Thursday, March 04, 2010

Good Teachers Make a Difference. No, Really?

The NY Times finally tells us what we've all known all along - and does it really, really well. I can even (almost) forgive the writer, Elizabeth Green, for ending a sentence with a preposition:
"When researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school’s control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to."
[The photo to the right is copyright Benjamin Norman for The New York Times.] The article begins by noting that paying higher salaries does help to attract and retain the best and most qualified teachers.  However, it also notes that we need to simultaneously be focused on improving pedagogy and content knowledge through professional development,  because of the vast number of teachers that the education system requires to operate (and especially at a time when the baby-boomer teachers are retiring).

The main focus of the article is Doug Lemov, author of an as-yet-unpublished, 375-page long taxonomy of 49 essential teaching techniques (apparently, he distributes it at training seminars, and it will be available from this spring).  Much of the piece describes effective classroom management techniques that the Times illustrates with videos narrated by Lemov. I suspect that every one of our Religious School teachers would benefit from watching these brief videos - and especially the Hebrew teachers.

The article is on-line as of this morning, and already is getting much buzz around the blogosphere (a term I use derisively, btw.  Nothing better than reading a piece in which the author writes "I haven't finished reading this article yet, but I had to post...").

You'll want to read the whole article so that you can read in context little gems like these:
"All Lemov’s techniques depend on his close reading of the students’ point of view, which he is constantly imagining. In Boston, he declared himself on a personal quest to eliminate the saying of “shh” in classrooms, citing what he called “the fundamental ambiguity of ‘shh.’ Are you asking the kids not to talk, or are you asking kids to talk more quietly?” A teacher’s control, he said repeatedly, should be “an exercise in purpose, not in power.”"
"...One [student] is playing with a pair of headphones; another is slowly paging through a giant three-ring binder. Zimmerli stands at the front of the class in a neat tie. “O.K., guys, before I get started today, here’s what I need from you,” he says. “I need that piece of paper turned over and a pencil out.” Almost no one is following his directions, but he is undeterred. “So if there’s anything else on your desk right now, please put that inside your desk.” He mimics what he wants the students to do with a neat underhand pitch. A few students in the front put papers away. “Just like you’re doing, thank you very much,” Zimmerli says, pointing to one of them. Another desk emerges neat; Zimmerli targets it. “Thank you, sir.” “I appreciate it,” he says, pointing to another. By the time he points to one last student — “Nice . . . nice” — the headphones are gone, the binder has clicked shut and everyone is paying attention.

"Lemov [explains] “Imagine if his first direction had been, ‘Please get your things out for class,’ ” he said. Zimmerli got the students to pay attention not because of some inborn charisma, Lemov explained, but simply by being direct and specific. Children often fail to follow directions because they really don’t know what they are supposed to do."
The article also notes that "content can’t be completely divorced from mechanics" and that different types of knowledge - mathematics, reading, science - require not only general skills but also ones unique to the subject. The implications for Jewish education are clear: There are skill sets that make for effective teaching of, say, Hebrew, that aren't necessarily the same as teaching about holidays or transferable if you can effectively teach French. Teachers need to be able to deeply understand the material and then be able to effectively share that knowledge with a room full of students who have diverse ways of thinking and learning.
"“If I’m asking my students a question, and I call on somebody, and they get it wrong, I need to work on how to address that,” [fifth-grade math teacher Katie] Bellucci explained in February. “It’s easy to be like, ‘No,’ and move on to the next person. But the hard part is to be like: ‘O.K., well, that’s your thought. Does anybody disagree? . . . I have to work on going from the student who gets it wrong to students who get it right, then back to the student who gets it wrong and ask a follow-up question to make sure they understand why they got it wrong and understood why the right answer is right.”"
Interestingly, although Lemov's taxonomy, or a similar mathematics-content-driven approach developed by Deborah Loewenberg Ball at the University of Michigan, can be used as a metric to observe what makes for effective education, there isn't clear evidence that these skill sets can actually be taught.
"Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University ... favors policies like rewarding teachers whose students perform well and removing those who don’t but looks skeptically upon teacher training. He has an understandable reason: While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?"
Which brings us back to the original point: Now that we may be able to assess what skills are evidence of effective teaching, we need to offer salaries that will attract and keep the most qualified people in the classroom.

I'm encouraging all of my school faculty to read the article, and especially to watch the videos that the Times has posted. This is some good stuff.
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