Teaching teachers

One reason "teacher improvement" doesn't get more attention is because researchers don't know that much about how teachers get better. Typical professional development programs, in which teachers go to a workshop for a day or two, aren't effective. Even programs that provide longer-term training don't seem to work very well. Two experimental studies by the U.S. Department of Education showed that yearlong institutes to improve teacher knowledge and practice did not result in significantly better student test scores.
From an opinion piece in the LA Times by Emily Hanford. First, wouldn't you think something we don't know that much about would get lots of attention? That's how it works in science. Second, isn't there at least one thing that we know works to improve the quality of instruction? Thankfully, yes.
Chattanooga's Benwood Foundation, together with local education leaders, scoured school data. They realized there were a lot of ineffective teachers in failing schools. But they also discovered there were really great teachers there too. Why not figure out a way for the less effective teachers to learn from the superstars?

So the school district set up a mentoring system. One distinctive feature of the system is that teachers spend time in their colleagues' classrooms, watching each other teach. "What we believe is you have to recognize where greatness is and help other teachers see and learn from great teaching," says Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga and one of the leaders of the Benwood Initiative.

It's amazing how few teachers get a chance to do this simple thing. Some have the opportunity to observe other teachers during their student teaching experience. But when that's over, a lot of teachers end up isolated in their classrooms. They hear tales about great teachers in their building, but they rarely, if ever, get a chance to watch them teach.

"As a teacher you don't really know — what's good teaching?" says Maggie Thomas, a former teacher who is now involved with efforts to improve teaching in Washington, D.C., public schools. Thomas travels from school to school, observing teachers as part of the District of Columbia's new teacher evaluation system. "I came to this job with a certain set of teaching practices in my repertoire," Thomas says. But after watching 200 other teachers, she's learned all kinds of new techniques and approaches. She says this is what teachers need — a chance to see great teachers in action.
I gotta say, I knew this already. But it's great to get hard data to back up my assumption. And of course the obligatory caveat that there is no silver bullet must be stated. In this case, "Teachers who didn't want to be helped were let go. New principals were recruited. Curriculum and school culture were addressed. But rearranging schedules and resources so teachers got a chance to watch each other teach proved to be a powerful part of the process."

The reason I didn't just post this to the Webstand was that I have an addition to make. My idea is to change the status quo - one teacher per classroom - to one master teacher and one apprentice. Of course this will cost more money, but I firmly believe that demonstration projects could show how valuable it would be. It could be subjected to business return-on-investment criteria and judged accordingly. And it would take a forceful leader to sell it to a reluctant public. But it's possible.

Now every room wouldn't have to have two teachers. Make the master teacher designation competitive with increased pay, which is a much better way to raise great teachers' salaries than the current merit pay idea. And make the apprenticeship an alternative certification process with formal classes in the summer and evaluations during the school year, all while earning a stipend rather than paying tens of thousands of dollars in teacher education programs. When the program ends - how long I'm not sure - a teacher would have a solid record before they were hired to teach in their own classroom. Then with more evaluations in the first years of solo teaching, including a rigorous benchmark for granting tenure, the job security it provides would be something everyone could agree was earned.

In addition, I think the benefit would spread to all teachers in the building if collaboration and evaluation became the norm.
"Of all of my years of teaching, these last eight to 10 years I probably have done a better job than I've ever done before," says Linda Land, a Chattanooga teacher with 37 years of experience. Everyone used to close their doors and do their own thing. Now they work together on everything: They plan lessons, trade advice and give each other feedback. Land says the school is a more open and collaborative place. And it's more fun to come to work.
The hidden benefit of this program is that it improves recruitment of quality teachers and addresses teachers' unions legitimate concerns with non-traditional certification. The big losers are the master's teacher education programs, which are big profit centers for universities, but somebody's got to lose and they are the farthest away from the classroom. They've also done a terrible job so they should be allowed to fail.

Hanford has reported a radio documentary called "Testing Teachers" for American Public Radio's American RadioWorks.1 Two additional background items on testing that are crucial to educational reform:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, dubbed the Nation's Report Card, is the test that matters. It's been around since the 1970's and is highly rigorous in its design and implementation. It hasn't been watered down to allow students to pass more easily. And for precisely the reason it isn't used in any high stakes testing and punishment system, it is indicative of the quality of general learning, not how well students are test-prepped. Bush's statement: "Rarely is the question asked 'Is our children learning?'" has actually been continually asked by the NAEP over 40 years. The almost unknown answer is that yes, our children are learning. Long-term trends show increasing performance by 9- and 13-year olds in both math and reading up to 2008. (But 17-year olds are only holding steady, so it's not a completely rosy picture). What will be even more surprising is that the racial gaps between both black-white and Hispanic-white are decreasing. (9-year old reading scores linked. 9-year old Math for all three groups) Who knew? Not me for sure. Check out the easy-to-use summary of results.

It is also little known that there was an alternative slogan proposed for Bush's educational reforms instead of "No Child Left Behind," which was stolen from Marian Wright Edelman and the Children Defense Fund by the way. The other slogan, which would reflect an alternative underlying philosophy, was "One Child at a Time." This paradigm would also involve high stakes testing, but the unit of measurement would be one specific child, not a ever-changing classroom of a particular grade. Teachers and schools would be evaluated by the amount of improvement in one child's score from year to year. This alone justifies the federal government enforcing the testing regime because only it can track a student who moves not just between states, but between districts because the states do not do this and would not do it without the federal government requiring it.

I am also almost positive that teachers' unions are in favor of these changes, because they have never come out against evaluation of their work per se, but rather the method of evaluation. The testing issue is big enough that it has to be addressed before any reforms can be adequately measured.

1 While searching for some background on Hanford, I found out Chris Farrell will be leaving APR's AmericaWorks and Minnesota Public Radio's content during Morning Edition on November 1st. Fine by me, but he still is keeping his Marketplace job and he's one of the highest paid radio commentators from APM: $150,000 plus benefits. The MinnPost report suggests Farrell's future with APM is in doubt, but remember, he has another job, so don't feel too bad.