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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 11/ 5/2010

A 'doable' solution to teacher quality

By Valerie Strauss

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.

The popular line, expressed by big city school leaders like Michelle Rhee, and catalyzed by Davis Guggenheim’s incendiary documentary “Waiting for Superman,” is to get rid of bad teachers.

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.


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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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"Let the bottom leave by attrition."

That hasn't worked out so well, has it?

Particularly when the payout -- a pension -- awaits after the long haul?

Posted by: trace1 | November 5, 2010 6:57 AM | Report abuse

One problem in reaching those whom you refer to as "average teachers" is that current professional development schemes are based upon generic one-size-fits-all bandwagon solutions in search of a problem or they are based on tedious analysis of faulty data as you have previously documented in this space. I dare say, if you analyzed the behavior of those top 20% of teachers, you would find a high degree of professional engagement beyond their school district in professional organizations and in journal reading. The teaching strategies and "tips" like the whole "5,6,7,8" "hook" are passed along from teacher to teacher in content specific idea sharing, of the type often done at national, regional and local teacher conferences. Unfortunately, this type of staff development is maligned by the ASCD types who hawk programs and speaking fees for their latest bandwagon gurus. Many schools won't give release time and won't support registration fees, transportation costs or lodging for teachers. However, if you incentivize attendance and participation in these organizations, more average teachers will choose to attend on their own dime and on their own time with significantly less cost to the district. Instead of making salary bonuses contingent on test scores, make bonuses based on a sliding scale of participation in professional development activities. Teachers on elementary grade level teams can become "experts" in a content area like math, science, reading, English or social studies and share conference materials and notes at grade level meetings.

I maintain that valuing and incentivizing membership and participation in content specific professional organizations will dramatically enliven and enrich the 60 percent of teachers "in the middle".

Posted by: buckbuck11 | November 5, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

I have to second buckbuck11 here, and I generally agree that some best practices should be a focus for school improvement.

I think just as in the focus on teacher evaluation, we have to be careful not to accept simplified solutions to complex situations. I think your examples were probably simplified to reach a wider, perhaps non-teaching audience, but I have to say that there is no one best practice or method. Kids learn differently and teacher styles differ.

I think it is important to teach a variety of strategies to the students. The family triads of math facts that you mention have been used now for years. Most elementary school teachers use those in combination with other strategies for memorizing math facts. The multiple strategies approach takes into account that not all students learn in the same way. Teaching multiple strategies in math is a best practice however there are cases where it could be appropriate to take a simplified approach. Every child, every classroom is different. A teacher has to ask him or herself, how am I going to reach these kids? If giving students choices is causing confusion then a teacher would have to change back to a simpler, direct approach. Vice versa if students are bored and need to be challenged.

Interesting article that tries to change the focus of discussion. My cynical opinion is that it is too "boring" for most people outside of education and is not as entertaining as seeing teachers being fired or discussing extremely bad cases. ( Example:The pedophile teacher has been on the Post education page for months, not really representative of teaching, perhaps that should be on the crime page.)

Posted by: celestun100 | November 5, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Why is it that every solution to every problem needs to be glamorous and revolutionary? Is everyone looking to be the hero? Do we have to make a dramatic impact? I firmly believe that when it comes to the question of "big" or "small" solutions regarding teacher quality we owe it to ourselves, our kids, to take cautionary, small steps, as suggested by Peha. It seems to me that taking the less expensive, less disruptive, less dramatic route in improving teacher qualitity deserves a shot! It does not have to be an all or none situation!

Maybe we could spend a little of the funds educating the teachers, updating their classrooms, modernizing curriculum and giving them a chance to succeed so that our kids can succeed! An educator who has been teaching for 20 years may only be average because he/she is not up-to-date with the technological advances and methods that new grads are bringing to the classroom. Also they may not have resources available to them, which is imperative today. Instead of dismissing those that lag behind maybe we could continue offer education to those that educate.

I have been in the urban schools that are sadly lacking adequate technology and resources, as well as an environment that inspires higher levels of learning. Many of the teachers are frustrated, not from a desire to effectively teach the students, but at how difficult it is to get down to the business of teaching!!!!! Our teachers do not need to be MORE regimented with stricter curriculum standards, they need to have the time, resources, and support of administration to do what they do best....TEACH!

Posted by: bakerji | November 5, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I don't mean to be negative, but I look at the teacher quality issue from a different lens.

