18 January 2010

Making Great Teachers

From the January 2010 issue of The Atlantic, by Amanda Ripley:

"Starting in 2002, Teach for America began using student test-score progress data to put teachers into one of three categories: those who move their students one and a half or more years ahead in one year; those who achieve one to one and a half years of growth; and those who yield less than one year of gains. In the beginning, reliable data was hard to come by, and many teachers could not be put into any category. Moreover, the data could never capture the entire story of a teacher’s impact, Farr acknowledges. But in desperately failing schools, where most kids lack basic skills, the only way to bushwhack a path out of the darkness is with a good, solid measuring stick. 

As Teach for America began to identify exceptional teachers using this data, Farr began to watch them. He observed their classes, read their lesson plans, and talked to them about their teaching methods and beliefs. He and his colleagues surveyed Teach for America teachers at least four times a year to find out what they were doing and what kinds of training had helped them the most. 

Right away, certain patterns emerged..."

Yes, dramatic pause. Look at the "yardstick" Teach for America uses to evaluate teachers: moving students ahead one or more academic years. That admittedly broad-based standard does not discriminate against a state's curriculum or set of standards (students and teachers are measured against their direct peers), nor does it ask that a teacher do anything but ensure that students gain acceptable progress.

Is that an unfair standard by which to measure teachers? You know My answer to that question, so here's My follow-up to My unspoken answer: Teachers, shut yer yaps.

What did Teach for America discover?

"First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “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.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great 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."
(Emphasis Mine.)

Let Me summarize for the teachers out there: Great teachers work hard at being great.

And for you teacher apologists out there, insufferable whiny pissants that you are, here's an even simpler vesion to match your one-digit IQs: Great teachers want to be great.

Quoting again:

"A 23-year veteran who earns more than $80,000 a year, this (other) teacher has a warm manner, and her classroom is bright and neat. She paid for the kids’ whiteboards, the clock, and the DVD player herself. But she seems to have given up on the kids’ prospects in a way that Mr. Taylor has not. “The kids in Northwest [D.C.] go on trips to France, on cruises. They go places and their parents talk to them and take them to the library,” she says one fall afternoon between classes. “Our parents on this side don’t have the know-how to raise their children. They’re not sure what it takes for their child to make it.” 

When her fourth-grade students entered her class last school year, 66 percent were scoring at or above grade level in reading. After a year in her class, only 44 percent scored at grade level, and none scored above. Her students performed worse than fourth-graders with similar incoming scores in other low-income D.C. schools. For decades, education researchers blamed kids and their home life for their failure to learn. Now, given the data coming out of classrooms like Mr. Taylor’s, those arguments are harder to take. Poverty matters enormously. But teachers all over the country are moving poor kids forward anyway, even as the class next door stagnates. “At the end of the day,” says Timothy Daly at the New Teacher Project, “it’s the
mind-set that teachers need—a kind of relentless approach to the problem.” (Bold emphasis Mine.)

It isn't funding, classroom size, curriculum, School Board politics, admissions standards, testing or technology that makes education really work: it boils down to parents and teachers. And of the two groups, We can make teachers better...or find those who live to be.

As the article points out: "Once teachers have been in the classroom for a year or two, who is very good—and very bad—becomes much clearer." So why--why, dammit--do We insist on keeping bad teachers involved with Our educational system, with Our children? Why? Because teachers insist on it. They insist, demand, threaten and scream like hysterical mynahs for this to continue because it allows mediocrity to flourish.

No one likes to be held to a higher standard...except the great ones. No one wants to be measured relentlessly...except the superstars. No one wants to be mediocre...but most settle for it while the determined few of Us seek rare air.

Teachers teach best by example. No wonder Our educational system--Our society--is so screwed up.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

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