Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Search for Great Teachers

Bellwether Partners is a right-leaning pro-reform outfit that often comes across as the Fordham Institute's little brother. Like most such outfits, they like to crank out the occasional "report," and their latest is an interesting read. "No Guarantees" by Chad Aldeman and Asley LiBetti Mitchel is a look at the teacher creation pipeline that asks the subheading question, "Is it possible to ensure that teachers are ready on day one?"

The introduction sets the tone for the piece:

The single best predictor of who will be a great teacher next year is who was a great teacher this year.
The second best predictor is... Well, there really isn’t one that’s close. 

And that carries right through to the title of the first section-- "We Don't Know How to Train Good Teachers."

Let me be clear right up front. My own teacher training came from a not-so-traditional program, and my experience with student teachers over the decades does not make me inclined to give uncritical spirited defense of our current techniques for preparing teachers for the classroom. So I'm not unsympathetic to some of Bellwether's concerns. I just think they miss a few critical points. Okay, several. Let's take a look at what they have to say.

What We Don't Know

The authors note that teacher preparation has always focused on inputs, and those inputs include a lot of time and a buttload of money. But there's not much research basis to support those inputs. And they break down the various points at which we don't know things.

"We don't know which candidates to admit." Tightening admission requirements, checking SAT scores, tough admission tests-- these all seem like swell ideas to some folks, but there's no proof that  tougher admissions policies lead to better teachers. This makes sense-- why would things like SAT scores, which are not highly predictive of much of anything,

"We don't know what coursework to require-- if any." On the one hand, there are many teacher preparation programs that involve ridiculous, time-wasting courses. I'd bet that almost every teacher who ever worked with a student teacher has stories of playing that game where, during a supervisory visit from the college, the student and co-operating teacher pretend to be using some method endorsed by the university and implemented by approximately zero real live classroom teachers. On the other hand, if you think a teacher can be adequately prepared without any methods courses at all, or courses dealing with child development-- that any random assortment of courses is as good as any other assortment-- then you are just being silly.

"We don't know what the right certification requirements are." The authors don't have an actual point here other than, "Why shouldn't people who have been through a short-- say, five weekish-- training program be just as certifiable as people who studied teaching?" The reformster vision is deeply devoted to the idea that The Right People don't need any of that fancy-pants teacher training, and even when they are being relatively even-handed, they can't get past that bias.

"We don't know how to help teachers improve once they begin teaching."  This has been covered before, in the TNTP "report" The Mirage.The short answer is that the most effective professional development happens when it control of it is in the hands of the teachers themselves. The disappointing or non-existent results are not so much related to Professional Development as they are related to Programmed Attempts To Get Teachers To Do What Policymakers Want Them To, Even If The Ideas Are Stupid or Bad Practice.

What We Really Don't Know

What Bellwether and other reformsters really don't know is how to tell whether any of these factors make a difference or not. What they really don't know is how to identify a great teacher. Every one of the items above are dismissed on the grounds of showing no discernible effect on "student achievement" or "teacher effectiveness" or other phrases that are euphemisms for "student scores on standardized tests."

This is a fair and useful measure only if you think the only purpose of a teacher, the only goal of teaching as a profession, is to get students to score higher on standardized tests. This is a view of teaching the virtually nobody at all agrees with (and I include in that "nobody" reformsters themselves, who do NOT go searching for private schools for their children based on standardized test scores).

Bellwether's metric and criticism is the equivalent of benching NBA players based on how well their wives do at macrame. The Bellwether criticism only seems more legit because it overlaps with some issues that deserve some thoughtful attention. The problem is that all the thoughtful attention in the world won't do any good if we are using a lousy metric to measure success. Student standardized test scores are a lousy metric for almost anything, but they are a spectacularly lousy metric for finding great teachers.

So Let's Talk About Outcomes

Next up, we contemplate the idea of measuring teacher preparation programs by looking at their "outcomes." This has taken a variety of forms, the most odious of which is measuring a college teaching program by looking at the standardized test results of the students in the classrooms of the graduates of the program, which (particularly if you throw some VAM junk science on top) makes a huge baloney sandwich that can't be seriously promoted as proof of anything at all. This is judging an NBA player based on the math skills of the clerk in the store that sells the wife-made macrame.

