Cracking the Code of Effective Teaching

ednext_aug_webonly_green_coverBuilding a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone)
By Elizabeth Green
W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, $27.95; 384 pages.

As reviewed by David Steiner

As a teacher-educator and former education policymaker in New York, I was not completely unprepared for Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher. Given Green’s sharp writing for GothamSchools (now Chalkbeat), the publishers anticipated something approaching a blockbuster (“a six-city author tour…. national media attention,” proclaims the cover jacket). And why not? With a combination of journalistic drama and well-merited concern about our current educational outcomes, Green sets out a compelling argument that effective pedagogy embodies a highly complex set of skills and knowledge that can and should be taught to teachers. But problems with this book’s style and content raise questions about using Green’s work as the source for drawing any broader policy implications.

The book is nonetheless intriguing, even for those readers already familiar with the principal characters, because of the unusually nuanced lens through which Green frames her story. On the one hand, she champions strong charter schools (such as Achievement First) that support the Common Core and a common curriculum and that embrace her model of teaching (see below). On the other hand, she cautions against accountability structures that do not simultaneously boost supports for teachers to improve their craft. Throughout her book, Green avoids false silver bullets, simple-minded approaches, or politically popular fix-its.

Green is at her most thoughtful when it comes to the practice of teaching itself. While at times she sounds like a conventional constructivist―endorsing, for example, the principle that children are “sense makers”―her real applause, and the most important focus of her book, is reserved for those education leaders and practitioners who stress a teacher’s need to master what I would call granularity. The core idea is that effective teaching cannot be done with a broad-brush approach. One cannot just offer a 45-minute class on “writing biographies” with a few examples, followed by a demand that children just do it. Rather, one has to break down the required outcome into multiple smaller segments, each designed to illustrate and model relevant skills, and then give students a chance to interrogate, stretch, and claim ownership of that skill.

The vignettes of teaching practice, the illustrations of any research that supports their efficacy, and the story of how well-networked reformers such as Deborah Ball (dean of the education school at the University of Michigan) and others learned from one another, are the best reasons to read the book.

Now for the negatives. First on style: the book is poorly structured. Names emerge, fade out, and reemerge, to the point at which one would want a flow diagram to keep track of them all. Time lines and themes crisscross each other with dizzying frequency, so that in the end the reader is hard put to reconstruct the whole narrative. We are often so deeply in the trees that we lose the forest.

Second, there is almost no effort to assess the influence of the research and practice Green is highlighting. Were they considered by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the national body that accredits education schools, when it recently redesigned all its standards? Is Deborah Ball’s work evident in the rubrics the National Council on Teacher Quality uses in the ranking of schools of education or in the design of recent federal grants to support innovation in teacher preparation? Is there evidence from schools of education across the country that practices of teacher preparation are changing in response? What we get is a reference to a shift in Gates Foundation funding―good for the reader to know, but hardly enough.

One should further note that Tom Loveless, a former Harvard policy professor and now senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, has produced direct criticism of the core elements in Green’s argument (as condensed in her New York Times Magazine piece), namely her assertion that Japan’s success in math performance is due to its embracing the pedagogical approaches she champions, while America’s relatively poor results stem from our clinging to the outmoded models she dislikes. In Loveless’s view, just about every element of Green’s argument is wrong, most importantly her historical narrative:

She attributes Japan’s high math proficiency to teaching reforms adopted in the 1980s and 1990s, but does not acknowledge that Japan was doing quite well—and even better than today relative to the U.S.—on international math tests in the 1960s. If Japan now outscores the U.S. because of superior teaching, how could it possibly have performed better on math tests in the 1960s? According to Green, the 1960s were the bad old days of Japanese math instruction focused on rote learning. And what about the decline in Japan’s math achievement since 1995?

While I am not assessing each of Loveless’s claims here, I must acknowledge that his is a serious critique, because it goes to the heart of what is problematic in Green’s arguments. (The longer exposition she offers in the book does nothing to mitigate Loveless’s core criticisms.) If Green were simply telling the story of a particular intellectual movement and how it has influenced a few pockets of teacher preparation and professional development, then one could simply appreciate the narrative, and leave it at that.

But it is clear that Green is trying to make a normative case: there is a better way to teach; it was pioneered in the United States, properly implemented in Japan with a major impact on their student results, and ignored or very poorly implemented in the United States. She maintains further that this superior method is now being championed in ever more-effective versions by a few stellar academics and teachers.

Given this thesis, the onus is on Green to tell the story accurately and to assemble the research base to make the case. Several of Loveless’s criticisms go to the fact that Green takes firsthand testimony from teachers she admires (in Japan and the United States) and then assumes the success of the practices she sees or is told about, without further evidence or evaluating counterevidence. He suggests further that her review of the research literature was seriously incomplete, even within the work she does cite (the example is TIMSS – the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). As Loveless indicates, well-known data from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) run directly counter to her broad-brush statements about math classes in the United States being boring by contrast to those in Japan.

To be clear, it is not as if Green’s book is devoid of references to empirical literature. Her mistake is the frequent use of a single reference to support her narrative, without acknowledging the complexity of the research record and the need, therefore, to issue more tentative proclamations about the efficacy of what she is describing. Most of the time, the citations are restricted to those whose arguments she is presenting. Green spends considerable time writing about the Boston Teacher Residency, for example, and the role of Magdalene Lampert in working with future teachers. But there is no discussion of the overall impact of this particular program, and no indication that Green read the most thorough analysis, by John P. Papay and colleagues, suggesting the impact is quite modest.

At its best, the book illustrates what should be self-evident: strong teaching requires mastery of academic content and an extensive repertoire of complex pedagogical skills. But what content, and which skills? The academics and teachers Green champions are dedicated and thoughtful; they persevere against the odds; they believe that there is a better way to teach and that they have understood it, begun to codify it, model it, and teach it to their students. Most importantly, they are convinced that if we instructed all future and existing teachers through their models and insights, America’s educational outcomes would be transformed for the better. So Green has written, but, wish it as we might, she has done little to show us that it is true.

David Steiner is dean of the School of Education at Hunter College and was commissioner of education for the State of New York from 2009 to 2011

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