Teacher Training and the Multi-Billion Dollar Question
It seems like the question of how to produce good teachers has not only been covered by the NY Times, but also by The Atlantic in their Jan/Feb 2010 issue. In light of my recent post on Doug Lemov’s teaching techniques, this article is aptly entitled: What Makes a Great Teacher?
In her take on this question, Amanda Ripley, poses a similar puzzle to that in Elizabeth Green’s article on Building a Better Teacher:
[Teach for America’s] founder, Wendy Kopp, had begun to notice something puzzling when she visited classrooms: many Teach for America teachers were doing good work. But a small number were getting phenomenal results—and it was not clear why.
Kopp made it a priority to find out what was going on.
[Steven] Farr was tasked with finding out. Starting in 2002, Teach for America began using student test-score progress data to put teachers into one of three categories: those who move their students one and a half or more years ahead in one year; those who achieve one to one and a half years of growth; and those who yield less than one year of gains.
Six Important Characteristics jumped out at him from the data about the best of the Teach for America teachers.
First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up [the best] teachers… and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ … Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.
Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.
TFA found that the best predictor of whether a candidate would excel in the TFA program was based their past performance.
Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers. And the two best metrics of previous success tend to be grade-point average and “leadership achievement”—a record of running something and showing tangible results. If you not only led a tutoring program but doubled its size, that’s promising.
Now here comes the interesting bit that overlaps with the findings from the Green piece. In reaction to what his teachers told him, Farr came to similar conclusions as Doug Lemov and Deborah Ball: teaching techniques matter.
…Farr and his colleagues made lists of specific teacher actions that fell under the high-level principles they had identified. For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding: Are the kids—all of the kids—following what you are saying? Asking “Does anyone have any questions?” does not work, and it’s a classic rookie mistake. Students are not always the best judges of their own learning. They might understand a line read aloud from a Shakespeare play, but have no idea what happened in the last act.
The notable thing about TFA is that they have become very very good at predicting what makes for a good teacher. And indeed, they have even run a field experiment to test the effectiveness of the TFA model.
So far, only one independent, random-assignment study of Teach for America’s effectiveness has been conducted. That report, published by Mathematica Policy Research in 2004… found that, in math, their students significantly outperformed those of their more experienced counterparts. (In reading, though, the teachers’ students did the same as other teachers’ students.)
But the question that TFA seeks to answer (given a pool of candidates from top notch universities, who will be a good a teacher?) is different from the problem that Lemov’s techniques are designed to confront. The TFA research can tell us something about how to recruit good teachers and predict their success, but what could be just as helpful to education policy experts is to take the specific teacher actions that Farr had identified and compare these with Lemov’s and Ball’s.
If you want to build an airtight case, then conduct a field experiment (random-assignment study) with these teacher actions as “the treatment.” Create two groups and teach the specific actions to one group but not the other, and then compare the results.
Some Teaching Techniques
Contrast the approach below (which is best described as Cold Call On Paper) with Lemov’s basic Cold Call technique (everyone is asked the question; one student is chosen to answer it; but everyone needs to figure out the solution):
The kids put down their pencils and grab the orange index cards and markers on their desks. Mr. Taylor begins to walk around the class, reading problems aloud. “How many 5’s are in 45?” The kids have to do the math in their heads. All of them write their answers on their cards and thrust them up in the air. With a quick scan, Mr. Taylor can see if every child has written the right answer. Then he says, “What’s the answer?” And all the kids call out, “Nine!” When they get an answer right, they whisper-shout “Yes!” and pump their fists. If some kids get it wrong, they have not embarrassed themselves by individually raising their hand and announcing their mistake. But Mr. Taylor knows he needs to give them more attention—or, more likely, have their team leader [another student] work with them.
Here is another technique: I do, we do, you do
He does a problem on the board. Then the whole class does another one the same way. Then all the kids do a problem on their own. During the “we” portion of the lesson, Mr. Taylor calls on students to help solve the problem. But he does this using the “equity sticks”—a can of clothespins, each of which has a student’s name on it. That way, he ensures a random sample. The shy ones don’t get lost.
And another one: The Importance of Routines
In [his book] Teaching as Leadership, Farr describes seeing such choreography in other high-performance classrooms. “We see routines so strong that they run virtually without any involvement from the teacher. In fact, for many highly effective teachers, the measure of a well-executed routine is that it continues in the teacher’s absence.”
Shaking up the System
At the system level though, there remains a fundamental problem: lifetime tenure for bad teachers.
Once teachers have been in the classroom for a year or two, who is very good—and very bad—becomes much clearer. But teachers are almost never dismissed. Principals almost never give teachers poor performance evaluations—even when they know the teachers are failing.
To his credit, Obama is trying to change this practice and has thrown $4.3 billion into his Race for the Top program:
…states must take a series of steps that are considered radical in the see-no-evil world of education, where teachers unions have long fought efforts to measure teacher performance based on student test scores and link the data to teacher pay. States must try to identify great teachers, figure out how they got that way, and then create more of them. “This is the wave of the future. This is where we have to go—to look at what’s working and what’s not,” Duncan told me. “It sounds like common sense, but it’s revolutionary.”
…To qualify, states must first remove any legal barriers to linking student test scores to teachers—something California and Wisconsin are already doing. To win money, states must also begin distinguishing between effective and ineffective teachers—and consider that information when deciding whether to grant tenure, give raises, or fire a teacher or principal (a linkage that the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, has criticized as “inappropriate” federal interference in local prerogatives). And each year, states must publish which of their education and other prep programs produced the most effective (and ineffective) teachers and principals. If state and local school officials, along with teachers unions, step up to the challenge, Race to the Top could begin to rationalize America’s schools.
To a lay person like me, this really does sound like common sense. I am honestly amazed that there aren’t more boards of education analyzing the data in the same way as TFA, Doug Lemov, and Deborah Ball.
Let’s see what happens in DC:
This year, D.C. public schools have begun using a new evaluation system for all faculty and staff, from teachers to custodians. Each will receive a score, just like the students, at the end of the year. For teachers whose students take standardized tests, like Mr. Taylor, half their score will be based on how much their students improved. The rest will be based largely on five observation sessions conducted throughout the year by their principal, assistant principal, and a group of master educators. Throughout the year, teachers will receive customized training. At year’s end, teachers who score below a certain threshold could be fired.
If you combine Lemov’s techniques with Obama’s Race for the Top incentives, then maybe there is the potential for real change.