A first-rate teacher for every classroom

To “get a first-rate teacher in front of every student,” schools need to retain teachers long enough to build expertise, writes Marc Tucker on his Top Performers blog.

Attrition is higher in the U.S. than in top-performing countries, writes Tucker. Teachers who quit “typically complain that they were not well prepared for the realities of teaching and had little help from anyone else once they started teaching.”

“Most teachers have a steep learning curve during their first three years in teaching, but that curve typically flattens out after three years,” Tucker writes. Novices are motivated to learn how to do the job to survive — but, after that, “all teachers have pretty much the same job, at the same pay, with the same status, for the rest of their working lives.”

A new, very large international study by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond looks at how schools support high-quality teachers and teaching in Australia, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada, he writes.

These high-performing countries work hard to hire the best possible teachers, then focus on building their expertise and providing “a meaningful career progression that reinforces and rewards” expertise, Tucker writes.

In these countries, novice teachers are less likely to quit and teacher effectiveness doesn’t plateau after three years. They keep getting better.

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?

Missed lessons of Monsters U

A prequel to the popular Monsters Inc., Pixar/Disney’s new Monsters University is a Revenge of the Nerds ripoff featuring young Mike and Scully learning to be “scarers.” Pixar’s team “missed the chance to say something more interesting,” writes Rick Hess.

The Incredibles famously tugged on our fascination with insisting that everyone is special. In that flick, when Dash is told by his mom that “everyone is special,” he dejectedly mumbles, “then no one is,” while Mr. Incredible laments that a fourth-grade “graduation” is just a case of rewarding the mediocre and the mundane. In Monsters University . . .  it’s not clear that either aptitude or hard work has much relationship to how the cast fares at good ol’ MU.

The movie “seems to make a case that knowledge and learned expertise are fairly pointless,” writes Hess. “At a pivotal moment, Sully tries to teach Mike that all his book-learning is irrelevant to really excelling at his craft.”

Helen Mirren voices the no-nonsense Dean Hardscrabble, and Alfred Molina the “scaring” professor. With that kind of talent, you’d seem to have a terrific opportunity for the screenwriters to have some fun looking at the teaching relationship. After all, Pixar writers have dabbled in this kind of thing (in Cars or with Willem DaFoe’s wise old hand in Finding Nemo), but they’ve never really had much cause to depict what it looks like for a teacher to inspire, mentor, and instruct. I’d have loved to see them play with a teacher helping an entitled, gifted student cultivate responsibility and discipline — or a bookish, insecure student develop a sense of teamwork and self-efficacy. While Mike and Sully do mature in the movie, it happens with the faculty operating pretty much as bystanders or foils.

I like the Monsters University web site. The admissions page calls MU “a place for self-discovery, curiosity, and scholarship,” but warns only a fraction of applicants are admitted.  In addition to scaring, MU offers “academically rigorous” programs in scream energy, door technology and business, as well as “holistic training for the mind, body, and spirit.”

The message from the dean stresses MU’s diversity, which does indeed seem to be a strength.

Too much knowledge?

There is nothing like knowing it all to kill the imagination,” write Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, authors of Imagination First, on the Education Nation web site:

“When we become expert, or think we have, we get the benefits of intellectual shortcuts and far greater processing efficiency-but we suffer the cost of closed-mindedness. Having seen it all, we stop looking. Having been there, we stop going. Having done that, we stop doing.”

“Seriously?” asks Robert Pondiscio in Idiot’s Delight on Core Knowledge Blog.

As an alternative to mind-numbing knowledge, Liu and Noppe-Brandon praise GeoDome, an “experience of pure wonder.”

Using Google Earth, real-time NASA data, state-of-the-art animation designed by a Pixar veteran, a single laptop, a projector, and an Xbox joystick, McConville takes the guests on a journey to . . .  anywhere they want in the known universe.

“We did not dream our way to Google Earth, NASA, Pixar or the Xbox,” Pondiscio points out.

A deep knowledge base, years of training and expertise enable us to create the things that inspire awe in others. And I can’t help but wonder if physicists, engineers, and scientists of every stripe would be surprised to learn that their hard-earned expertise has resulted in “closed-mindedness.”

My husband knows a great deal about electrical engineering, a field in which he earned a PhD. Knowing a lot has enabled him to come up with new ideas, for which he holds several dozen patents. Ignorance is not the mother, father or brother-in-law of invention.

If I were to make a list of the problems afflicting American education, excess knowledge would be very low on the list.