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The science of great teaching

Now that researchers are studying the secrets of highly effective teaching, parents can use this knowledge to their children's advantage.

By Carol Lloyd

“Honey, what are you studying in class this week?”
“Amphibians.”
“That sounds fun.”
“I guess.”
“What else is happening?”
“Miss Beal is benching everyone all the time.”
“Oh really? Why?”
“I dunno.”

So goes those dinner conversations in a million households where parents attempt to pry out details from the hidden lives of their children at school. We parents want to hear about our children’s learning. But if you’re anything like me, there’s an ulterior motive: You’re curious about the teacher. Is she good, bad, or exceptional? Does he hold kids accountable? Does she really know my child?

In my patchwork career, I’ve taught a veritable smorgasbord of topics — from cooking classes for preschoolers to reading remediation for high school dropouts. Brimming with enthusiasm and little else, I’d always assumed I rocked the classroom, never thinking too hard about just how little I thought about teaching.

Then I became a parent, and the usual pageant of educators paraded through our family, leaving thumbprints all over my daughters’ psyches. Teachers, I realized, were the great influencers over the most precious thing in my life: my kids. And just as wonderful teachers suddenly seemed immensely powerful, the dangers of an awful one loomed equally large.

Recent studies bear this out. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek has found that students with a teacher in the top 5% gained a year and a half’s worth of learning, while students with teachers in the bottom 5% learned only half a year’s worth of material. In a study of Tennessee teachers, statistician William Sanders discovered that after three consecutive years, students with low-performing teachers scored 50 percentile points behind similar students with high-performing teachers.

But here’s the rub: Would I really know a great teacher if I saw one?

The parent-teacher trap

How could I know if my daughters’ teachers were worth their union dues? Was it enough for my kids to like their teachers? If my daughters were bored in class, whose fault was it?

A recent experience underscored my difficulty assessing teachers. One of my daughter’s teachers carried out a disciplinary measure the kids referred to as the “walk of shame”: The misbehaving child was forced to walk around the class while the other students glowered and scowled to induce maximal guilt.

This exercise seemed twisted enough to warrant writing a letter of complaint to the school district, which I did to support the more upset parents. But I didn’t storm the principal’s office to get her into another class or even confront the teacher. The irony was that my child — who was never subjected to the walk of shame — seemed to thrive in this class.

Over the years, I’ve realized that I don’t know enough to assess my children’s teachers one way or another. I’ve always gone with my personal taste. I admired the “creative” teachers who wrote operas about space aliens, or the “observant “ones who noticed my kids’ special talents. Then there were those who gave me pause — the one who constantly joked about retiring, the one who confused my daughter’s reading issues with those of her best friend.

But couldn’t my taste in teachers say more about my comfort zone than my children’s learning? What if I were to stop relying on my parental instinct about great and not-so-great teachers? Was there a way to identify the qualities that go into an outstanding educator?

Art into science

Once the elusive art of teaching occupied the soft world of the humanities. Now it’s the object of intense scientific study, or at least a whole mess of “data-driven” research. In an attempt to bring objectivity to the arguments around educational reform, researchers are trying to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of something they call “highly effective teaching.”

For several years Teach for America (TFA), the much-ballyhooed organization that has trained some 27,000 college graduates to teach in low-performing schools nationwide, has been analyzing its teachers based on their behaviors and effectiveness. The result is Teaching as Leadership, a new book by TFA’s Steven Farr, which outlines the winning recipe that allows some of its teachers to accelerate their children’s learning (sometimes by as much as two grade levels in a single year) while others do not.

In a nutshell, the organization's definition of a great teacher is as unassailable as it is unsustainable for mere mortals. According to TFA’s model, highly effective teachers: (1) set high expectations, (2) recruit every child and their family in the endeavor, (3) plan carefully, (4) execute precisely, (5) continuously “increase effectiveness,” and, as if this were not enough, (6) “work relentlessly.”

No doubt there is much more of this research to come. Earlier this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched MET — Measures of Effective Teaching— the largest research project of its kind to date. Over the next two years, MET seeks to identify the behavior and activities of highly effective teaching and the best ways to measure teacher performance.

At a macro level, teacher-effectiveness research aims to change the way our educators are trained, hired, retrained, and fired. And frankly it still has a way to go before the findings are widely accepted or even proven. Because the definition of “highly effective teaching” is predicated on assessing teachers based on student performance (as measured by standardized tests), the research remains rife with controversy. 

Still, as parents, systematic research into how some rock-star teachers manage to pull up their classes two whole grade levels will no doubt inform our expectations of our children's education. And for the curious parent, the new research offers a treasure trove of useable material.