Improvement is always "doable." But in a profession of 4 million plus teachers..someone's going to be average, someone is going to be lousy, and someone is going to be great. But that is true in any profession...doctors, lawyers, car mechanic's. Teaching is a profession, it is not an divine anointment.

The problem, as I read all these "suggestion's for good teaching," is our expectations are unrealistic.... and can never be fulfilled by "just" the teacher. Suggestions like those the author addresses are good ones...but it leads the naive to think that there is one magic bullet...if only teachers would______. Those of us involved in education know that is ludicrous. The goal: To get kids to learn and to succeed...will take multiple strategies, multiple people, and, yes, money to ensure that ALL children realize educational success.

Posted by: ilcn | November 5, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Peha is trying hard to help and there are some very good ideas here. But don't you love it when yet another self-appointed expert working in a think-tank who most likely has never taught in a real elementary classroom for a significant time knows the answers. Look at Rhee!Classroom teachers are the only ones who really know what works and what doesn't.

How does Peha know that most teachers are "average"? What data and research is it based on? What is 'average" in the teaching profession? Would he professionally label doctors and lawyers that way? How does he know that most teachers don't already use these techniques?

Time for staff collaboration and real, public respect for their jobs would have perhaps the largest impact. It's interference by administrators and media condemnations that do the worst to morale. Low pay doesn't help either. Telling them to be "glad they have a job" is just plain wrong as well as abusive. No, YOU should be glad that THEY have a job. Who else is going to teach the children? Underpaid police and firemen, the other public servants? Privately-contracted, profit-only motivated corporations?

Cute on the baseball analogy. Lets try another. Success for a career could be defined as .350, just over a third for a lifetime. That's about the highest hitting average for a baseball career. We don't blame them or cast aspersions for it but it's still only a third. Keep perspective on things, folks!

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 5, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Steve Peha writes, “According to [Hanushek’s] research, removing a small percentage of our worst teachers and replacing them with average teachers, would bring our students up to top levels.”

Mr. Peha - Did Hanushek really say that? And do you believe it? If so, it sounds startlingly like Michelle Rhee’s bromide that “teachers are everything.” Meanwhile, Hanushek, whom you quote, was the guy who said socioeconomic status was the most influential factor in student achievement.*

Going on impressions and intuition only, and not my usual investigation, I suspect the writer is working on a program to improve the skills of average teachers as the next magical cure for what ails our schools. Certainly here are lots of average teachers, so there would be a wide market for the program! It would definitely go over better with teachers and unions and I personally think it would work better than firing teachers and replacing them with rookies, as has been happening in DC.

Still, it would be just another trick. Please – tell us this is not what you have in mind and tell us that you don’t really believe that improved teacher skills is all that’s needed is to bring students to top levels.


Posted by: efavorite | November 5, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

echoing ilcn: "...our expectations are unrealistic". We are a nation with MILLIONS of students who come in all shapes and sizes, come from many different cultural backgrounds, are equipped with differing strengths and weakness......and guess what? Teachers come in all shapes and sizes, educational backgrounds, etc.

For some crazy reason, the U.S., a country that purports to support individualism to the max, now wants a lockstep approach to education
based on various notions of quality while ignoring the realities of the impossible burdens placed on most teachers. "well, if you just add one more litte math strategy to your bag of tricks.....". The teaching hours in a day are finite. The increasing pressures and duties added are not helping teachers to become better teachers. Instead we will produce more resentful teachers who will wonder why they should stay in this crazy profession that no one respects?

While I generally loathe sports analogies, I do wish the armchair quarterbacks and the politicians and wealthy wannabe reformers would get out of the way and stop insisting that we only hire teachers who hit homeruns.....if they really want to help, develop some humility and ask the professionals - the teachers - would would be helpful? And then, say "thank you for the impossible jobs you are doing today".

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 5, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Italics, yuck.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 5, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

correction - "WHAT" would be helpful.....

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 5, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

efav.-- it is disappointing that you seem to reject just about anyone else's idea or plan for improvement of teacher quality. You seem to reject the idea that it is needed. That's a fairly lonesome position, except among some teachers.

Posted by: axolotl | November 5, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse

Steve Peha says, “According to [Hanushek’s] research, removing a small percentage of our worst teachers, and replacing them with average teachers, would bring our students up to top levels.”

Diane Ravitch, quoted in another Strauss column, says, “Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5-10 percent of student test score gains.”

Who ya gonna believe?

