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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 01/13/2010

What makes an effective teacher?

By Valerie Strauss

“Teach For America” founder Wendy Kopp is on Capitol Hill today to explain the qualities that her organization believes make the most effective teachers in low-income communities.

Teach For America is a nonprofit organization that recruits newly graduated college students to spend two years teaching in low-income schools around the country. It’s been doing it for 20 years.

Using test score data, the organization has determined that effective teachers are those that employ the same strategies as successful leaders in any field--not specifically a classroom.

A forthcoming book will explain the thinking, called “Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap.” There is, naturally, a companion website you can check out.

An article on the subject by Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic magazine titled “What Makes a Great Teacher” has sparked some buzz in education communities. It is worth reading.

She writes:

“Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.”

Then it is worth reading this critique by Diana Senechal published on the Core Knowledge Blog, called “There Is No Such Thing as Teaching.”

She writes:

“If the goal is to drive up scores, then the people best suited to do it are those who can drive up numbers of various kinds—be it the membership of a club or their own GPA. But are they prepared to teach Victorian poetry, medieval history, or trigonometry? Have we even thought about what they will be teaching? Do we have a conception of education beyond the raising of scores?

“There is no such thing as ‘teaching’ removed from subject matter.”

Read them both and let me know what you think in the comments or at

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 13, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Teachers  | Tags:  Teach For America, teaching  
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Who the $#@@ is Teach For America that they are experts, all of a sudden, on what makes great teachers? They stay in the classrooms for two years then move on to something they think is better: anything than be a teacher for a career. Why not ask long-term educators or ed school professors what they know? Why so much credence to TFA all of a sudden?

Posted by: chelita | January 13, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Teach for America recruits have failed all over the country in low performing schools with great challenges such as the students who need veteran teachers who have made accomplishments in knowing how to get the attention from the students to teach the subject matter. The Teach for America students never gain the experience for these students who need strong individuals, not experimental teachers, to make schools successful. The Teach for America teachers may remain for two years just to get the rewards for their school bills and they leave with no more success than the day they began the work in the challenging schools.

Posted by: realitygirl2 | January 13, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

1. Communication (engage students and parents). Not only provide criticism to students but provide praise twice much. Contact parents BEFORE a child fails or levels of performances has decreased. Most parents have email accounts, please use them. Beleive it or not, MOST parents DO CARE about their child's education. We are our children's first teachers but send our children to school to be EFFECTIVELY EDUCATED.

2. Creativity: (PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE utilize methods that will capture and hold student interests while providing instruction). Allow hands on learning and increase student participation while providing studies in core subjects such as languge arts, science and math. If a student is bored they will not learn as much.

3. Compassion: Before assuming that a child "chooses to fail" consider just the opposite. They weren't provided tools to truly succeed and it's not thier fault.

Posted by: TwoSons | January 13, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

The Amanda Ripley article is ironic because the teacher she details is not a TFAer.
The blog, FiltyTeaching has a great take on Ripley and TFA:
"If you happened to have read this article and you have no experience teaching or with education, it would be incredibly tempting to believe that we may have found the cure to all that ails inner-city public education. You may get the impression that teaching is for those youthful, inspired, out-to-save-the-world types who, if they could just get a few of the right teacher trainings under their belt, could easily move this country into the golden age of education."

You can read more on Kopp and her blue smoke and mirrors at

Posted by: edlharris | January 13, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

I hope Jay Mathews reads the comments above. They also apply to the KIPP schools he is devoted to.
Reality checks come only from you commenters who are in the trenches of actually teaching.
Why not put extensive coverage of their information on the front of the Education page of the Post? We would learn a whole lot more.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 14, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

To TwoSons:
I agree with everything you have stated in your post. But as a public school teacher for 8 years, I wish people would understand how testing has changed the teaching world. I am "lucky" and do not teach a course that is tested, so I can have "hands on" activities and creative lessons plans. But my friends and Co-workers are not so lucky. So many schools and counties are using boxed programs with lessons already written- there is no room for creativity. Check out PGCPS and America's Choice for example. Either they teach the test (which doesn't test anything) or you are out. In addition, I feel some parents are never satisfied- I started the year sending bi-weekly grade sheets home- then it became weekly- now parents want daily grade sheets. I need time to grade my papers and plan these creative lessons! Lastly, parents please your kids need supplies (paper, pens, etc...) EVERYDAY not just the first week!

Posted by: purplero98 | January 14, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

It's a shame that so many comments to this post and others on the topic adopt an us/them perspective. Ripley's article is not a condemnation of public school teachers. It simply brings to light an innovative approach to teacher selection with which many readers may not be familiar, and that deserves further investigation.

Putting aside the controversial debate on assessments, there is no doubt that this country needs more analytics in education, not less. Imagine where our hospitals would be if doctors hadn’t spent the last century looking for ideas that generate measurable improvement in outcomes for patients, while discarding those ideas that failed to yield improvement. Likewise in science – the gold standard for objectivity and measurement. Our modern standard of living is built on a technological foundation, and those technologies are the product of rigorous experimentation and measurement.

That some feel this approach to innovation and constant improvement has no place in education is disheartening. I once attended an education forum where a panelist posed the question – would you rather be treated by a modern day doctor or Hippocrates? He then asked, would you rather be taught by a modern day professor or Socrates?

The second question is clearly less rhetorical, and the difference is the scientific approach. While we have a long way to go with assessment – standardized exams are clearly an imperfect measuring stick – the underlying framework of experimentation and measurement has produced many of the most important developments in human history and they can have the same impact in education.

Posted by: richenos | January 14, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

Rich Enos,

I believe the panelist you mention was quoting William C. Bagley. Bagley wrote in Education and Emergent Man (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1934), pp, 195-196:

“If I were seriously ill and in desperate need of a physician, and if by some miracle I could secure either Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, or a young doctor fresh from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, with all his equipment comprising the latest developments in the technologies and techniques of medicine, I should, of course, take the young doctor. On the other hand, if I were commissioned to find a teacher for a group of adolescent boys and if, by some miracle, I could secure either Socrates or the latest Ph.D. from Teachers College, with his equipment of the latest technologies and techniques of teaching, with all due respect to the College that employs me and to my students, I am fairly certain that I would jump at the chance to get Socrates.”

Posted by: DianaSenechal | January 14, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

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