Professionalize teaching through continual assessment and improvement

An EducationWeek commentary, “It’s the Classroom, Stupid”, notes that most school reforms focus on issues that can be changed from outside the classroom (charter schools; class size; teacher credentials; funding) rather than the most important factor in student achievement: teacher-student interactions inside the classroom. There are lousy teachers and great teachers, and data prove that students learn much more from great teachers than from lousy teachers. But the field of education has done a miserable job of helping teachers become great teachers… or even avoid becoming ineffective teachers.

I recently blogged about exciting new research on what constitutes great teaching. Amazingly, to determine what works and what doesn’t, American educators have relied almost exclusively on individual trial-and-error learning within their classrooms. Knowledge about what techniques work best has not been systematically codified and taught to teachers. Consequently, though most teachers work hard and care deeply about their students, America has many poor teachers. Many teachers, for example, have never learned the most effective techniques for controlling a classroom. That knowledge now exists and can be taught, but it is only just beginning to be shared with teachers.

If applied widely, these new research findings could greatly improve American education at virtually no cost.

But many educators are overconfident in their teaching abilities (because they falsely equate years of teaching with knowledge of how best to teach) and/or fearful of others discovering their flaws. Teachers with years of experience may have figured out many great teaching skills… and acquired many bad habits. Given how poorly the educational establishment has taught teachers the craft of teaching, it’s little wonder so many teachers have acquired so many bad habits and fear outsiders peeking into their classrooms:

The mismanagement of classroom instruction is the ugly secret and fatal flaw of school reform. Everyone knows that school systems are horrendously mismanaged…

Most educators, bless them, are drawn to the profession by the opportunity it offers to nurture the growth of children. They are more at ease with informal and collegial, rather than formal and hierarchical, relationships, and they resist being squeezed into a corporate-management mold. Most experienced teachers (and principals, too) want to close their classroom doors and do their own thing, in their own way.

At the same time, a “we vs. they” mind-set prevails. Educators perceive outsiders in general—from parents to politicians to management experts—as grandstanding quarterbacks who constantly second-guess their own expertise… One teacher spoke for many when she blurted out: “We get sick and tired of these [outside] bozos trying to come into the schools and tell us our jobs. We’re the experts. We know what works. I wish all these noneducators would just shut up, take care of their own jobs, and let us take care of ours.”

I would sympathize with this sentiment if most teachers were truly skilled at their craft. Unfortunately, the majority of teachers are underperforming because they’re not using cutting-edge educational research findings to improve, they’re not videotaping and studying their classroom performance, they’re not inviting their fellow teachers into their classrooms to offer advice, etc. Because they were never taught the craft of teaching, many teachers believe they’re classroom artists. They don’t realize they’re lousy artists because no one’s telling them they’re holding the brush wrong or misusing colors because they’re red-green colorblind.

World-class athletes become world-class by stepping outside of themselves and observing their performance with a hyper-critical eye. They film their performances and watch those films over and over again with coaches and kinesiologists to identify opportunities for improvement. They ask nutritionists about their diets. They visit sports psychologists to improve their “mental game.”

At great schools, teachers continually train one another. Great schools systematically enable teachers to help one another improve. My son will begin attending such a wonderful school in the fall. Its literature says one of its “five core techniques” is “professional development of teachers through daily coaching and learning”:

Coaching is a cornerstone of The Children’s School’s commitment to be a true learning community, with all members participating in the process.

…Coaching is a method that provides clear, concise feedback for the purpose of continuous School improvement. It is used to train teachers, assess the work of students, and practiced by all… Feedback takes the form of three plusses (positive aspects of an interaction) and a wish, or growth point, for the future. Three different methods of staff coaching are used. Teachers observe each others' work on a daily basis and share their observations through:

Video Coaching… Pen & Pencil Coaching… [and] Daily Coaching… using the staff communication log.

If teachers want to be treated as professionals, they must act professionally. And professionals systematically critique and improve their performance. Teachers can and should help one another improve their performance. Any teacher who hermetically seals her/his classroom and believes they’re too good a teacher to benefit from suggestions from other teachers (or too miserable a teacher to withstand the scrutiny of other teachers and educational experts) should be fired.

Posted by James on Tuesday, March 23, 2010