Showing posts with label effective teachers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label effective teachers. Show all posts

Saturday, June 4, 2016

How can you support basal readers when we know it's teachers that matter?

Why do you support the use of basal readers for teaching reading? Isn’t it the teachers that make the difference, not the textbooks?

            What an peculiar—but all-too-common—question.

            What has led to this weird belief that schools can have either textbooks or good teachers? That investments in teacher development and textbook adoption are opposites? Or, that the good teachers will run screaming from the room upon textbook purchases?

            The real issue isn’t whether teachers or programs matter, but whether students are best served by a corps of good teachers using a shared program of instruction.

            There is no research showing that textbooks automatically lead to higher reading achievement. But, the reverse is true too… there is no research showing that teachers without programs are in any way advantaged by their omission.

            Over the years, I have known many schools without reading programs. As director of reading in the Chicago schools, there were principals who refused to buy reading programs. Like you, they believed that teachers and kids would do better without them. Achievement levels in those schools were in the bottom 20 percent nationally. I remember proudly telling those teachers I wouldn’t “impose” a reading program on them; their cries of anguish and dismay still haunt me. I’m not blaming their low achievement on the lack of textbooks necessarily, since there were other equally low achieving schools in Chicago that did have them.

            Of course, I also know high achieving schools without textbooks. I’d not credit their high attainment to the dearth of textbooks, but their lack was conferring no obvious disadvantage either. (The schools have particularly well to do clienteles, so I suspect that if you did away with classrooms and teachers, too, they would still be in pretty good shape).

            Anyone honest on this issue knows that it isn’t “scripted boring basal readers” versus “brilliant committed talented teachers” any more than it is “research-based high quality engaging textbooks” versus “lazy underprepared washout teachers.” If it were, it would be an easy choice. Textbooks and teachers are both mixed bags—when looked at collectively.

            To my knowledge only in teaching would anyone make such bizarre decisions… imagine if hospitals agonized over whether to hire highly qualified physicians or to stock the pharmacy!

            Some reasons to have a program, and not just each teacher constructing her own:

1.    Teaching is a team sport, not an individual event.
If teaching were akin to a track event, like a marathon, I’d gladly defer to individual talent. Just hire a good teacher (or runner) and let her do her thing to the best of her ability. The more those individuals hone their idiosyncratic skills the better they’ll be, and their individual styles and choices won’t matter.

But teaching is a collective activity, more like running a relay than a 50-yard dash. Make the separate machinery mesh, you win. In team sports, it’s rare that the best players all end up on one team. Instead, they figure out how to combine all the varied parts into a transcendent whole.

Your metaphor for teaching might be “To Sir With Love” or “The Dead Poet’s Society”—films in which hero teachers, without support of colleagues or administration and certainly with neither textbook nor curriculum, save the world. My metaphor of choice will be the Chicago Bulls—back when Michael Jordan stopped trying to be the hero and learned to pass the ball to his less talented teammates; and when the whole team agreed to the discipline of a structured offense, rather than everyone playing up to their individual ability. A coherent PreK-5 program makes more sense for teaching students to read than 6-7 teachers each doing their own thing, even if they are really nice people and are trying hard.

2.  Teachers have lives, too.
       Another reason I don’t think elementary teachers should be expected to spend their nights designing all the lessons from scratch is because so many teachers do crazy things like get married, have babies, get divorces, take grad classes, take care of ill parents, get ill themselves, and, well, you get the idea. Teaching, when you do it right, is exhausting. Add to that grading papers, IEP meetings, parent phone calls, finding a way to get Bobby home since he missed his bus, and then the less arduous lesson planning (like figuring out the best way to deliver the lesson in the textbook).

      In most situations, teachers simply don’t have the time on their own to put together great lessons everyday. Alternatively, textbook companies hire people who do little besides designing such lessons; they can put all of their energy and resources into that portion of the job. If teacher plans are so sacrosanct, then why do so many teachers without textbooks scan the internet in search of workable lessons other teachers have posted or illegally photocopying texts and materials from elsewhere? The issue isn’t whether teachers can formulate lessons as good as those in the textbooks. On average, they definitely can. The real questions are whether most teachers can do so over long periods of time, or whether their time might be better devoted to studying the kids and fitting textbook to those diverse needs.