Posted by: efavorite | November 5, 2010 11:01 PM | Report abuse

A standard curriculum DOES NOT MEAN STANDARDIZED INSTRUCTION. Algebra hasn't changed in over 1,000 years; the techniques and strategies teachers use to instruct it has evolved obviously. Newton's Laws of Motion don't change; how we instruct it adapts and evolves to our students, culture, societal and parental desires. What problems I've observed are teachers who DO NOT instruct the curriculum, or worse asses student performance poorly/weakly.

Teachers aren't too blame, because teachers don't hire themselves. Great leadership = great schools, and the inverse is true unfortunately. This is the 'business model' public education must learn to mimic quickly: great leadership will beget great schools and students who learn and grow.

Posted by: pdexiii | November 6, 2010 12:47 AM | Report abuse

When my sons graduated from college I suggested that they consider high school teaching. As soon as the words were out of my mouth both "boys" started screaming with laughter, slapping one another on the backs. When I asked for an explanation, one son would only say, "Come on, Mom." Both eventually went on to other professions that paid twice as much as I made at the end of my career.

I tell that story because in order to improve the quality of the profession, we need to understand what the problem is. In our country there is such a high disregard, even a contempt, for K-12 teaching among the middle and upper classes that districts often do not have much choice during good economic times. When I was hired years ago, they accepted just about any college grad. To experience the attitude that I've just described, just read over some of these posts.

My friend is a retired superintendent so I asked him how many teachers are ineffective. He replied that they were about 5% of each faculty. That seemed believable to me because at my last school there was one weak teacher among a faculty of 40. However, she received "effective" ratings just like everyone else. Why? Because our school was located in a very poor neighborhood where it was difficult to recruit and retain teachers. Her permanence had nothing to do with "the unions" but everything to do with supply and demand in good economic times.

Michelle Rhee had the perfect opportunity to improve teaching quality in D.C. With money from philanthropists and support from the mayor, she could have offered "golden handshakes" to burned-out veterans. She could have denied tenure to weak beginners and offered help to others. She could have identified her strongest teachers and partnered them with those needing help. Using a team teaching approach, the weaker teachers could have learned from the stronger ones. Almost every school has an excellent teacher or two who could have modeled or partnered with others.

Most of all, Rhee could have combed the country for the very best teachers for the district, but instead she hired inexperienced people right out of college, continuing the very tradition that has plagued urban districts for over 60 years. Why did she do this?

Let's not kid ourselves; we know very well how to improve the quality of teachers. You hire experienced people, pay them well and give them the training and support that they need to do the job. Above all, you let them know they are valued.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 6, 2010 1:31 AM | Report abuse

It's 9:25 on a Saturday morning, and I'm waiting at my inner city school in Houston for some kids who need make-up work/retakes/tutoring. They gave committments to me and their counselor to be here at 9. None are here yet.

Don't let the facts hit you in the face, superman.

Posted by: peonteacher | November 6, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

"Let’s focus on getting three million average teachers to exchange ten bad practices for ten good ones."


Posted by: educationlover54 | November 6, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse


I'm you mentioned what you did. It does happen like that in the more economically depressed areas.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 6, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

As someone who teaches in an urban school district that serves 25,000+ students each year, I'm disheartened to read so many negative comments regarding Peha's article. I've taught in this school district on 2 different campuses for 12 years. I've seen both effective leadership come and go. Usually, the more effective leaders go as do remarkable talented teachers. Currently, I work on a campus where morale is at an all-time low because administration is inconsistent, unprofessional, intimidating, and rarely do they spend much time in our classrooms.

I also spent 4 years of my career undergoing training with Peha and his colleagues (albeit TEACHERS currently teaching). I was in my 5th year of teaching when Peha and his TTMS consulting firm were hired by our school district. A group of colleagues and I spent 1-2 weeks of summer vacation 4 years in row, Saturdays, after school trainings, and my prep. periods learning strategies that would not only set HIGH expectations for my students in the areas of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and presenting; but strategies that would also provide us with results. At the time, I was an average teacher who was considering leaving the profession, and then I underwent one Saturday of Peha's training and realized this was something special. And indeed it was/has been special.

Not only was Peha a former teacher, he had the research to back up why/how he knew these strategies would work. I needed my own proof, too, so I began documenting EVERYTHING I could as I practiced the TTMS strategies with my students. The results were quite impressive. Part of the Readers/Writers Workshop vision is to challenge students to read 20 books in a school year and write 20 pieces. Since I implemented these strategies in 2004, I've had student after student say, "Miss, I've never read a chapter book before. Thank you. This year, I read more than I thought I possibly could." Or, "I didn't know that there were so many different ways to write." Or, "I didn't realize reading and writing could be so much fun!"

