Politics & Policy

Build Better Teachers

(Dreamstime)
The most important factor in a student’s success is the quality of the teacher.

For the past half-century, and particularly since the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report, Americans have been heaving great sacks of money at schools. Federal spending alone has tripled since the 1970s. The New York Times calculates that the federal government now spends $107.6 billion on education yearly, which is layered over an estimated $524.7 billion spent by states and localities. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics.)

Reformers have urged — depending upon where they stand ideologically — smaller class sizes, more accountability, merit pay for teachers, and educational choice. Each year seems to bring a new fad: child-centered learning; new math; cooperative learning; and so forth. The No Child Left Behind reform focused on testing. There have been proposals to repeal teacher tenure and to provide every child with a laptop. And always there are fights over curriculum — the Common Core being the controversy du jour.

But perhaps the most promising thinking about education arises from the discovery of economist Erik Hanushek that the most important factor in student performance is the quality of the teacher. Not class size. Not spending per pupil. Not even curriculum.

Our system produces some great teachers, but only by luck. Each year, 400,000 new teachers enter American classrooms, many knowing little about the nuts and bolts of teaching. As Elizabeth Green argues in her new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), our education schools do not teach the mechanics of teaching — how to control a classroom, how to engage students’ imaginations, how to check for understanding. They’ve been sidetracked by educational psychology and fads at the expense of teaching how to teach.

Green cites “education entrepreneurs” including Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, and Deborah Loewenberg Ball, now dean of the University of Michigan’s school of education, who focus on helping ordinary teachers become great.

Lemov, an education reformer and consultant, was struck by something he found when he pored over statistics from the state of New York. While the correlation between zip codes and educational success was notable, there were always outliers — schools or classrooms in which even kids from impoverished backgrounds were doing well. Lemov zeroed in on those schools and those particular teachers.

The result is indicated in the subtitle of his book: “49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.” Some of the techniques are inspired, others are quotidian but still important (like how not to waste time pleading for responses). The point is that teaching is a performance every day, which is not easy. Teachers must spark the interest and keep the attention of their students (who bring all kinds of troubles from home), encourage the weak ones along with the strong, maintain discipline, and build a sense of team spirit. Lemov doesn’t believe that anyone can be a great teacher, but he does think that with coaching and mentoring, good teachers can become great.

Some of Lemov’s proven techniques will not surprise educational traditionalists. He believes in drilling, though he calls it “muscle memory.” A great teacher will drill arithmetic skills, for example, until they are second nature, so that students needn’t stumble over the easy stuff when they get to algebra and geometry. (Education schools had disdained this as “drill and kill.”) Another technique Lemov suggests is “cold calls” — that is, having the teacher choose students randomly rather than just those who raise their hands. Each child, knowing he might be called upon, must be ready. (It works in law schools.) A companion technique is “no opt out.” If the child says he doesn’t know, the teacher asks a related question to another student to narrow down the possible right answer and returns to the first child for a second chance.

There are broad suggestions about classroom management and more subtle and difficult challenges such as maintaining “emotional constancy,” which is refraining from showing anger when a child gives the wrong answer. Anger will teach a child to try to hide his ignorance rather than accept it as a normal part of the learning enterprise.

Teaching is a craft. It may be among the hardest to master. Renewed attention to teaching teaching seems long overdue.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. © 2014 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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