Teaching can be taught

Teaching can be taught, argues Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion. It’s not an innate gift. It’s a craft.

In a training session for inner-city London teachers, Lemov showed a video several times to analyze the strategies used by Ashley Hinton, a Newark elementary teacher, writes Ian Leslie in The Guardian.

. . .  (Lemov) sees Hinton placing herself at the vantage points from which she can best scan the faces of her pupils (“hotspots”). He sees that after she first asks a question, hands that spring up immediately go back down again, in response to an almost imperceptible gesture from Hinton, to give the other children more time to think (“wait time”). He sees her repeat the question so that this pause in the conversation doesn’t slow its rhythm.

He sees Hinton constantly changing the angle of her gaze to check that every pupil is paying attention to whoever in the room is speaking, and silencing anyone who is not doing so with a subtle wave of her hand.

He sees her use similar gestures to gently but effectively recall errant students into line without interrupting her own flow or that of the student speaking at the time (“non-verbal corrections”).

He sees Hinton venture away from the hotspots to move down the sides of the class, letting her students know, with her movement, that there is always a chance she will be beside their desk in the next few seconds.

He sees that in one particular instance she moves toward a particular student while making it look to the rest of the class as if she is simply changing her perspective, so that she can correct his behaviour without embarrassing him – and he sees that she does so with the grace of an elite tennis player delivering a disguised drop shot.

Hinton smiles warmly and varies “the volume of her voice to convey enthusiasm for her topic,” Lemov points out. Her students “are utterly captivated, eager to pitch in with their own thoughts, avid for learning.”

She’s not leaping on desks like Robin Williams in Great Poets Society. Good teachers practice their craft, says Lemov.

“The myth of the magical teacher subtly undermines the status of teaching, by obscuring the extraordinary skill required to perform the job to a high level,” concludes Leslie. “It also implies that great teaching cannot be taught.”

Lemov links to more teaching videos on his Teach Like a Champion blog.

TFA novices do as well as trained veterans

With only a few weeks of training, Teach for America teachers are as effective with elementary students as traditionally trained, far more experienced teachers at the same high-poverty schools, concludes a new Mathematica study.

In pre-K through second grade, TFA teachers’ students gained an extra 1.3 months of reading, the study found.

The TFA teachers averaged 1.7 years of experience compared to 13.6 years for the other teachers studied. TFA recruits most of its corp members from selective universities.


Mathematica Policy Research.

Earlier research “suggests that TFA teachers have been more effective than their non-TFA counterparts in math and about the same in reading,” Mathematica noted.

Eighty-seven percent of TFA teachers — and 26 percent of conventionally trained teachers — don’t plan to make teaching a lifetime career, the study found. (Bloomberg calls that a “plan to fee teaching.”) However, 43 percent of TFA teachers who said they’ll leave the classroom plan education careers.

So, teaching reading is important?

Fourteen states require would-be elementary teachers to “demonstrate knowledge of the science of reading instruction on a stand-alone assessment” before getting a license to teach, according to Trends in Teacher Certification from Education Commission of the States.

That means 36 states license elementary school teachers without making them prove they can teach kids to read, writes Robert Pondiscio. Or, if they’re assessed on reading, it’s mixed in with other subjects.

Apparently, making sure elementary teachers can teach reading is a trend.

“Rather than relying entirely on interventions for struggling readers, some states have begun to emphasize the need for all elementary school teachers to possess the necessary skills to effectively teach reading,” the report notes (wait, they’ve just begun doing this?). Access to highly qualified teachers “provides students with the equivalent of a constant specialist” (you mean a teacher?) thereby “ensuring that struggling readers are identified and supported as quickly as possible” (but…but…hasn’t that always been, like, the most important part of the job!?).

Perhaps the kids are supposed to teach themselves to read.

What’s wrong with U.S. teaching

Why Is American Teaching So Bad? asks education historian Jonathan Zimmerman in The New York Review of Books. Zimmerman reviews Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars, Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher and Garret Keizer’s Getting Schooled.

Goldstein quotes Horace Mann’s praise for female teachers, whose low-cost labor had enabled Massachusetts to create a common school system.

 “How divinely does she come,” he declared, extolling the female teacher, “her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!”