I've also had students who have published their own writing on blogs, in books, and many who've entered writing contests and placed in the top 3. On our mandatory state tests, many of my students have "met" or "exceeded" the standard. Many of the students I’ve kept in touch with after graduation who’ve gone on to college continue to use these strategies as well. Every so often I receive a facebook post or email from a student who has had continued success with the reading and writing strategies I taught them in high school.

And if these results aren't convincing enough, I've been able to see students with Learning Disabilities, ELL students, and below grade level readers/writers move up anywhere from 2-4 grade levels in ONE school year!

The last year of our training, Peha and crew taught us how to sustain Readers/Writers Workshop and encouraged us to apply for leadership positions...

Posted by: scribe76 | November 6, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

...Some of us did and currently remain in those positions. As a group of only 10-12 teachers in a district of 2,000+ teachers we morphed from being "average teachers" to "above average teachers". A label I could care less about. Instead, what I care most about is that in that time I've taught 500+ students how to be independent readers and writers, how to be prepared for ANY type of writing assignment, and how to meet high expectations. The end of the last 6 school years have left both my students and myself in awe by the number of books they've read in a year, the number of pages they've read, and how much they've grown as readers and writers. The beauty of workshop is teaching them how to read and write in "organic" ways that go above and beyond the 5 paragraph essay.

While some may not agree that providing support and training to teachers who are "average" is the solution to public education's woes, my fellow colleagues who joined me in the TTMS training have the results to prove otherwise. Sure, we're a small group of teachers, but we've provided above average instruction for 3,000+ students over a 6 year period. And that's something I take great pride in.

Posted by: scribe76 | November 6, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

...Some of us did and currently remain in those positions. As a group of only 10-12 teachers in a district of 2,000+ teachers we morphed from being "average teachers" to "above average teachers". A label I could care less about. Instead, what I care most about is that in that time I've taught 500+ students how to be independent readers and writers, how to be prepared for ANY type of writing assignment, and how to meet high expectations. The end of the last 6 school years have left both my students and myself in awe by the number of books they've read in a year, the number of pages they've read, and how much they've grown as readers and writers. The beauty of workshop is teaching them how to read and write in "organic" ways that go above and beyond the 5 paragraph essay.

While some may not agree that providing support and training to teachers who are "average" is the solution to public education's woes, my fellow colleagues who joined me in the TTMS training have the results to prove otherwise. The strategies TTMS taught us are not the ONLY way to teach reading and writing, they were just a DIFFERENT way. Sure, we're a small group of teachers, but we've provided above average instruction for 3,000+ students over a 6 year period. And that's something I take great pride in.

Sometimes the most effective improvement happens when one is willing to take a close look at his/her own practice and say, "Hey, what I'm doing isn't working. I'm not seeing the results I need to. I know that I could do better." There's no doubt that people like Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone project) must have been thinking the same thing as he looked around Harlem's public schools.

If we're going to make a dent in the many faceted problems that exist in public education students, teachers, parents, administrators, and politicians need to have the hard conversations/reflections about those teachers who are "average" and those who are "above average". And we must provide our teachers with the time, training, and support that they deserve. American students deserve no less.

Posted by: scribe76 | November 6, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Of course, I support any training activity that helps teachers advance their students, whether the teachers are average or not. I think most teachers would embrace techniques that helped them and their students -- and are regularly seeking them among their colleagues.

Sadly, scribe76, you sound like an advertisement for Peha's training course, which, granted, may have served you and your students very well.

However, I still don't accept that improving average teachers alone will take students to top levels, as Peha claims.

Posted by: efavorite | November 6, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

The one issue rarely talked about when looking at teacher quality is the conditions under which many teachers, particularly those in urban schools, work. These teachers frequently have five to six classes per day of thirty to thirty-five students each. Imagine grading essays for that number of students! Do the math and figure out how long it would take to spend five minutes on each student's essay. Often these teachers have two or three preps (i.e., two or three different classes to develop lesson plans for each and every day) and many are assigned their classes a day or two before the start of the school year. Often teachers begin the school year without the basics like books, desks, and chairs.

