On Building a Better Teacher

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

I finally finished Elizabeth Green’s article in NY Magazine titled Building a Better Teacher, which describes Doug Lemov’s methodology and M.K.T. as examples of innovation. It’s a good piece. A basic idea in Green’s article is that money isn’t enough. Better teacher instruction is a good way to go in improving student performance but hasn’t empirically shown improvements where high pay has played a role as incentive. But teacher instruction is easer said than done.

Nearly 80 percent of classroom teachers received their bachelor’s degrees in education, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet a 2006 report written by Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, the esteemed institution at Columbia University, assessed the state of teacher education this way: “Today, the teacher-education curriculum is a confusing patchwork. Academic instruction and clinical instruction are disconnected. Graduates are insufficiently prepared for the classroom.” By emphasizing broad theories of learning rather than the particular work of the teacher, methods classes and the rest of the future teacher’s coursework often become what the historian Diane Ravitch called “the contentless curriculum.”

Of Lemov’s plans:

Lemov is interested in offering teachers what he describes as an incentive just as powerful as cash: the chance to get better. “If it’s just a big pie, then it’s just a question of who’s getting the good teachers,” Lemov told me. “The really good question is, can you get people to improve really fast and at scale?”

Good pay, good teachers, and solid instruction and practice in the art of teaching. While Green does a good job describing methods as solutions, she rarely touches on the why’s of teaching beyond the problem of “scope” and “poor performance.” It’s never wrong to ask why schools “should” exist in their present form. The United States has millions of children to teach and thus requires millions of teachers. An additional issue has to do with the problem of educating the educators who educate the educators and how large of an issue this is. Another issue with the article is its emphasis on managing the classroom and holding the attention of students “in school.” Green and her subjects know there’s more to the problem but the examples invariably always come to the simple notion of attending to the teacher and to content. Fine. All one has to do here is examine TV to understand that the most basic attention skill is the ability to perform with a persona. Ultimately, questions about improving the performance of the entire system will come down to asking questions about the metaphors we use, such as classroom, student, teacher, school, schooling, and test, and whether schools frame a humane and ethical dimension of the life we want people to have in the future.

I never really understood the content of M.K.T. tests, but found this interesting:

Inspired by Ball, other researchers have been busily excavating parallel sets of knowledge for other subject areas. A Stanford professor named Pam Grossman is now trying to articulate a similar body of knowledge for English teachers, discerning what kinds of questions to ask about literature and how to lead a group discussion about a book.

I don’t understand what this means or the implications and context, other than it points to general abilities teachers should demonstrate informed discipline to discipline. What are the knowledge sets, which are going to be critical ten years from now when students heading out of schools in the future enter schools of education?

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