Another outcome to consider is employment rates, which is actually not as crazy as it seems; at the lowest ebb of one local college's program, my district stopped sending them notices of vacancies because their graduates were so uniformly unprepared for a classroom. But of course graduates' employment prospects can be affected by many factors far outside the university's control.

Aldeman and Mitchel provide a good survey of the research covering interest in outcomes, and they fairly note that efforts at outcome-based program evaluations have run aground on a variety of issues, not the least of which is that the various models don't really find any significant differences between teacher prep programs. Focusing on outcomes, they conclude, seems to be a good idea right up to the point you try to actually, practically do it.

What Might Actually Work

All of this means that policymakers are still looking for the right way to identify effective teacher preparation and predict who will be an effective teacher. Nothing tried so far guarantees effective teachers. Yet there are breadcrumbs that could lead to a better approach. 

Aldeman and Mitchel have several breadcrumbs that strike them as tasty. In particular, they note that teacher quality is fairly predictable from day one-- the point at which teachers are actually in a classroom with actual students. Which-- well, yes. That's the point of student teaching. But I agree-- among first year teachers I think you find a small percentage who are excellent from day one, a smaller percentage that will be dreadful (the percentage is smaller because student teaching, done right, will chase away the worst prospects), and a fair number who can learn to be good with proper mentoring and assistance.

But Bellwether has four recommendations. They make their case, and they note possible objections.

Make it easier to get in

Right now getting into teaching is high risk, high cost, and low reward. There's little chance for advancement. There is considerable real cost and opportunity cost for entering the profession, which one might suppose makes fewer people likely to do so.

Drop the certification requirements, knock off foolishness like EdTPA, punt the Praxis, and just let anybody who has a hankering into the profession. Local schools would hire whoever they felt inclined to hire. Teachers might still enroll in university programs in hopes that it will improve their chances-- "add value" as these folks like to put it. But the market would still be flooded with plenty of teacher wanna-bes. And I'm sure that if any of these were open to working for lower pay because it hadn't cost them that much to walk into the profession, plenty of charter and private and criminally underfunded public schools would be happy to hire these proto-teachers.

The authors note the objection to untrained teachers in the classroom, and generally lowering the regard for the profession by turning it into a job that literally anybody can claim to be qualified for. The "untrained teacher" objection is dismissed by repeating that there's no proof that "training" does any good. At least, no proof that matches their idea of proof.  As for the regard for the profession, the authors wax philosophical-- who really knows where regard for a profession comes from, anyway??

What did they miss here? Well, they continue to miss the value of good teacher preparation programs which do a good job of preparing teachers for the classroom. But even the worst programs screen for an important feature-- how badly do you want it? One of the most important qualities needed to be a good teacher is a burning, relentless desire to be a good teacher, to be in that classroom. Even if a program requires candidates to climb a mountain of cowpies to then fill out meaningless paperwork at the top, it would be marginally useful because it would answer the question, "Do you really, really want to be a teacher?"

The teaching profession has no room for people who are just trying it out, thought it might be interesting, figured they might give it a shot, want to try it for a while, or couldn't think of anything else to do. Lowering the barriers to the profession lets more of those people in, and we don't need any of them.

Make schools and districts responsible for licensing teachers

Again, this is an idea that would make life so much easier for the charters that Bellwether loves so much. It's still an interesting idea-- the authors are certainly correct to note that nobody sees the teacher being a teacher more clearly or closely than the school in which that teacher works. The authors suggest that proto-teachers start out in low stakes environment like summer school or after school tutoring, both of which are so far removed from an actual classroom experience as to be unhelpful for our purposes. On top of that, it would seriously limit the number of new teachers that a district could take on, while requiring them to somehow bring those proto-teachers on a few years before they were actually needed for a real classroom, requiring a special school administrators crystal ball.

In other words, this idea is an interesting idea, but it will not successfully substitute for making sure that a candidate has real teacher training in the first place.