3.  Programs sometimes are better.
      One of the things the National Reading Panel looked at was whether teachers should teach “responsive phonics,” that is teaching phonics skills as students need them rather than following a predetermined curriculum. It certainly makes sense that kids would benefit from such personally tailored teaching; very personal, very individualized… and relatively ineffective, when compared to the use of a systematic program. Having tried to teach responsive phonics to first-graders myself, I’m not surprised that following a well-designed phonics curriculum would guarantee high levels of decoding performance to more kids than the jerry-rigged approach.

4.  Systematic improvement.
      If all teachers in a school or district employ the same fourth-grade program, then it is easier to deal with a problem like low fourth-grade vocabulary. Addressing, or even noticing, such patterns is less likely when everyone is does their own thing. If vocabulary were low then apparently everyone needs to change—both those who teach vocabulary poorly and those who teach it well. Sorting out which teachers are struggling gets really touchy, so it usually isn’t addressed at all. In schools in which all teachers are highly effective experts, laissez-faire is usually the school improvement policy of choice.

It is time that we start trying to build quality on quality in education. By all means hire the best teachers you can find, and then invest heavily in their professional development (you’ll find few people who've spent more on teacher’s professional development than me). But then give those teachers the best instructional tools available for supporting their work so that they can, in concert, teach their students to high levels of achievement. (And, don't leave principals, parents, specialists, assessments, etc. out of the equation either).

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Why I'm Not Impressed with Effective Teachers

            I was making a presentation about how to raise reading achievement. I was taking my audience through research on what needed to be taught and how it needed to be taught if kids were to do as well as possible. I was telling about my experiences as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools at a time when my teachers raised reading achievement.

            When I finished, a teacher approached me. “What do you think is the most important variable in higher reading achievement?”

            My answer was, “The amount of teaching—academic experience—that we provide to our children.”

            She stared at me, horrified. “Not the teacher?”

            We hear that a lot these days, that the trick to high quality education is excellent teachers. Who in their right mind could be against excellent teachers?

            For example, the Center for American Progress (CAP) just released a report showing the importance of quality teachers in Pre-K through Grade 3, particularly for kids from low-income families.

            However, I’m more interested in verbs than nouns. The focus on effective teachers—teachers, a noun—makes it seem like we just are attracting the wrong people into the profession. Man, if teachers were smarter, more teacherly, more better, than our kids would do great.

            Contrarily, my focus is on teaching—teaching, a verb—which shifts my attention to what it means to be effective. Effective teachers are not just nicer people to be around, but they do things that less effective teachers do not.

            For example, effective teaching employs instructional time more wisely.  It is teaching that gets started right away—no 30-minute circle times, no large portions of class time devoted to getting a head start on the homework—and such teaching keeps kids productively engaged throughout the day. Observational studies have long showed that effective teaching avoids long wait times by the kids; avoids disruptions; encourages more interaction per instructional minute; follows a sound curriculum intelligently; gets a lot more reading into a lesson; explains things better; notices when kids aren’t getting it and does something about it.

            What’s the difference?

            I can’t teach you to be an effective teacher. But I can teach you to do the kinds of things effective teachers do. We can figure out what makes them so special and can emulate their specialness. Driving a car like Tiger Woods won’t make you a great golfer (sorry General Motors), but if you can get at what makes him great, then perhaps you can emulate that golf behavior successfully. Experts drool over his golf swing—squaring the head of the club up to the ball time after time. You might lack Tiger’s nerves and reflexes and his muscle memory developed through long hours of practice, but you can work on developing a fundamentally sound golf swing—just like Tiger’s—and that will make you a better golfer.

            If the issue of educational effectiveness turns on effective teachers, then you either are one or you are not. If it turns on teaching effectiveness—knowing how to model effectively, to explain things clearly, to guide practice effectively, to let go at the right moment to let the students try it themselves, to review wisely—then we all have a lot to work on. Great teachers aren’t born, they’re made. Effectiveness isn’t a feature of a person, it is a goal to strive for.