A 'doable' solution to teacher quality
This was written by Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy based in Carrboro, N.C. He writes regularly about education policy on the National Journal Education Experts Blog. A creator of educational materials, he is the author of three books: Be a Writer, Be a Better Writer, and Reading Allowed.
By Steve Peha
Everybody’s talking about teachers—and much of the talk isn’t flattering. We know good teaching makes a difference. But a divisive dialogue has erupted about how to get more of it.
Economist and education policy expert Eric Hanushek agrees. According to his research, removing a small percentage of our worst teachers, and replacing them with average teachers, would bring our students up to top levels.
The problem here is threefold: figuring out which teachers to fire, firing them, and finding replacements. Solutions exist but take time and involve bitter battles.
A more elegant and less gut-wrenching idea comes from Emily and Brian Hassel of Public Impact. Using the famous teacher quality research of William L. Sanders, the Hassels propose deploying highly effective teachers in new ways.
Sanders’ research shows that top quintile teachers are three times more effective than bottom quintile teachers. The Hassels want to use innovative scheduling, new school roles, and technology to help these “3x” teachers affect more kids.
This sounds better than mass firings, but identifying and redeploying great teachers on a large scale is not without its challenges.
While most of us are riveted to the drama of the teacher quality controversy, others feel our attention is misdirected. Richard Rothstein, research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, pointed out in a recent Answer Sheet column that non-school factors are more important than teacher quality.
Rothstein supports ideas like “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education,” which embraces the whole of a child’s life both in and out of school. This is similar to what Geoffrey Canada is doing in his Harlem Children’s Zone project.
The issue here is money. Approaches like these increase government spending.
In another recent Answer Sheet column, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham offered a suggestion that would end the teacher quality discussion permanently: Standardize curriculum so that lesson content is more consistent. This would minimize differences among teachers and render teacher quality less important.
This is a powerful notion, one that could easily gain ground as our nation grows increasingly frustrated with the human element in education and seeks to affect significant structures like curriculum that are easier to control than people.
I fear, however, that we might lose our best teachers as a result. Besides, even with our new Common Core State Standards, curriculum is managed at the district level, and districts can’t guarantee uniform implementation of adopted programs.
So What Do We Do Now?
Where do all these promising but hard to implement ideas leave us? Fighting. In one corner, a small band of self-styled education superheroes; in the other, the much-maligned forces of educational evil symbolized by four million teachers and their unions. Such social blood sport may make for big lines at the movie theaters, but it’s no way to improve our schools.
Sadly, however, this feud resonates deeply with many of us. We’ve all encountered a small number of great teachers in our lives, and a few bad ones who made our lives miserable. Battling over education’s best and worst teachers is a shared cultural experience around which we can all commune.
But this unholy communion blinds us to an important point. The opportunity to improve teachers is not to be found in glorifying the best or in demonizing the worst, but in engaging the average. Why focus on average teachers? Because there are so many of them that even small changes mean big gains for kids.
Average teachers may not make headlines but they often make noticeable improvements when they drop bad practices for good ones. Many of these changes take little time and effort to implement. Most can be represented on a few sheets of paper or in a short video, and delivered free of charge over the Internet.
Trade Average for Optimal
For example, in kindergarten, most average teachers teach letters by name. But they can dramatically improve the likelihood of their students becoming literate by applying the Alphabetic Principle correctly and teaching letters by sound instead.
Instead of slogging through the tired and tedious Five Paragraph Essay used by so many average teachers, why not switch to a strategy that teaches the structure of real expository arguments? This same strategy can also be used as a reading comprehension tool to help kids understand expository texts.
Instead of teaching basic math facts one at a time through the happenstance of flash cards and timed tests as most average teachers do, they can implement a faster “fact family” approach that reduces entire sets of problems to simple “triads” like “7-8-56” which kids can use to reconstruct four facts at once: 7 × 8 = 56; 8 × 7 = 56; 56 ÷ 8 = 7; and 56 ÷ 7 = 8.
Average teachers who trade inefficient techniques for optimized techniques experience above average success because they stop doing things that confuse kids—like teaching reading backwards—and start doing things that make sense.
Average teachers are also the most likely teachers to gravitate toward better practices. Highly skilled teachers may have little to learn. Our weakest teachers may be uninterested or may lack the ability to incorporate new ideas. Average teachers are most likely to benefit from exposure to better techniques.
