Not Teacher Quality, but Quality Teaching

I’m looking forward to Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming book Building a Better Teacher. A sneak preview ran in the New York Times magazine this weekend and is up on the website.

The lengthy Times’ excerpt tells the story of a teacher who fell in love with novel ways of teaching math that were pioneered by reformers in the United States and adopted in his native Japan, reportedly to great success. But when Akihiko Takahashi came to our country years later, he was surprised and saddened to learn American classrooms were not the hotbeds of innovation he expected. “It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it,” Green writes.

I’ll set aside for now the question of whether or not those methods (such as “reform math” championed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) are superior. But Green’s next paragraph leapt from the page:

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, regardless of grade, setting, subject, and school-governance model.

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 hints at this madness, noting that inadequate implementation makes math reform seem like the most absurd form of policy change. “Why try something we’ve failed at a half-dozen times before,” she asks, “only to watch it backfire?”

Why indeed? Yet I’m hopeful for Green’s book, because her work on teaching has always been clear-eyed. Recall that it was her 2010 New York Times magazine piece on Uncommon Schools’ Doug Lemov that launched him from a charter school cult item to full-fledged teaching-guru status. In a review of his book Teach Like a Champion for Education Next, I noted Lemov’s approach promised to change the conversation about classroom practice from “teacher quality” to “quality teaching.”

That may sound like mere nuance, but it’s not. The difference is not who the teacher is, but what the teacher does. And what the teacher does has to be learned, practiced, and mastered by the teachers we have, not the teachers we wished we had.  There’s a tendency among education reformers and economists who study data on teacher effectiveness to say, “See, teacher effectiveness varies dramatically from one teacher to another, even in the same school. Weed out the ineffective ones!” The more effective approach would be to look at the same data and say, “What might help to elevate the less effective teachers? What might help the ordinary to become good, and the good become great?”

This is the soul of Lemov’s excellent work. There remains more practical value in his “taxonomy” of forty-nine teaching techniques than in four years of most ed schools.  But even that is not enough. Lemov’s instructional techniques need to be applied to a well-designed curriculum to be effective. If we’re relying on teachers to build and sequence the content, we’re as lost as if we’re relying on the teacher to figure out the pedagogy.

In short, teaching needs to be a job for millions of well-trained men and women of good will and general sentience, not the rockstars, artists and iconoclasts we typically lionize, but who will never exist in the boxcar numbers needed to staff every American classroom. This shift in perspective—from teacher quality to quality teaching—remains essential.

Green’s excerpt in the Times, not surprisingly weaves in Common Core. “Left to their own devices, teachers are once again trying to incorporate new ideas into old scripts, often botching them in the process,” she writes. And she’s right. This is a profound challenge for Common Core. It may force states, districts, and school-level personnel to be a lot more prescriptive about curriculum and instruction that any of us might like in the short term while we enhance and build capacity for the long haul. But let’s be clear: This problem would exist even if there had never been any such thing as Common Core. Meeting any meaningful standard is a heavy lift when teaching is a low-prestige profession, and when teachers are prepared by schools of education that consider “training” teachers beneath their dignity.

If Green’s new book takes us further down the road of viewing teaching as a craft and changing the conversation from teacher quality to quality teaching, it will be an important contribution. Failing that, classrooms are doomed to remain the place where innovation goes to die.

– Robert Pondiscio

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Common Core Watch blog.

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