Sunday, October 17, 2010

TEACHING TEACHERS - As educators struggle with the issue of teacher improvement, a program in Tennessee shows that struggling teachers can gain a lot from watching great teachers in action.

By Emily Hanford – Op-Ed/Essay from the L.A. Times |

October 17, 2010 -- Teachers are at the center of the great debate over how to fix American education. We're told the bad ones need to be fired; the good ones, rewarded. But what about the rest? Most teachers are in the middle — not terrible, but they could be better. If every student is going to have a good teacher, then the question of how to help teachers in the middle must be part of the debate.

One reason "teacher improvement" doesn't get more attention is because researchers don't know that much about how teachers get better. Typical professional development programs, in which teachers go to a workshop for a day or two, aren't effective. Even programs that provide longer-term training don't seem to work very well. Two experimental studies by the U.S. Department of Education showed that yearlong institutes to improve teacher knowledge and practice did not result in significantly better student test scores.

Maybe the idea that teachers can get better is folly — not worth the effort. Eric Hanushek, an economist whose pioneering research on teacher quality is fueling the "fire or reward" debate, says that teachers are born and not made. In his opinion, the most efficient way to raise teaching quality is to get rid of the worst teachers and hire better ones.

This is the stance of many influential education leaders. The superintendents of 16 large school districts recently signed a manifesto about how to fix American education. In it, there is a lot about the importance of teachers, but only one phrase about teacher training. "We need the best teacher for every child," the superintendents write, "but let's stop pretending that everyone who goes into the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence."

Clearly, ineffective teachers shouldn't be allowed to remain in the classroom. But surely there are ways to help teachers get better.

As part of my reporting for a radio documentary called "Testing Teachers," I went looking for teacher improvement programs that work. The best example I found is the Benwood Initiative in Chattanooga, Tenn. Benwood "worked" according to the measure that matters most these days: test scores. Before the initiative, teachers in the city's worst schools were far less effective at raising student test scores than their colleagues at better performing suburban schools. Six years later, teachers in the city schools were more effective than their colleagues in the suburbs.

Here's what happened. Chattanooga's Benwood Foundation, together with local education leaders, scoured school data. They realized there were a lot of ineffective teachers in failing schools. But they also discovered there were really great teachers there too. Why not figure out a way for the less effective teachers to learn from the superstars?

So the school district set up a mentoring system. One distinctive feature of the system is that teachers spend time in their colleagues' classrooms, watching each other teach. "What we believe is you have to recognize where greatness is and help other teachers see and learn from great teaching," says Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga and one of the leaders of the Benwood Initiative.

It's amazing how few teachers get a chance to do this simple thing. Some have the opportunity to observe other teachers during their student teaching experience. But when that's over, a lot of teachers end up isolated in their classrooms. They hear tales about great teachers in their building, but they rarely, if ever, get a chance to watch them teach.

"As a teacher you don't really know — what's good teaching?" says Maggie Thomas, a former teacher who is now involved with efforts to improve teaching in Washington, D.C., public schools. Thomas travels from school to school, observing teachers as part of the District of Columbia's new teacher evaluation system. "I came to this job with a certain set of teaching practices in my repertoire," Thomas says. But after watching 200 other teachers, she's learned all kinds of new techniques and approaches. She says this is what teachers need — a chance to see great teachers in action.

Of course, just watching a great teacher is not necessarily going to turn a struggling teacher into a good one. The Benwood Initiative included many elements. Teachers who didn't want to be helped were let go. New principals were recruited. Curriculum and school culture were addressed. But rearranging schedules and resources so teachers got a chance to watch each other teach proved to be a powerful part of the process.

"Of all of my years of teaching, these last eight to 10 years I probably have done a better job than I've ever done before," says Linda Land, a Chattanooga teacher with 37 years of experience. Everyone used to close their doors and do their own thing. Now they work together on everything: They plan lessons, trade advice and give each other feedback. Land says the school is a more open and collaborative place. And it's more fun to come to work.

The role that collaboration and teamwork play in helping teachers get better needs more attention and study. So does the idea of setting up schools so teachers get a chance to regularly observe and learn from their colleagues — not just when they're new or struggling but throughout their careers. Learning to be a good teacher is an ongoing process. The best teachers in Chattanooga say they're good because they never stop trying to be better. And they want to work in schools where teacher learning is nurtured and taken seriously.

Emily Hanford is a reporter for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. You can listen to the documentary "Testing Teachers" here.

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