The other huge problem, which they sort of acknowledge in their objections list, is that this only works if the school or district are run by administrators who know what the hell they're doing and who aren't working some sort of other agenda. A lousy or vindictive or just plain messed up administrator could have a field day with this sort of power. Possible abuses range from "you'll work an extra eight hours a week for free in exchange for certification" to "you'll serve as the building janitor for free to earn your certification" to "come see if you can find your teaching certification in my pants."

Measure and Publicize Results 

Baloney. This is the notion of a market-driven new business model for teacher preparation, and it's baloney. We've already established that states can't collect meaningful on teacher programs, and Bellwether wants to see the data collection expanded to all the various faux teacher programs. They've already said that nobody has managed to scarf up data in useful or reliable quantities; now they're saying, well, maybe someone will figure out how soon. Nope.

Unpack the Black Box of Good Teaching

This boils down to "More research is required. We should do some." But this is problematic. We can't agree on what a good teacher looks like, or even what they are supposed to be doing. Bellwether becomes the gazillionth voice to call for "new assessments that measures [sic] higher-order thinking," which is just unicorn farming. Those tests do not exist, and they will never exist. And their suggestion of using Teach for America research as a clue to great teaching is ludicrous as well. There is no evidence outside of TFA's own PR to suggest that TFA knows a single thing about teaching that is not already taught in teaching prep programs across the country-- and that several things they think they know are just not true.

Another huge problem with unpacking the black box is the assumption that the only thing inside that box is a teacher. But all teachers operate in a relationship with their students, their school setting, their community, and the material they teach. The continued assumption that a great teacher is always a great teacher no matter what, and so this fixed and constant quality can be measured and dissected-- that's all just wrong. It's like believing that a great husband would be a great husband no matter which spouse he was paired up with, that based on my performance as a husband to my wife, I could be an equally great partner for Hillary Clinton or Taylor Swift or Elton John or Ellen Degeneres. I'm a pretty good teacher of high school English, but I'm pretty sure I would be a lousy teacher of fifth grade science.

Great teaching is complex and multifaceted and on top of everything else, a moving target. It deserves constant and thorough study because such research will help practitioners fit more tools into their toolbox, but there will never be enough research completed to reduce teaching to a simple recipe that allows any program to reliably cook up an endless supply of super-teachers suitable for any and all schools. And more to the point, the research seems unlikely to reveal that yes, anybody chosen randomly off the street, can be a great teacher.

Operating at that busy and complicated intersection requires a variety of personal qualities, professional skills, and specialized knowledge.

Bottom Line

There are plenty of interesting questions and criticisms raised by this report, but the conclusions and recommendations are less interesting and less likely to be useful for anyone except charters and privatizers who want easier access to a pliable and renewable workforce. Dumping everything into the pool and just buying a bigger filter is not a solution. Tearing down the profession and pretending that no training really matters is silly. We do need to talk about teacher preparation in this country, but one of the things we need to talk about is how to keep from poisoning the well with the bad policies and unfounded assumptions of the reformster camp.

There are some good questions raised by this report, but we will still need to search for answers.


  1. In my experience important factors to being a good teacher are experience teaching, knowledge of subject matter, passion for teaching and subject matter, and the ability to organize material and present it in an organized way. Good luck figuring out how to measure those factors.

  2. I always wished I could have skipped at least a year of my teacher training and had it replaced with a year of on-site student teaching. An apprenticeship system...

  3. What organizations like Bellwether will never understand is that teaching is about relationships, which can't really be taught. You have to have somewhat of a natural ability to connect with kids, which gets developed over time. Also, relationships are built as much (or more) on listening as on talking. Everything the rephormers advocate actually makes worse teachers because it destroys relationships either intentionally (the "don't say please" school of "teaching") or unintentionally because after focusing your whole day wall to wall on test prep there's no time to develop relationships. It's been proven so many times that internal motivation is the key. Punishments and rewards simply don't work, except for short term outward compliance. But people - including and especially kids - will voluntarily work hard when they perceive that someone actually cares about them. Until and unless the rephormers start to realize that kids are human beings, they will never understand teaching and learning.

  4. I agree with everything Eric says. (I usually do.) :)

    Bellwether is stupid, ignorant, and just pushing their stupid agenda.

