.5%.

A few miles away, the juniors at Newark-based North Star Academy (83.7% economically disadvantaged) earned an 80.6% pass rate.

How do they do it? “Uncommon Schools, which manages North Star, publishes books — and books and books – to share its practices and opens its doors to hundreds of visitors,” writes Chiger.

Even Jaime Escalante, the hero of Stand and Deliver, wasn’t a lone wolf. Escalante credits his principal with supporting his plan to improve math instruction — it took years — so that students could tackle AP Calculus.

Instead of ‘beach books’

Hundreds of colleges and universities ask their first-year students to read a book over the summer, so they can discuss it with their new classmates during orientation.

In Beach Books 2014-2016: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? , the National Association of Scholars complains that the “common reading genre is parochial, contemporary, commercial, optimistic, juvenile, obsessed with suffering, and progressive.”

Most assignments were contemporary memoirs and popular nonfiction that affirmed progressive sentiments about illegal immigration, racial identity, global warming, unjust incarcerations, gay, lesbian, and transgender life, exaggerated fears of terrorism, anti-corporate paranoia, affirmative action, recycling, sexism, or wealth inequality.

. . . Almost no colleges assigned classic fiction or nonfiction, good modern literature, or history.

Easy-to-read books are favored.

In Beach Books, NAS recommends 80 books appropriate for common reading and suggests ways to select “better, more challenging, and more intellectually diverse books.”

It includes Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (tedious and weird), Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop (it didn’t come soon enough for me) and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (acutely depressing). But there are inspired choices: Flatland, Lucky Jim, Voyage of the Beagle, Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, The Double Helix, Darkness at Noon and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.

When books ‘smell like old people’

In a digital age, turning teenagers on to reading literature is harder than ever, writes David Denby in Lit Up. The book chronicles his year observing 10th-grade English classes at a New York City magnet school, Beacon.

Sean Leon, who gets to select his own reading list, teaches Brave New World and 1984 to students who know little about totalitarianism. He includes Siddhartha, Sartre’s No Exit and Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir, but no Shakespeare.

These are some of the books that change teenagers' lives, writes David Denby.

These are some of the books that change teenagers’ lives, writes David Denby.

A colleague at Beacon teaches the venerable Scarlet Letter by having students act out scenes. They spend a month on the novel.

Denby also made regular visits to a high-achieving school in the affluent suburbs where test scores are high, but few students enjoy reading. Teachers try to sell students on entry-level books, supervise their independent reading and encourage them to move up to more challenging literature.

He also visited a low-performing, all-minority school in New Haven, Hillhouse, where a boy said, “Books smell like old people.”

A Long Way Gone, the memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

The memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

Many of the students “lacked necessary information — facts, for want of a better word,” Denby writes. “When wars took place, how American politics worked, who were the country’s great men and women, how a bank did its business, what, exactly, they had to do to get into the professions or get any kind of good job — general information about how the world worked.”

The English teacher, who gets students for 80 minutes a day, five days a week, struggles to get them to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespearean sonnets but finds they’re turned on by a Hemingway story about a man who loses his nerve, his wife and his life while big-game hunting.

“Fifteen-year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents,” Denby concludes.

In a discussion with On Point on how to get teens to read, he talks about books that engage young readers and potentially “change lives.” He includes Waiting for Godot and No Exit.  I read both when I was a teenager — not for school — because I read everything. I don’t think these are the books to turn non-readers into literature lovers.

Don’t blame Common Core for lousy textbooks

Textbook publishers are using Common Core standards to sell second-rate books, charges a Project Veritas video. It features quotes from a Houghton Mifflin employee (now fired), who says, “You don’t think that educational publishing companies are in it for the kids, do you? No, it’s all about the money.”

Publishers have been selling lousy textbooks — at a profit — long before the Common Core era, writes Kevin Mahnken on a Fordham blog.

Common Core, which was adopted in most states, kicked off a one-time shopping spree, he writes.

Dubiously “Common Core-aligned” materials started materializing in 2010—right as the standards were first being implemented, with nowhere near enough time for the publishers to have adequately fitted them to new classroom curricula. And pretty soon, we heard reports of texts that just recycled the old, rigor-free dross in new packaging, paid for by hundreds of millions of dollars in public contractsSome ugly scams followed, which were occasionally settled in the courts.

However, districts don’t need to buy from the big publishers, Mahnken writes. New curriculum providers such as “Core Knowledge, Great Minds, and Expeditionary Learning have developed legitimately standards-based materials for states at a steep discount.” Some units are open-sourced.

There are new rating tools from third parties such as EdReports. “It’s now easier than ever to search textbooks, compare them against one another, and select the one that teaches the standards best.”

Dianne Barrow, also quoted saying she “hates kids,” told the Washington Post her quotes had been heavily edited and taken out of context. She believes that Common Core will improve education by creating consistent academic expectations. And the bit about hating kids was a joke.