Monday, February 01, 2010

The Atlantic: What Makes a Great Teacher

It sounds like a no-brainer: You've got a 23-year veteran teacher, a very nice woman who persists in teaching in a lower-income school rather than moving elsewhere. She spends her own money on new equipment for the classroom. She decorates the place and keeps it neat and tidy. She clearly loves children. If you had to find an "effective teacher" she'd be it, right?

Well, maybe not, according to a fascinating (and well worth reading) article in The Atlantic by Amanda Ripley called "What Makes a Great Teacher?" This article is based on more than a decade of research from Teach for America, which has tracked teachers and looked at who raises test scores and who does not. While test scores are not the be-all and end-all of educational results (as parents of gifted kids know well), they do show something, particularly when tests cover basic knowledge and skills and students repeatedly do not show mastery of such things.

We are learning--as perhaps we've always known but maybe not really appreciated--just how much teacher quality matters. The article starts with an anecdote of a young Mr. Taylor, a teacher who manages to boost almost all of his lower-income charges up to grade level and better, regardless of where they enter his classroom. Research has shown that if a lower-income kid can have three years of teachers like Mr. Taylor, he will perform as well as kids in well-to-do suburban districts. On the other hand, if you have three years of teachers who aren't effective, you may never catch up.

So you definitely want effective teachers. The problem (as Malcolm Gladwell compared with NFL quarterbacks in a New Yorker article a while back), is that it's hard to know ahead of time what matters in a teacher. We've isolated some things, like a teacher's own scores on standardized tests, and subject matter expertise in the case of math, but there is still a lot of ground to cover beyond those data points. In the absence of knowing what matters, we look to things that seem like they should matter, such as years of experience or (perhaps the one that is the most insidious) how nice and caring the teacher seems. Clearly someone who bothers to put up friendly decorations is a good teacher, right?

But it turns out that there are other factors that are far more important. A key one, the Teach for America data shows, is "grit." This is a short way of saying a person's tendency to stick with a difficult problem until she solves it. A classroom of kids with plenty of woeful tales is full of problems. How are you going to make them learn?

The "you" in that sentence is there on purpose. Teach for America also found that effective teachers tend to believe that they personally are in charge of the situation and can come up with a solution, regardless of what other people do. Mr. Taylor, for instance, notes that "On back-to-school night, if you have 28 or 30 kids in your class, you’re lucky to see six or seven parents.” But when Ripley asks him how that affects his teaching, he tells her, “Actually, it doesn’t. I make it my business to call the parents—and not just for bad things.” He calls all his students' parents the first week of class. Other, less effective teachers she interviewed tended to keep complaining about the lack of parental involvement, or budget cuts, or too much standardized testing or organizational politics (or the monster under the bed), and use that as an excuse.

Effective teachers set big goals, and then execute against them, planning extensively for the next day, week, year. They are also constantly trying to improve. The Teach for America person in charge of quality decided to visit the most effective teachers' classrooms to see what they were doing. But whenever he called, he noticed he'd get a similar response, Ripley writes. “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.’"

All of these things are going to be hard to screen for in hiring teachers. There is also currently no good way to get rid of teachers who aren't performing very well, and frankly, I'm not sure many principals and parents have the heart to in some cases. The warm, caring 23-year teaching veteran who used her own money to outfit the classroom (in Ripley's article) turned out to be a horrible teacher, in the sense that, at the start of the year, 66 percent of her students scored at or above grade level. At the end of the year, only 44 percent scored at grade level. When schools start counseling such teachers to leave, you will know that there has been a major shift in educational philosophy toward performance, and away from the fuzzy stuff. We are a long way from there.

But at least this data gives us a place to start, and the Race for the Top money is going to start bringing more of this data into the public eye. For the cause of education reform, this is a good thing.


Annie said...

Thank you for this post. Even as a homeschooling mom, I can benefit from this article. I have three young, apparently gifted sons, and there are moments I feel like throwing in the towel because they can be challenging. Inevitably, I decide that in fact this is my self-chosen obligation, and I keep at it until I find a solution. And we work out this issues and go on. It's nice to know that the best teachers feel as I do and soldier on.

Joel said...

The Teach for America study raises some interesting research questions about the characteristics of effective teachers, but it is a skewed study of teachers in high poverty areas who are focused on helping students achieve basic skills in reading and math. To conclude that the characteristics cited in the study ought to be the measure for all teachers, regardless of the student population or educational goals, isn't supported by the research. For example, a teacher comfortable with teaching deep and complex subject matter may not be the same teacher who is able to inspire basic skills mastery. Maybe ... maybe not ... but the Teach for America study doesn't look at such issues. The media has taken the Teach for America results and over generalized to all teachers in all classrooms.

The Princess Mom said...

I agree with Annie. When I read the article, the description of effective teachers sounded a lot more like the homeschooling parents I know than the classroom teachers. Homeschoolers have a lot more freedom to "blow up" how they're currently teaching mid-week, mid-month, mid-year and it's easier to do when your student-teacher ratio is single digits-to-1. But for not being trained teachers (for the most part), homeschoolers as a group do more professional development than "professional teachers."