A Complementary Approach
When it comes to solving the problem of teacher quality, no single strategy will get the job done for a nation as large and as diverse as ours. But a thoughtful combination of complementary approaches might.
As the Hassels suggest, we need to get more out of our best teachers. The superheroes, and people like Mr. Hanushek, have made us painfully aware of the importance of helping our nation’s most troubled teachers find their way to new careers.
No one doubts that providing a broader social safety net would help disadvantaged children and their families; the only doubt is whether we’ll pay for it. And, as I’m sure Willingham would concur, we certainly have a long way to go toward improving the quality and consistency of our curriculum.
Each of these approaches has about it a quality of complex social engineering, something that never fails to arouse our animus. So why not add a simpler, cheaper, less divisive approach to the mix? The Internet shows us every day that conceptually simple ideas, amplified by the power of technology, can lead to dramatic change.
The News from Lake Wobegone
If it’s true that in the mythical town of Lake Wobegone all the children are above average, then all the teachers are probably above average, too. Fictitious towns and statistical anomalies aside, the most logical path to improving teacher quality in our schools is to help average teachers become above average teachers.
Giving average teachers free and easy access to the tools they need to improve isn’t very sexy. I doubt famous documentarians will be lining up to shoot “Waiting for Downloads.”
Nor do I see Secretary Arne Duncan giving bold speeches about the Alphabetic Principle—though I have come to believe that this is exactly the kind of thing a Secretary of Education should do from time to time in his or her role as “Instructor in Chief”.
Helping average teachers won’t make headlines, but making even small gains in the effectiveness of 75%-90% of our teaching corps would have a significant effect on student achievement.
And it’s doable.
Nobody needs to get fired. Nobody has to reinvent school. Nobody has to raise taxes to expand the social safety net. We merely need to address the common problems average teachers face by providing optimized solutions that make learning better for children and teaching easier for them.
Fight or Switch?
Even though I wasn’t smokin’ in the boys room back in third grade, I still remember that famous cigarette ad campaign of the early 1970s: “!”Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch
When it comes to the issue of teacher quality, we seem addicted to the fight, too. But that’s because the fighters are demanding big switches.
Let’s work on little switches that get big results. Let’s focus on getting three million average teachers to exchange ten bad practices for ten good ones.
This may seem trivial, perhaps even meaningless, but it’s earth-shattering in its implications:
Pick the right 10 practices, implement the right 10 solutions, and average teachers would get above average results.
As more teachers began to share these practices, we would benefit from something I call “instructional economies of scale” where kids who encountered a practice in a previous situation would learn it even faster in a new situation. As a result, average kids might perform at even better than above average levels over time.
And what is there to fight about? It’s hard to argue with the Alphabetic Principle; it forms the foundation of our language. It’s an observable phenomenon—and teachers already know it because they use it every day to read and write.
Hitting for Average
Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners gets a lot of hits. Most of them are singles. He doesn’t swing the for the fences, he just brings the bat to meet the ball so it drops in places where people aren’t. He gets on base and he scores a lot of runs.
Ichiro hits for average, not for homers. That’s what we have to start doing in education. Every time we put Might Casey (or Mighty Michelle) up to bat, there is no joy in Mudville because Mighty Casey often K’s.
Teacher quality is the most important in-school factor in student success. To make students more successful, teachers must be more successful. Most teachers are average. To become above average they need easy access to optimized, proven practices that solve common problems.
We don’t have to hit home runs with every manifesto we sign or every new superhero we anoint as our next savior. We have to raise our average. No arguing with the ump. No bashing the owner in the press. No fighting in the dugout.
Instead of fighting, let’s honor top teachers, let the bottom leave by attrition, and engage the middle with quality resources for targeted improvement that includes the judicious application of legitimate performance data used for the purpose of helping teachers not humiliating them.
Average teachers, not super teachers, represent our greatest opportunity for positive change. They affect the most students. They’re the most likely to improve if given the right support. And even small improvements across this very large group will yield incredible gains for our kids.
Follow my blog every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/answersheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed Bookmark it!
| November 5, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, Teachers | Tags: education, math facts, michelle rhee, public schools, schools, steve peha, teacher assessment five paragraph essay, teachers, waiting for superman, writing essays
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