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Teacher Training and the Multi-Billion Dollar Question

March 10, 2010

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.

Note: Thanks again to Nick and Andy via Divide By Zero for the tip on this article.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2010 5:35 am

    Amazing how two articles talking about good teachers come out one right after the other. I’ve also read a lot about the DC schools and evaluation.
    The issue with evaluation is setting up a system that is fair and equitable. It involves knowledge of and materials to help teach the content standards, changing as we write; a clear set of traits that will be evaluated and staff development for teachers and the administrators before the observations start. When scores begin to be part of the evaluation, the tests had better be vastly improved from what they are now. Last but far from least, the schools must have the resources to expect and support the best from teachers, students, and parents. I see dollar signs before my eyes. The president is trying to provide funds, but states are in a bind right now and many are determined to keep their pockets padlocked.

    • March 13, 2010 9:37 pm

      Hi Claire,

      Judging from you blog, you are much more knowledgeable about these issues than I will ever be. When and if you find out about how things in DC pan out, please do post an update here in the comment section. I think there are lots of people who would be interested in what ends up happening.


  2. john tracy permalink
    March 21, 2010 7:51 pm

    It’s amazing to me that although all teachers all told from day one in education classes that they must cement into their head the idea that “all children can learn” that this measure of repect is not afforded to teachers. Having taught for 22 years, one thing that few in the public realize is that bad teachers are usually miserable teachers. If we took these bad teachers, and taught them the 49 techniques, and kept with them until they had mastered them, we could turn many of these “bad” teachers into good teachers.
    Instead, there is way too much of the “let’s just fire the bad ones” mentality.
    Take the idea of using test scores, for example. If I teach in a well to do suburb, my fourth grade students will come in reading, by and large at a fourth, fifth, sixth, perhaps even up to eighth and ninth grade levels. Teaching them to read and pass a state test is a breeze. If I teach at a poor, inner city school, my kids might come in reading at a kindergarten, first, second, or third grade level. As a teacher, I am judged by the end of the year test scores. If tests were given at the beginning of the year, the middle of the year, then at the end of the year, then teachers could be judged by how much progress kids make, not whether all cross the imaginary finish line that state tests provide. If you keep the only test at the end of the year and the five classroom visits method, teachers in well to do schools will pat themselves on the back, and teachers in inner city schools will be vilified, even if both such teachers were exactly as competent.
    I can’t wait to buy the book and pass it around at my school. I will make it a personal point of pride to master each one of the 49 techniques. But before the general public begins blandishing fix it solutions, it might behoove them to ask teachers. If I were asked to take a look a small business, in an effort to make it work better, I would go first thing to the boss and the employees to get their view on things. Too bad teachers aren’t afforded the same respect.
    The recent firings of all the teachers at a Rhode Island school had less to do with poor teaching than it had to do with a dispute with between the teachers union and the school board. The union was willing to work longer hours; they only asked to be paid to do so. The school board didn’t want to pay, so they fired them.

    • March 22, 2010 5:10 pm

      Hi John,
      I could not agree with you more on the need to measure progress made as opposed to just worrying about the final results. Any new system should differentiate between these two!

    • Mac permalink
      February 26, 2011 1:05 pm

      I agree completely with the previous comment. It does seem as though everyone’s opinion on ways to increase student achievement are acknowledged except teachers! In Japan, the exact opposite is the case. Teachers over the past twenty years have been working in groups to create solid, well prepared lesson plans that are then dispersed throughout the country. In Japan, it is the teachers that are making the recommendations needed to improve student achievement. They are after all the ones in the classroom with these students! I also find it odd that we penalize poor teachers but never the ineffective principals that are not providing these poor teachers with the necessary materials, such as Doug Lemov’s book, to improve their craft. And why are we always putting the most inexperienced teachers in inner city schools with the most challenging students! Wouldn’t it make more sense to put veteran teachers in these positions that have a proven track record of raising student achievement?

      • March 1, 2011 1:13 am

        A teacher-driven curriculum sounds like common sense- as do your other suggestions. But then again, common sense is often overruled by other imperatives.


  1. Lemov’s 49 Techniques: Transforming Student Outcomes « Christine Scott Cheng

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