For centuries, Americans have “lauded teachers’ moral virtue and deplored their lack of adequate knowledge and skills,” writes Zimmerman. Now, teachers are expected to ensure students do well on tests, not to mold their characters.

 Who becomes a teacher in America? . . . In the first half of the twentieth century, as Goldstein notes, bookish urban immigrants used the profession to catapult themselves into the middle class. During the Great Depression, especially, teaching attracted people of outstanding academic achievement—including some with Ph.D.s—who couldn’t get work elsewhere.

Since the 1960s, however, the proportion of top college students who have entered the field has steadily declined. Part of the reason lay in the feminist movement, which created new occupational opportunities for women outside of teaching.

Most teachers get a little theory in ed school, writes Green.  They’re expected to learn how to teach on the job, where they’ll work in isolation.

By contrast, many other advanced countries have institutionalized critical commentary by peers and also provide intellectual support to improve skills and learning as part of teachers’ professional practice. Japanese teachers . . .  have designated periods to observe each other’s classes, study curriculum, and otherwise hone their craft. But they also learn a great deal in their pre-service training, which is both more rigorous and more demanding concerning particular subject matter than anything American teacher-education students are likely to encounter.

In Finland, would-be teachers study the subject they’ll teach and then “spend a full year apprenticing in a school, receiving regular feedback from several mentors.” Finally, they research and write an original thesis on a scholarly trend or controversy within their fields.

Many U.S. educators think teachers don’t have to be smart, writes Zimmerman.

So Garret Keizer’s first supervisor worried that he might have too many grades of A on his college transcript to succeed as a high school teacher, and Elizabeth Green concludes her otherwise skeptical book with the much-heard platitude that teachers need to “love” their students.

Keizer is offended by comments like that, and he has every good reason to be. Do lawyers have to love their clients? Must doctors adore their patients? What American teachers need now is not love, but a capacity for deep and disciplined thinking that will reflect—and respect—the intellectual complexities of their job.

“The U.S. badly needs to design and develop an entirely different system of teacher education, stressing cognitive skills above all else,” Zimmerman concludes.

Why do teachers obsess about not being good enough?  asks Ellie Herman on Gatsby in LA.

It starts with “pathetically inadequate” teacher training, she writes. A “hodgepodge of useless state-mandated courses” didn’t prepare her to deal “with large classes of students who were several years below grade level, many of whom had difficulty controlling their behavior in class.”

Furthermore, “once you’re in the classroom, you’re pretty much on your own.”

NYC’s would-be teachers flunk literacy test

Teacher trainees have to pass a new literacy exam to teach in New York: One third failed statewide and a majority of would-be teachers failed the literacy test at New York City colleges, reports the New York Post.  

The Academic Literacy Skills exam “measures whether a prospective teacher can understand and analyze reading material and also write competently,” reports the Post.

At a half-dozen City University of New York campuses, half or more failed to make the grade.

CUNY pass rates ranged from 0 at Boricua College in the Bronx to 82 percent passed at Hunter College.

Students who failed can pay a fee to retake the test.

State Education Commissioner John King said New York said many teacher-prep programs need to improve or close. “It’s better to have fewer programs that better prepare teachers than having many schools that have teachers who are unprepared for the classroom,” said King, who’s leaving to be a senior advisor to U.S. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan.

Most states have not done enough to make sure new teachers will be ready for the higher standards students are expected to achieve, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s State Teacher Policy Yearbook.

Why edutourists go astray


A math class in Shanghai

Edutourists often go astray, writes Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times declared the “Shanghai secret” is teacher training and a work day that allows for professional development and peer interaction.

After touring schools in Japan, Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green endorsed lesson study and “pedagogical reforms from the 1980s and 1990s” to boost math learning.

High-scoring Finland is a prime edutourist destination, writes Loveless. “The Education Ministry of Finland hosted at least 100 delegations from 40 to 45 countries per year from 2005 to 2011.”

Singling out a top achieving country—or state or district or school or teacher or some other “subject”—and then generalizing from what this top performer does is known as selecting on the dependent variable.  The dependent variable, in this case, is achievement.  To look for patterns of behavior that may explain achievement, a careful analyst examines subjects across the distribution—middling and poor performers as well as those at the top.  That way, if a particular activity—let’s call one “Teaching Strategy X”—is found a lot at the top, not as much in the middle, and rarely or not at all at the bottom, the analyst can say that Teaching Strategy X is positively correlated with performance.  That doesn’t mean it causes high achievement—even high school statistics students are taught “correlation is not causation”—only that the two variables go up and down together.

