Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Teaching: Its Who Does the Teaching More So Than Where It Happens

Teachers matter a whole lot.  And this is news.  Two bits of text from this article that follow each other raise and then dash hopes.
Teacher quality tends to vary more within schools—even supposedly good schools—than among schools.
But we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way. Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere—but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.
The article goes on to focus on Obama's effort to focus on teachers and not schools and the stimulus money that can create some momentum.  And then it goes on to focus on a non-profit that has not only funded new college grads to teach in disadvantaged areas, but, from the standpoint of social science, has most importantly kept heaps of data on teacher performance and stuff that might be correlated with it.

What did they find?
Right away, certain patterns emerged. First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectivenessGreat teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.
Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.
Wow!   I mean that.  This is really hard to do, especially when there are not necessarily incentives to do so or worse competing incentives to not spend time and effort on this stuff.

Of course, at the university level, not only are there few incentives for good teaching, but plenty of other aspects of the job making demands upon one's time.  So much so that learning to teach is something that is never really that emphasized.  This article does inspire me to think a bit more about re-working my intro class, something that I have avoided doing because doing so would be heaps of work.  I have tinkered, and the tinkering has paid off, but I may to think more about what is it that I want to achieve and work backwards from that.

You know you’re in a good classroom if you have to stop yourself from raising your hand.
Much to think about and perhaps even read.

The article moves on to the problem of hiring:
Once teachers have been in the classroom for a year or two, who is very good—and very bad—becomes much clearer. But teachers are almost never dismissed. Principals almost never give teachers poor performance evaluations—even when they know the teachers are failing.
Ideally, schools would hire better teachers to begin with. But this is notoriously difficult. How do you screen for a relentless mind-set?

Once a model for outcomes-based hiring was built, it started churning out some humbling results. “I came into this with a bunch of theories,” says Monique Ayotte-Hoeltzel, who was then head of admissions. “I was proven wrong at least as many times as I was validated.”
What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record.  ...Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer.  
Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues.

And this should not be terribly shocking but:
Teach for America’s staffers have discovered that past performance—especially the kind you can measure—is the best predictor of future performance.
This is something that always come up around draft time for professional sports--does an athlete's prior performance matter more or less than various measurements at combines (mass events where athletes are tested on speed, strength, etc) or workouts?  Draft busts almost always are the product of focusing on scores at combines/workouts--at least in my biased selection of these things.

The article specifies that past performance refers to grades and "leadership achievement."  Running something that turns out to be successful is key.  Getting a master's degree does not really help.

And, of course, to reward good teaching and punish bad teacher, well, that is going to face some mighty tough opposition from teachers unions.  And this makes Obama a strange bird indeed--committing significant resources to something that a major set of supporters will find problematic.  


mcgillpolisci said...

Another interesting read on the subject: What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bains (Harvard Univrsity Press, 2004). Google Books has a preview (, and Amazon has a few reviews.

Steve Greene said...

Wow. I am *so* not a great teacher. I don't do any of this. I just get by on my natural charm :-). I'm really looking forward to reading this article-- I'm really fascinated by teacher quality ever since seeing it play out so clearly with David.

I'm really surprised you didn't reference the classic Gladwell on this issue.