    What courses to require: to me it's very clear.

    Who to admit: anyone who wants to try the program.

    Certification: based on coursework, clinical practice (which needs to be re-vamped), and maybe a test, but the praxis is crap. I could easily design a better test.

    How to have teachers improve: also obvious.

    It's stupid to try to "create great teachers." In any profession there are only going to be a few really "great" practitioners, and you're not going to "create" them, and not everybody may agree on who they are. Some practitioners may do certain things better than most. But we can and do prepare people to be good teachers, and there's nothing wrong with good. The most important thing you need to be a good teacher and to continually improve is a passion for teaching. The most important thing to disqualify you is any kind of racial prejudice.

    As Peter says, it's a question of personal qualities, professional skills, and specialized knowledge.

  5. Do you see any high school seniors with a passion to become teachers who want to devote themselves to training you describe? Those students are about five years away from being that key person in the classroom that you (we) are now for them. If it all starts with teacher passion, the path even starts senior year in high school. A lot of maturing can and does take place in the next five years. But do they share the value system you describe? Or has a new value system evolved...and keep evolving? Maybe the younger generation relates more to the Bellwether message. What can be done?

  6. If the subject is teacher training, I'd like to chime in. I taught for thirty-odd years, now sort-of retired. I earned my credential in California taking the standard sorts of credentialing courses. When I started working, I was not incompetent, but I nevertheless feel that it took me about five years of work to become fully competent. And even then, I knew there was room for something more.

    Then I came across a program called "Developmental Education" at U.C. Berkeley. It was a two-year program leading to a Master's Degree and a Teaching Credential. At that time, a few of us who already had teaching credentials were allowed to enroll just to get the master's degree. Actually it wasn't to get the degree, but the education.

    Developmental Education in those days was mainly based around the research of Jean Piaget, though we also studied Erik Erikson, Lev Vygotsky, and others. Mainly, though, it was Piaget's work that revolutionized my own understanding of what education is in the first place, and helped me become a pretty good teacher at long last.

    I guess I mention all this for a couple reasons. First, of course, is the work of Piaget. People often tell me we've "gone beyond" him, but in reality, I find that most people never understood him in the first place. One could say he was influential back in the sixties, but only through misinterpretations of his work, sadly.

    Second, American education still struggles with the misapplication of behaviorism, which I feel is one opposite of Piaget's work. Until we repudiate its influence in the areas of learning where it is inappropriate, we'll never get anywhere. It's a frame of thought that's hard to break out of otherwise.

    And third, to express the fact that, although I once had a student teacher who was "good to go" right from the get go, most of us mortals require five years or longer to fulfill our potentials as teachers. In my case, it was much longer. Allowance for this situation is necessary for any successful program of teacher education. I was lucky and had the resources to "complete my training" on my own. Not everyone is so lucky. And despite its effectiveness, the developmental teacher program no longer exists at Berkeley.

    Because teaching a classroom is not something that just anybody off the street can do. Teaching skills are real things, difficult to hone, and not, as some people seem to think, limited to knowing how to work the movie projector or the xerox machine. You know the old saying: those who can, teach. Those who can't, work for industry.

    1. I loved reading this comment.
      As I have mentioned before, a close friend of mine teaches these subjects and is known for her ability to help students truly apply it to practice. She works incredibly hard to teach others to teach. I think Peter should consider exploring an interview with faculty who delived ed psych classes and get an idea not just of what teachers are teaching, but also the attitudes, values and inclinations of the students. With every new year, new people enter the fold of teachers. How these people view educatiin while still in the training phase is worth exploring.

    2. Paul, I agree with everything you say, especially about studying Piaget, Erikson, Vygotsky, and I would add Jerome Bruner.

  7. This is an important discussion. How do we get better quality people into the classroom.

    Think broadly. Public schools aren't the only place where teaching is happening. Takes place in business, campus, community groups.....and most of this is done without any type of certification whatsoever. So what makes K-12 teaching that much different?

    The answer is: very little.

    Only takes a day or two on a college campus to learn who the really great teachers are. No, not the easy graders or the trendy pop culture types, but the ones who are content experts and super engaging. No testing, No VAM required.