Now, given these challenges, you're either going to attract complete and utter saints to the profession (of which, I assure you, there are not enough to teach all our nation's young people), or you're going to get the least capable people -- people who cannot even comprehend how hard their job actually is and are not too bothered by the working conditions because they have already decided to do the absolute minimum required to stay in the classroom (show up for work and sit in front of the room). The best and the brightest new hires won't stick with this profession (again, unless their saints -- and there are some) because, at the end of the day, they realize that even their best efforts will not be enough to overcome the poor working conditions -- lack of supplies, inadequate and often poorly maintained facilities, and inconsistent discipline and school management.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | November 6, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Obviously, I meant to write "they're" in that last paragraph.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | November 6, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

I love all this advice about how teachers aren't choosing to present material in ways that help students learn. In my school district, we aren't allowed to think for ourselves. We teach as we are told to teach - no individual, creative, innovative, free thinking allowed. Do as you're told or else. So there may be better ways to teach math topics but we're not allowed to use them.

Posted by: fgabi | November 6, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

My elementary school was designed with the "open classroom" idea; moveable walls, for the most part no windows. When my child went to the same school it had been partitioned off with walls and still for the most part no windows. It seems that education is caught up "fads," that waste funds. And who makes these important decisions about how to educate? In my state it seems that the officials who make many important decisions regarding education are people who have not even taught in the classroom. Would it not make more sense for people with classroom experience to be making those types of decisions?

Posted by: mw4education | November 7, 2010 12:39 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the link to the "What-Why-How" strategy. One more average teacher just found something potentially useful for her students.

Posted by: Jwoo1 | November 7, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

"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."

Love this--while not "sexy",it wouldn't cost lots of extra money. But it does take perseverance and great leadership on the part of central admin, principals and teachers. Go for it, FCPS!

Posted by: harmony24 | November 7, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

I agree with some of the above posts about teachers "leaving by attrition." Pension seems to be a pretty powerful incentive to stay, and is it really worth it to pay them more to stay. While in high school, I had two absolutely phenomenal English teachers out of the four english classes that I took. Of the other two, one should never have become a teacher (it was her first year), and the other was having some personal issues that I believe probably impeded her ability to teach (she may have improved since then). The problem is that one of the great teachers that I had retired last year. This year, he is back at the school, teaching English again, but being paid on top of his pension. I'm willing to believe that he still is a phenomenal teacher and I am sure that his students are still learning just as much as I did, but should he be paid twice. Why couldn't the school find a new teacher that could do a good job, and not have to be paid twice?
As for the comment about open-air classrooms, I agree that the educational system goes through fads. There are a couple of open-air schools in my former school district that have retained the open-air feel. I once volunteered at one of the schools and I have absolutely no idea how any of the students were able to learn in that environment. There was so much noise that I couldn't even focus. I think that the education system has to be careful about buying into these types of fads, and make sure that they really help rather than hinder student learning, before they invest too much in them.

Posted by: akl108 | November 7, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

As a future teacher I definately agree that school systems need to improve. Some teachers slack at their job and they don't understand what an impact they are making on these students lives every year. It is important that teachers realize that there is always room for improvement to become a more effective teacher because some students are still slipping threw the cracks and this can sometimes be prevented with just a few changes in the classroom. I feel that it would be beneficial to hear from the students about their points of view on teachers that they have. An interesting idea would be to have all teachers in each grade level have a general overview on what needs to be taught weekly and monthly as a set of guidelines. This way all teachers would have a general criteria for what to teach. Each teacher should make the lessons their own but teach in a beneficial way to the students. At the end of each quarter students can give evaluations about their teacher. This can be confidential so that the students are able to be fully honest. The students are the ones who know their teachers best and they would be able to accurately review them. After evaluations, if a certain teacher recieves mostly bad reviews from their students they need to be evaluated by someone higher up in the school district. This will then determine how their teaching career will go. It should also be available that the teachers who recieve the bad reviews and are struggling have the opportunity to sit in with teachers who recieved good reviews to see what teaching styles work best for the kids now. This would solve the solution because we need to hear from the children. They are the ones that matter and they have voices that need to be heard.

Posted by: pamelastar08 | November 7, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, efavorite, you miss my point entirely. Let me clarify for you: I was an average teacher who through careful reflection realized what I was doing wasn't working. I saw an opportunity to change my pedagogy and took it. Doing so, changed my thinking, my practice, and my students--all for the better. I'm sure those teachers in similar situations who've made the same CHOICE have found similar results.

On a side note, doubtful anything anyone positive posts will prompt a positive response from you. Sadly, I'm sure your views beyond your comments here about education are just as cynical. It's this very cynicism that's destroying public education and our society...

Posted by: scribe76 | November 8, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

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