Edutourists routinely go to top-scoring countries, but rarely check whether their favored strategy is used in middle- and low-scoring nations, writes Loveless.

In addition, edutourists visit a selected sample of the best schools, he writes.  Confirmation bias makes it likely they’ll see what they expect to see.

What’s the best way to teach teachers?

Move education faculty to urban schools

Teacher-training programs should move to the schools, writes Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University, on the Hechinger Report.

Teachers in training need more time to practice their craft in the settings they’ll work in, he writes. Education faculty at urban universities should “move their offices from the ivory tower into urban schools.”

Don’t blame teachers for math failure

Americans stink at math because U.S. teachers aren’t trained to teach for understanding, argues Elizabeth Green in the New York Times.  Teaching “mind-numbing” routines bores students and sets them up for failure, she writes.

Problem solving is stressed in Japanese math classes.

Problem solving is stressed in Japanese classes.

By contrast, Japanese teachers embraced the “vibrant” 1980s math reforms that failed here. Their students “uncover math’s procedures, properties and proofs for themselves,” enjoy math and excel on international tests.

Wrong, responds Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard.

Most Japanese parents send their children to private, after-school jukus, cram schools that focus “on basic skills, drill and practice, and memorization,” writes Loveless.

. . . perhaps because of jukus, Japanese teachers can take their students’ fluency with mathematical procedures for granted and focus lessons on problem solving and conceptual understanding.  American teachers, on the other hand, must teach procedural fluency or it is not taught at all.

On international surveys, U.S. students are more likely than Japanese kids to say they enjoy math class, Loveless points out.

Japan’s math achievement has declined since 1995, he writes. They do well, but not as well as in the pre-reform era, when it was all “rote learning,” according to Green.

The U.S. education establishment went all out for math reform in the 1990s, Loveless writes. Ed school professors backed it. “The National Science Foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars training teachers.” The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) rewrote its math framework and redesigned its test.

Math reform in the U.S. is typically the offspring of government power wedded to education school romanticism. . . math reform movements have repeatedly failed not because of stubborn teachers who cling to tired, old practices but because the reforms have been—there are no other words for it—just bad ideas.

Green also is wrong to imply that Common Core standards require her preferred method of teaching, Loveless writes. “These standards establish what students need to learn, but do not dictate how teachers should teach,” proclaims the Common Core web site.

Barry Garelick shows how to teach the new standards using traditional math instruction. He’s got examples from a book published in 1955:

Superwoman doesn’t teach here

In Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, Elizabeth Green argues that Japanese teachers are teaching math for understanding, while U.S. teachers haven’t been able to make reform math work.

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.

“This observation, that poor teacher preparation turns everything to garbage, strikes me as the skeleton key that unlocks so much of our failure to make and sustain gains in American education,” writes Robert Pondiscio.

Want to play a drinking game? Every time someone blames sloppy implementation for their pet reform’s poor results, take a drink. You may never be sober again. Drink every time someone says the answer is “more professional development,” and you might die of alcohol poisoning.

This needs to stop. Your preferred pedagogy, curriculum, approach, or technology has to be within the skills of ordinary teachers to implement well and effectively. If it takes a superstar teacher it’s a nonstarter.

Green’s upcoming book, Building a Better Teacher, argues that good teaching can be taught.

Pondiscio has high hopes for the book, because of Green’s “clear-eyed” New York Times Magazine profile of Uncommon Schools’ Doug Lemov. The story launched him as a teaching guru.

Lemov changed the conversation from “teacher quality” to “quality teaching,” Pondiscio wrote in a review of his book, Teach Like a Champion.

“The difference is not who the teacher is, but what the teacher does,” he writes. “And what the teacher does has to be learned, practiced, and mastered by the teachers we have, not the teachers we wished we had.”

We “lionize” teaching super stars, who never will exist in sufficient numbers, Pondiscio concludes. “Teaching has to be a job for millions of well-trained men and women of good will and general sentience.”

“You don’t need to be a genius,” Green told New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. “You have to know how to manage a discussion. You have to know which problems are the ones most likely to get the lessons across. You have to understand how students make mistakes — how they think — so you can respond to that.”