    In the business world the great companies with great leaders know which are the great trainers. Not the TED talking heads with heart warming stories, but the ones who can deliver content, expand thinking and drive change in behaviors. No bureaucracy with checkboxes reading 'Highly Qualified".

    Then there are the context experts in our community who, with the a little bit of instruction and mentoring, could turn their knowledge into dynamite teaching. Added plus is that they're already embedded in the culture of the community. A far cry from who drive in from the suburbs to teach inner city kids.

    What do all these and more have in common? They can't enter a K-12 classroom without having to spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on marginal value degrees and certifications. Why do we do it this way? Why are we keeping so much potential talent locked out of the classroom?

    1. The notion that teaching in a public school classroom isn't really very different from any of the other teaching going on in the world is staggeringly ignorant. Teaching children, particularly small children, is different from teaching adults. Teaching students who are required to attend school is different from training employees who get their paycheck from you, or teaching volunteers who all choose to participate.

      No question that there is huge value in getting teachers from the community in which the school is located.

      PA several years ago pushed to recruit "guest teachers" as a path to certification, and we briefly saw businessmen, retired military and other community folks enter the classroom. In my neck of the woods (a relatively sleepy rural-small town district), they all eventually bailed. Most frequent complaint was some version of "these kids don't listen to me the way my subordinates always used to."

      I see no reason to believe that tons of talent "locked out" of the classroom.

    2. "... is staggeringly ignorant."

      What do you expect from someone who talks about "better quality people"?

    3. I think that teaching college freshman has a good deal more in common with teaching high school seniors than teaching first graders has in common with teaching high school seniors. Given that my state only requires students to attend school until their 16th birthday, most of the students taught in high school would be volunteers just like the college freshman.

      I have taught many college freshman over the last 30 years, yet like most of the faculty teaching college freshman, I am still officially unqualified to teach high school seniors in public schools. It is people like me (and most of the post secondary college and university faculty) that Michael Brand may have in mind

    4. No Peter, it's not the same....but it's not as far apart as you may think. Gotta know your content and know your audience....and know if you can deliver to that audience. I'd never make it with grade school kids, but have done much work with late teens and bet I could deliver to juniors and seniors.

      And I remember the guest teacher program. Close colleague joined after 20 years in military. Loved the kids, respected most his other teachers, was given a great mentor. Bailed after five years saying "I left the Army to get away from this kind of Brass and Bullsh!t"

      And Dienne, you may not want to talk about better quality people, but policy makers and those who control the purse strings are talking about it. If your honest, you know you talk like this as well.....for it's the argument that accompanies the reason why we need to pay people more.

    5. People like you and those policy makers and those who control the purse strings who think that there are "better quality people" are part of the problem. You are, in fact, revealing a lot about yourselves and it isn't pretty.

  8. Could you please identify the great companies with great leaders? I'm sure that people were saying this about Bears Stearns and Lehman Brothers right before they collapsed. A lot of people thought Bernie Madoff was a genius. In the business world, all the companies and CEO's are great. That's why they need to be paid so much. Likewise, all the consultants are great "teachers". If they weren't, then why would their fees be so high?

    As for college campuses, there are plenty of phonies who appear to be great teachers, but really aren't. It simply is not that easy to figure out who is a great teacher.

  9. Anybody ever hear of the bell curve? TNTP (The New Teachers Project, but they dumped the name and only want to be known by the acronym, and that's saying something they didn't intend) says you have to go through 11 hires to replace a great teacher with another great teacher. Why aren't good teachers wanted? Why are average teachers sneered at if the average brings results? Don't quote BS test results at me. They tell us nothing other than how well students can take a particular test.

    1. I agree with you about the bell curve. Also teachers do not teach in isolation. They teach in a school, a complex institution. The quality of that institution can greatly affect the teaching of an individual teacher. The teacher portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver was great until he moved to Hiram Johnson HS in Sacramento CA. He was not great there. Not his fault. He did not have students coming to him with the same level of preparation. The great teacher myth is just a version of the great man or rugged individual myth.