Thursday, December 18, 2014

Lessons from Building a Better Teacher

This is the second in a series of three micro reviews of recent books that are intended to help interested parents discuss the question, “What do we want our kids to get out of school, and which schools can do this well?” More background on the series here.

In my last post, a discussion of Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, I noted that the top schools in the world distinguish themselves with consistently excellent teachers who continue to improve over time. As you might expect, a single teacher can have an enormous impact (positive or negative) on the development of a child and class, with the impact lasting for many years to come.

Even people who have their heads stuck in the sand most of the time are aware of the constant political battles over teachers and teacher quality. So you might think, like me, that that discussion has been at least partly informed by a long and concerted effort over the past century to understand what makes teachers effective, and how to replicate and disseminate those skills. According to Elizabeth Green in Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), you would be wrong.

In fact, Green says, it wasn’t until relatively recently that teaching professionals and policy makers began to think that teaching was a craft that could be learned and improved. Most people and policy makers labored under the assumption that it was a natural talent that you just had or you didn’t. Pretty counterintuitive and shocking to the modern reader! There has been a concerted effort in the last couple of decades to simply develop a basic language about the craft of teaching; what is the specific maneuver or technique even called? Depressing but apparently true.

Key Questions for Parents
For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip over the majority of the completely fascinating content of the book and head straight to what I took as the practical applications for parents.

My read of the book is that, if you’re looking at schools for your kids, you/we should ask:
  • What is the professional development system for teachers? Who meets with whom, how often and what happens with the results of that meeting? What are some examples of changes that teachers have made based on these sessions?
  • How often teachers are observed by peer professionals in their classrooms for the sake of constructive critique and development?
  • How has the principal dealt with underperforming teachers in the past? How has she helped keep top performing teachers going strong?

As you tour classrooms, do you see evidence that teachers have the same high expectations for kids of all backgrounds, or are they assuming that some kids aren’t as capable as others?

SFUSD Schools
For SFUSD schools, union agreements obviously heavily influence the answers to most of these questions. But a principal can still make a huge difference in cultivating a strong professional development culture in a school. My husband went on the West Portal tour recently and was surprised by how disinterested the principal seemed to be in this topic (and academics in general). I know that principals change often in SFUSD and some of the past advice on this blog is to place little weight on your estimation of the principal. While I agree with that in part, that sort of thinking only works if the teachers are already excellent and self-motivated and -organized to continue to be excellent or parents are supplementing/watchdogging school learning with home or outside learning. That’s true of many schools, but not all.

I’ve heard a lot of speculation about Clarendon’s special sauce: what is it? While most people seem to focus on parent involvement and fundraising, what I picked up on the tour and this book is that they have the benefit of an unusually deep roster of effective teachers who have been at the school for a long time, and are being supported and watchdogged by an exceptionally involved parent community. They’re in a virtuous circle.

I went to a new public magnet elementary school when I was growing up and had an insider’s view of how the extremely strong principal of that school, in partnership with the parents, turned a sleepy, not so great school into one of the best schools in the city, still serving an extremely diverse population of kids. The principal made me cry at least once (I forgot to bring in a grant application that my mother had written and was due that day), but she was incredibly focused and effective. The sudden elevation of expectations and energy helped offset the rampant poor teaching happening in that school, over which she technically had very little ability to change. As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Private Schools and Public Charter Schools
Private and charter schools operate by different rules than SFUSD. So if you are looking at either of those types of schools, you have more ability to probe deeply into teacher professional development. The schools’ answers to your questions will likely tell you a lot about the mission and level of rigor of the school, per The Smartest Kids in the World. In her book, Green makes it clear that there isn’t necessarily just one way to do teacher professional development well. But a good school will be doing constant professional development, including in-class observations by peers (or by video camera). Schools should be cultivating a culture of constant improvement.

Constant teacher professional development is the mantra of at least two schools that I’ve looked at, AltSchool (private) and The New School of San Francisco (public charter). No doubt there are many more; please shout them out if you’ve seen good examples! I’d say that the ability to actually address and improve teaching excellence is what has shot these schools to the top of our list. I have noticed at our kids’ preschool how much time the teachers spend together reflecting on how they’re nurturing each child, and the constant tweaks that they’re making to be more effective. Our children have really benefitted from type of iteration, especially when they’ve hit rough patches. Of course having multiple teachers in one room of kids also seems to force those conversations and reflections, though Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World points out that the most successful school systems don’t actually have smaller teacher:student ratios (nor do they spend more money on schools than us). That made me think that it is less important to focus on student:teacher ratio than master teacher:developing teacher interaction frequency.

I have gotten to ask the questions I listed above on a few tours of public schools, and have heard some solid though not completely reassuring answers from a few principals and parents, including Sunset Elementary, CIS DeAvila and Alamo. Others look at me like I’ve asked whether the moon is made out of cheese. These are uncomfortable questions to ask, no matter whether you’re at a public or private school. But what I took from Building a Better Teacher (in addition to an even deeper respect for the profession) is that teacher quality and development is probably the most important thing to focus on in evaluating a school if your primary mission for your kid is to ensure that they are challenged to develop their mind to the fullest. Seems like common sense when you take a step back, but I suspect many of us allow ourselves to focus elsewhere because this is the one area of most schools that have the least ability to influence. It’s the one time when “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” really isn’t a good mantra.

What have you learned about teacher professional development practices on your tours? What sorts of questions have been effective for getting useful information? If you’re already enrolled at a school, have you figured out ways to help your school’s teachers do more professional development?

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