Who’ll be a good teacher? We can’t tell

Everyone wants to “raise the bar” for new teachers, writes Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman. But we don’t know who’ll be a great (or good) teacher.

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Looking at teacher prep programs or candidates’ personal characteristics doesn’t help, the No Guarantees report found. Post-training tests don’t show where to set the bar either.

“Teachers who perform better on the Praxis math are, on average, better math teachers,” Aldeman writes. “But the differences are tiny, and there is wide variation at nearly every score.”

Unlike the multiple-choice Praxis, the edTPA “combines video of teacher candidates delivering actual lessons, teacher lesson plans, student work, and candidate reflections,” he writes. It takes many hours.

Prospective teachers who score well on the edTPA tend to out-perform teachers who score poorly. A district hiring two otherwise identical teachers would want to go with the teacher with the higher edTPA score.

But as a policy tool, the edTPA is not much better than Praxis.

It’s not clear “where a state would want to set a cut score,” Aldeman writes.

Without reliable screening tools, states should eliminate “unhelpful barriers” to entering the teaching profession and “let districts take responsibility for training and evaluating their employees,” he concludes.

No rubric for rapture

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In Fortress of Tedium, novelist Nicholson Baker recalls his month as a substitute teacher. One day, he leafed through an 11th-grade English textbook with excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, Nature.

Emerson writes: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball.”

In the textbook, next to this passage, there was a brief assignment printed in the margin. It said: “Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369. Which aspect of transcendentalist thought is reflected in Lines 12-19? Explain your answer.”

Isn’t that just about the most paralyzingly unrapturous question you’ve encountered in any textbook? “Explain your answer.” No, thank you. I will not explain my answer. My answer is my answer. I am a transparent eyeball. I am a huge, receptive visual instrument with a flexible lens, and I’m taking in the infinitude of all space and time and dragonflies and owls and life and roadkill and hydrogen gas. I am nothing and everything. I am bathed in air. I’m a carefree, happy huge shining slimy eyeball of weird wonderment. I can swivel in any direction. Any direction I look, I will find something interesting.

As a sub, he passed out a lot of work sheets. The high school work sheets were the worst. “In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-­provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-­O-­Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back.”

Baker’s book on his experience, Substitute, is just out.

Teachers study how to teach fractions


Teachers observe lessons at New York City Math Lab. Photo: Elizabeth Green/Chalkbeat

How do you get students fired up about fractions? asks Elizabeth Green on Chalkbeat. She looks at a New York City’s program that teaches teachers how to “reinvent” math lessons.

The Math Lab stresses “learning math by talking and thinking about it,” writes Green. Students preparing for fifth grade agree to “add onto each other’s thinking” and “analyze and observe each other’s work.”

(Math Lab co-founder Kim) Van Duzer led an activity called “convincing a skeptic,” where students were asked to fold pieces of green paper into squares one quarter the size of the original and then convince their partner that the new shape was, in fact, one-fourth of the original.

Some students struggled to articulate why the squares they folded where one fourth of the whole piece of paper. “Sometimes my partner asked questions I didn’t understand,” one student admitted. But encouraging students to challenge each other’s ideas paid off later that morning.

After introducing the idea of representing fractions on a number line, co-founder Peter Cipparone asked students whether eight-sixths is greater than one.

One student declared that eight-sixths is less than one, only to be told by someone sitting nearby that he had the numerator and denominator confused. The ensuing debate ended when the first student admitted his mistake and leapt at the chance to offer a correct answer in his own words.

Many of the teacher observers said they’d never been able to “watch another educator teach consecutive lessons,” reports Green.

Is this really revolutionary?

Better teaching closes racial discipline gap

Better teaching can improve student behavior and close the racial discipline gap, suggests a new study published in School Psychology Review.  Virginia middle and high school teachers who received coaching in improving instruction referred fewer students for discipline: Blacks were no more likely to be referred than other students.

The “teacher coaching did not explicitly focus on equity or implicit bias, or draw teachers’ attention to their interactions with black students,”  reports Madeline Will in Education Week Teacher. “It was focused on skills in effectively interacting with any student.”

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When teachers have high expectations and facilitate “higher level thinking skills, problem solving, and metacognition,” students are more engaged and better behaved, researchers concluded.

“The findings held when accounting for risk factors including students’ achievement levels, gender, economic status, and teacher characteristics like race and experience,” writes Will.

Teachers in the control group, who received no mentoring or feedback, referred black students for discipline more than twice as much as whites.

After the two-year program ended, the teachers who’d received coaching continued to show no evidence of a racial discipline gap.

Unfortunately, the study didn’t analyze the achievement gap, but it’s a good guess that more engaged, better-behaved students also learn more.

How to teach quiet kids


Credit: Dave Van Patten/NPR

At New York City’s Quiet Summer Institute, teacher are learning how to help “quiet kids” thrive, writes Elissa Nadworny on NPR.

The workshop is based on Susan Cain’s best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and her latest book written for middle-schoolers.

Classroom participation doesn’t have to mean talking, says trainer Heidi Kasevich.

Why not try drawing, writing or working in pairs?

Or, Kasevich suggests, have students walk around the room, writing ideas on tacked-up pieces of paper. They can respond to each other’s ideas — like a sort of silent dialogue.

Erica Corbin, who works at a private girls’ school in Manhattan, suggested quieting students who dominate the discussion. “W-A-I-T,” she says, also stands for: “Why Am I Talking?”

I was a talker — but I usually had something worth saying. If I was quiet, that meant I was reading to myself.

Why are these kids doing so well?

Octavio Gutierrez previews lessons for students learning English. Photo: Emmanuel Felton

The kids are doing alright on Common Core tests in a small Los Angeles-area district, reports Hechinger’s Emmanuel Felton. In Wiseburn Unified, low-income blacks, Latinos and English Learners significantly outperform similar students elsewhere.

