Building Better Teachers

Mastering the craft demands time to collaborate—just what American schools don't provide.
Harry Campbell

Teaching dwarfs every other profession that requires a college degree. Nationwide, 3.7 million schoolteachers serve grades K–12—more than all the doctors, lawyers, and engineers in the country combined. Teacher shortages, once chronic, abated during the recession, when layoffs were widespread, but will soon return with a vengeance. Fully half of all teachers are Baby Boomers on the brink of retirement. Among novice teachers, who constitute an increasingly large proportion of the remaining workforce, between 40 and 50 percent typically quit within just five years, citing job dissatisfaction or more-alluring prospects. Given this drain at both ends of the teaching pipeline, schools will likely need to hire more than 3 million new teachers by 2020. That is an enormous talent hole to fill.

Yet the United States has, if anything, too many teacher-training programs. Each year, some 1,400 of them indiscriminately churn out twice as many graduates as schools can use. Program quality varies widely, so many would-be teachers don’t suit schools’ needs. In a scathing 2006 report, Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, accused many education schools of being little more than a “cash cow” for their hosting institution. Among the problems he highlighted were exceedingly “low admission standards,” a “curriculum in disarray,” and faculties “disconnected” from the realities of the classroom.

Once hired, many teachers are left to sink or swim. In recent years, several states have adopted controversial accountability measures, known as “value added” metrics, with a view toward winnowing out poor performers who haven’t produced student improvement on standardized tests; helping teachers hone their craft has seldom made it onto the agenda. But perhaps we’re finally ready to focus attention on the far bigger and more important question of how to attract and retain the top teachers we want.

This spring, the Obama administration announced plans to begin rating teacher-training programs. Consensus on what makes an effective teacher, however, remains elusive. Student achievement does not correlate strongly with teachers’ years of experience in the classroom (beyond the initial few) or with the caliber of their preparation—whether they have acquired certification, earned a master’s degree in education, or aced state licensing exams. Even particular personality traits, such as an extroverted willingness to ham it up in the classroom, appear irrelevant. The conundrum doesn’t daunt Elizabeth Green, a co-founder of GothamSchools (a news Web site originally devoted to covering New York City schools that has recently expanded to other cities and been rechristened Chalkbeat). Her book, Building a Better Teacher, couldn’t be better timed.

At the heart of Green’s exploration is a powerfully simple idea: that teaching is not some mystical talent but a set of best practices that can be codified and learned through extensive hands-on coaching, self-scrutiny, and collaboration. Yet her account suggests that implementing this vision may entail a bigger transformation than she quite realizes.

Green begins by profiling an array of educators who have been inspired by Deborah Ball, now the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. In the early 1980s, she was a charismatic math teacher in East Lansing, Michigan, who developed a successful approach to teaching even very young children sophisticated concepts in math. Instead of relying on rote memorization or repetitive skills practice, Ball shepherded children through in-depth discussions of a single mathematical conjecture—for example, do two odd integers always add up to an even number? The students, steered along by their teacher, deliberated together to derive proofs for their various hypotheses. Some of the most exhilarating parts of Green’s book are the detailed descriptions of precisely how, and why, these lessons succeed. Ball helped other teachers adopt her techniques not through the usual education-school lectures, but through rigorous apprenticeship: mutual observation of lessons, followed by intensive dissection of what worked and what didn’t.

Teaching is not some mystical talent but a set of best practices that can be codified.

Green likens the approach to the Japanese practice of jugyokenkyu. “Lesson study” is the main form of teacher training in Japan, where colleagues routinely sit in on one another’s classes and then scrutinize a single session for hours, extracting general guidance for future instruction. Japan substantially outperforms America in math on international tests, and Green clearly believes jugyokenkyu is a crucial factor in the country’s success. She recounts how some of Ball’s ideas were adopted by the state of California in the mid-1980s but never had a chance to catch on: Teachers were expected to absorb the new policies, outlined in a state “manifesto,” and then revamp lesson plans on their own, with little or no training or ongoing support. Some educators didn’t even see the guidelines—all but ensuring the reforms would fail. The rollout of the Common Core State Standards appears to be replicating this dispiriting pattern in many places.

At first, Green decides that Teach for America and some charter-school leaders are now following in Ball’s and Japan’s footsteps—albeit with plenty of stumbling. She focuses on Doug Lemov, an entrepreneurial-minded educator who started a charter school in Boston in the mid-1990s and later became a managing director and teacher trainer with the Uncommon Schools charter network. As part of his job, he began compiling an inventory of effective teaching techniques. The taxonomy became a book, Teach Like a Champion, and a cause célèbre within the charter movement; videos of sample lessons circulated like samizdat literature. There’s technique No. 2, “Right Is Right”: teachers refuse to accept students’ half-baked responses to questions and insist on well-formulated, and eventually correct, replies. Technique No. 32 is “SLANT,” which stands for “Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head, and Track the speaker,” a formula for eliciting attention from students. But the motions of following a lesson, Green soon discovers, aren’t necessarily a sign of genuine engagement.

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