More student teaching isn’t better

Requiring a full year of student teaching is a popular — and bad — idea, writes Kate Walsh in Teacher Quality Bulletin.  

Student teachers learn in the classrooms of high-quality teachers who are skilled mentors and willing to take on the responsibility, she writes. There aren’t enough qualified, willing teachers now to cover a semester’s worth of student teaching.  As a result, “many student teachers don’t get the high quality experience they need.  Double the length and the quality deficit is irremediable.”

Student teachers should learn and practice good instructional strategies before they’re placed in front of children, argues Walsh. “Some teacher prep programs, both traditional and non-traditional, are ramping up just such practice opportunities using video, virtual classrooms, role playing or simulations.”

Training mirage: Most teachers don’t improve

Despite heavy spending on professional development, most district teachers don’t improve their skills after the first few years, according to The Mirage. The TNTP study analyzed three large public school districts and a mid-sized charter school network.

The three districts spend an average of $18,000 per teacher each year on development efforts, which take take nearly 10 percent of the school year. Yet “only three out of 10 teachers in the districts we studied improved substantially over several years, even though many have not yet mastered critical instructional skills.” Five stayed the same and two declined in effectiveness.

Teachers improved in 95 percent of schools studied, but no approach to training or amount of training appeared to more effective.

The vast majority of district teachers “received high marks on their evaluations” and less than half of teachers surveyed thought their teaching skills needed improvement.

“Even the few teachers who did earn low ratings seemed to reject them,” the report found. “More than 60 percent of low-rated teachers still gave themselves high performance ratings.” Among teachers whose observation scores declined “substantially” over the previous two years, 80 percent said their teaching had improved.

By contrast, 70 percent of the charter network’s teachers improved significantly, showing more growth than district teachers at every experience level. Their students also improved more than students in neighboring schools.

Charter teachers were much more critical of their own skills: Only 4 percent gave their teaching a 5 on a 1-5 scale, compared to 30 percent of district teachers. Eighty-one percent of charter teachers said their teaching skills had weaknesses; only 47 percent of district teachers acknowledged room for improvement.

The charter network spent $33,000 per teacher for “a tight loop of observation, feedback, and implementation,” notes Alyssa Schwenk on Gadfly.

Two factors — “openness to feedback” and “ratings alignment” — were linked to improved teaching, writes Catherine Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress in U.S. News.

In other words, teachers who were open to hearing ways to get better got better. “Ratings alignment,” which means teachers rated themselves the same as their evaluators, embodies a similar concept: These teachers were clear-eyed about the deficiencies and bright spots in their own practice.

. . . By establishing early on that teachers are going to get a lot of feedback and having master teachers with dedicated time in their schedules to helping other teachers improve, the high-performing charter network in The Mirage was able to create a culture where it’s OK to say you have room for improvement.

Some charters screen for openness to feedback when interviewing new teachers, Brown writes. Candidates teach a lesson, receive feedback and then teach again to show whether they can use the feedback to improve. (I believe New Teachers for New Schools, now known as New Leaders, developed this model. It’s used in two high-performing San Jose charters I visited in the spring.)

The Madison Metropolitan School District also selects candidates based on their ability to “reflect on strengths and growth areas regularly, and seek support, feedback, and mentors to improve,” writes Brown.

She suggests spending more on recruiting and selecting feedback-friendly achievers would make later training more effective.

Videos improve teacher observation

Classroom observations can be stressful to teachers and burdensome to supervisors. Teachers often think they’ve been caught in their worst teaching moments, not their best.

The Best Foot Forward project at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research analyzed the use of digital video to let teachers record lessons and choose their best to submit for their classroom observations

Observers provided time-stamped feedback aligned to specific moments in the videos.  That facilitated discussions with the teacher on his or her teaching.

Compared to a control group, the digital videos “boosted teachers’ perception of fairness of classroom observations, reduced teacher defensiveness during post-observation conferences, led to greater self- perception of the need for behavior change and allowed administrators to time-shift observation duties to quieter times of the day or week.”

Videotaping and teacher evaluation don’t mix, writes Anthony Cody. Teachers don’t trust promises they’ll control who sees the tapes.

MOOCs, which work best for educated people, could help teachers learn new skills, writes Derek Newton in The Atlantic.

A MOOC approach to professional development—having teachers watch and learn from other successful educators who are actually teaching—could help move these offerings past the status quo.

. . . “Being able to actually see teaching practices modeled—as opposed to just being lectured to on the concepts—is a game changer in professional development,” said Alvin Crawford, the CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems(KDS), which provides interactive professional-development programming for teachers.

It should be much easier to watch good teachers teaching — perhaps to watch three good teachers try different approaches to the same subject.

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?