Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How to Build a Better Teacher

No Child Left Behind was put into place as a means to measure student performance, and by extention, teacher performance. Many have claimed that No Child Left Behind was a failure, in that it only identifies problem areas, but does nothing to fix them. They are right, but problem identification can also be valuable.

When researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school’s control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to. Some teachers could regularly lift their students’ test scores above the average for children of the same race, class and ability level. Others’ students left with below-average results year after year. William Sanders, a statistician studying Tennessee teachers with a colleague, found that a student with a weak teacher for three straight years would score, on average, 50 percentile points behind a similar student with a strong teacher for those years. Teachers working in the same building, teaching the same grade, produced very different outcomes. And the gaps were huge. Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, found that while the top 5 percent of teachers were able to impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one school year, as judged by standardized tests, the weakest 5 percent advanced their students only half a year of material each year.

Identifying weak and strong teachers is a great, but hardly solves the problem. The issue facing educators now is: what makes strong teachers good, and how can we teach these skills to the weaker teachers?

When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. “Stand still when you’re giving directions,” a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.

The mechanics of teaching are woefully underrepresented in teaching curricula. Concrete ideas for dealing with common classroom issues are often left to the individual teacher to devise, leaving many first year teachers completely unprepared.

However, there is hope. The mechanics of teaching are not innate, non-transferable characteristics, but rather can be learned like any other skill. Take one highly-skilled teacher for example.

The clip opens at the start of class, which Zimmerli was teaching for the first time, with children — fifth graders, all of them black, mostly boys — looking everywhere but at the board. One is playing with a pair of headphones; another is slowly paging through a giant three-ring binder. Zimmerli stands at the front of the class in a neat tie. “O.K., guys, before I get started today, here’s what I need from you,” he says. “I need that piece of paper turned over and a pencil out.” Almost no one is following his directions, but he is undeterred. “So if there’s anything else on your desk right now, please put that inside your desk.” He mimics what he wants the students to do with a neat underhand pitch. A few students in the front put papers away. “Just like you’re doing, thank you very much,” Zimmerli says, pointing to one of them. Another desk emerges neat; Zimmerli targets it. “Thank you, sir.” “I appreciate it,” he says, pointing to another. By the time he points to one last student — “Nice . . . nice” — the headphones are gone, the binder has clicked shut and everyone is paying attention.

This teacher settled and prepared an unruly class effortlessly, using very basic techniques, like being direct and specific, narrating the positive ('Thank you,' 'Nice'), and remaining calm and patient. These parts of the Taxonomy of Teaching are being researched by Doug Lemov and Uncommon Schools, as well as others.

We can only hope this kind of clear thinking persists and has a real impact on education in America. Spread the word.

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