In fact, the district’s 55 percent of the district’s low-income black students passed the English exam, 11 points above the state average for all students.

Statewide, only 13 percent of low-income black students passed in math. In Wiseburn, 29 percent passed, the largest percentage of any district with significant black enrollment.

Superintendent Tom Johnstone said the district started teaching math differently in 2009, before the Core.

In the lower grades, teachers get on the floor with their students to work with brightly colored blocks and chips to assess their mathematical thinking and problem-solving strategies. In the middle and upper grades, students spend whole class periods on a handful of math problems, rather than racing through reams of equations.

An engineering curriculum called Project Lead The Way has students work together to build things. Johnstone says that program has been key to getting young students – particularly girls and minorities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – interested in math, science and the robotics team, which competes in world championships.

In English Language Arts, Wiseburn gives English learners what amounts to 27 extra days of instruction, with previews of what they’ll learn later in the week in English together with their native English-speaking peers.

Wiseburn is a predominantly Latino district with a high tax base from nearby aerospace companies. It’s a district of choice: 43 percent of students have transferred in from neighboring districts with struggling schools.

However, success isn’t just a matter of parental buy-in and funding, Johnstone told Felton. “Much of this was accomplished during the fiscal crisis, when we weren’t able to give out any salary increases for five years.”

Kids need ‘serve-and-return’ parents, teachers

Skills such as self-control, resilience and grit are products of a child’s home and school environment, writes Paul Tough in his new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.
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What’s most important is “the way the adults in their lives interact with them, especially in times of stress.”

That sums up nearly all we need to know about parenting and teaching, writes Annie Murphy Paul on Brilliant Blog.

Warm, “serve-and-return parenting,” which can be done in many ways, “conveys to [children] some deep, even transcendent messages about belonging, security, stability, and their place in the world.”

Effective teachers “convey to their students deep messages—often implicitly or even subliminally—about belonging, connection, ability, and opportunity . . . In the same way that responsive parenting in early childhood creates a kind of mental space where a child’s first tentative steps toward intellectual learning can take place, so do the right kind of messages from teachers in school create a mental space that allows a student to engage in more advanced and demanding academic learning.”

In addition, writes Paul, students must be exposed to deep, meaningful, sensibly sequenced knowledge.”

Let teachers focus on teaching

Nearly every teacher finds or develops her own teaching materials, according to a new RAND study. Elementary school teachers often turn to Google (94 percent), followed by Pinterest (87 percent). Nearly half of teachers spend more than four hours a week on this.

“Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the abilities of mere mortals,” writes Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio.

Do you want your child’s teacher to have the time to analyze student work and develop a keen eye for diagnosing mistakes and misunderstandings? Do you want her to give your child rich and meaningful feedback on assignments and homework? How about developing warm and productive relationships with your child and your family?

Teachers should focus on how to teach, rather than what to teach, Pondiscio argues. Give them high-quality instructional materials.

A 2012 Brookings study by Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos demonstrated that the “effect size” of choosing a better second-grade math curriculum was larger than replacing a fiftieth-percentile teacher with a seventy-fifth-percentile teacher. This is a powerful result, especially considering that it’s relatively easy to give all children a better curriculum but extremely difficult to dramatically increase the effectiveness of their teachers. It’s cost-neutral too: A Center for American Progress report by Ulrich Boser and Chingos showed virtually no difference in price between effective and ineffective curricula.

“We want our best teachers to play a significant role in instructional design so that more children and teachers can benefit from their expertise,” he concludes. However, “twelve-plus years of a well-designed and sequenced curriculum would lead to better outcomes for children than the occasional year with a great yet isolated teacher.”

TFA drops social justice training


Michael Darmas, a Teach for America corps member, “high fives” a student at Holmes Elementary School in Miami. Photo: AP

Teach for America‘s Education for Justice pilot, which trained would-be teachers in social justice and cultural competency, has been canceled, writes Stephen Sawchuk in Ed Week. College students took courses for a year to prepare to teach in low-income, minority communities.

TFA is cutting 150 positions, including its national diversity office, notes Sawchuk. “Still, this is somewhat surprising news. After all, the pilot was one that TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard announced in 2014 to great fanfare.”

After nearly a year of E4J, Kailee Lewis, a future TFA corps member, believes telling teachers they’ll show low-income students “what’s possible when they work hard and dream big” is a false and dangerous lie.

This idea that ‘hard work’ can create something out of nothing neglects the fact that often in low-income communities there are multiple forms of oppression stacked against a child even before birth.

Education 4 Justice was teaching future teachers . . . to recognize their privilege and their oppressions.

I don’t see how this prepares someone to teach. If you think your students can’t succeed, even if they “work hard and dream big,” then what’s the point? Give the pobrecitos hugs and recess, but don’t bother them with fractions, grammar and photosynthesis.

TFA is expanding recruitment efforts among college juniors, rather than waiting till students are about to graduate. It will offer training for future teachers that takes “the best practices from E4J and other pre-corps pilots,” said an official statement.

Teachers may raise scores, but not happiness

Teachers who raise students’ test scores may lower their spirits, concludes a new working paper.

Harvard and Brown researchers looked at upper-elementary teachers’ “influence on math test scores and students’ self-reported behavior, self-efficacy, and happiness in math class,” reports Teacher Quality Bulletin.

More than a quarter of the most effective teachers (based on test scores) were among the least effective when evaluated using student non-tested outcomes.

To further complicate matters, the non-academic outcomes don’t always correlate. For example, teacher scores on classroom organization had a positive correlation with student behavior but a negative correlation with happiness in class.

Do we prefer teachers with happy, low-scoring students to teachers with high-scoring but unhappy students?