Bite-size teaching techniques

By far, the most useful fodder from the emerging field of “teacher effectiveness” comes from Doug Lemov’s Teaching Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.

To be clear, Lemov hasn’t conducted double-blind experimental studies — something that could and should now be done to test whether his observations are correct. What he has done is analyze the behavior of the best teachers at Uncommon Schools, a group of successful charter schools in New Jersey and New York that serve mostly low-income, urban children.

His perspective is breathlessly simple but devilishly detailed. According to Lemov, great teachers use repetitive classroom-management techniques to make optimal use of every moment, implement high expectations, and differentiate learning. Based on his observations, Lemov has carefully described these techniques to show how, taken as a whole, they empower teachers to reach more students at a variety of levels and still keep the focus of the class.

What makes the book (and the accompanying video clips of teachers demonstrating the techniques with real students) so riveting is that it captures the detailed craft of teaching from its most banal (how to call on kids in class — see "cold call" in the sidebar) to its most elevated form (how to inject joy into your lesson plan — see "the J factor"). Exceptional teachers draw from a shared bag of tricks (as developed by the charter schools where they teach), but taken together they offer a powerful picture of what it takes to keep a class fully engaged in learning every moment of the day.

Lemov’s observations on great teaching offer an inspiring, if sometimes painful, reminder of what engaged learning can look like (and how some teachers don’t have the requisite classroom-management skills, high standards, or planning skills to accomplish this). Watching Lemov’s teachers at work is breathtaking and, if your child isn’t blessed with a teacher with such skills, a little heartbreaking too.

Reality check

Being able to recognize a great teacher is all good and fine. But since when do parents have any power over motivating, choosing, training, or hiring teachers? Isn’t that the province of the politicos, unions, and principals?

Sure, parental influence in the arena of teaching is limited. Still, parents influence teaching every day in many ways. We choose schools, we lobby principals to get certain teachers for our children, and we communicate and collaborate with teachers on projects. Though individually we don’t always get to handpick the perfect teachers for our kids, we do have the ability to affect standards around teaching every time we interact with teachers or principals. And taken together, the potential power of parental expectations about great teaching for our children is immeasurable.

At the very least, the new findings about great teaching show us one ideal. It may not be enough, but it’s a beginning.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/12/2011:
"We know so little about this study. Why would I ignore obvious factors in a classroom like curriculum and class size because a Stanford Economist is at the head of the study. Indeed, a great teacher can be more effective, and children in that teacher's classrooms may make great leaps in learning; however, children ca respond to and connect with teachers for very idiosyncratic reasons, and it can't be distilled to a formula. I don't find necessarily better teachers in classrooms with kids who score better on tests, any more than I find better service or products in businesses who make more $, whether or not an economist tells me I should. "
09/12/2011:
"I think this is a lot of hype worth nothing. It would be unfair if I didn't say I am a teacher and a very good one. Know I don't claim to know everything under the sun but I do know how to get you to learn anything under the sun. I am an artist here to help others on their path in life. I love people and enjoy working with others that want to learn. I understand what it feels like to be frustrated or overwhelmed and maybe even disinterested but I DO NOT, I repeat I DO NOT LIKE BEING PUSHED AROUND. I don't do it to my students and I don't like it being done to me. Unfortunately, so many of our administrators are under the radar for underperformance or not making benchmarks, that they pressure educators as if we were flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant. I won't be belittled like that for any job. I didn't pay all that money for a degree to be treated like my students' performance is microwaveable or pressure cooked and will be ready in a certain amount of hours. No! t realistic when it comes to the human experience. For that reason, I cannot allow myself in a classroom where administrators are failing educators. They lie to the public to save face and behind close doors they are the abused, abusing. Speak up...know your administrators for who they really are.... "
09/12/2011:
"It is so hard to be objective about your children's teachers. I have learned the hard way, that I don't have to like or even be friendly with the teacher. I do have to trust their ability to educate my child. For some reason, both my children had a difficult time in first grade. Personally, I did not get along with either of their teachers. Neither teacher could communicate clearly about my children's progress. Yet, one teacher was definitely better than the other. In one case, it took my child a whole year to catch up from what she had missed in first grade. The other teacher was not easy to speak with or to get information from, but I saw my child make dramatic leaps in all areas of learning. The best way to see how the teacher is is to pay attention to your child's progress. Children learn at different rates, but you know your child the best. You know if he or she is performing at their best. Get involved early if there is a problem. "
04/4/2011:
"yeas some days you should 'sit in' and visit with your child's classroom and observe the teacher's behavior, and teaching skills. You would be just as surprised as I was, when my 6yr old grandson's teacher threw up her hands in despair, and abruptly walked out of the classroom when a student she called on did not respond with the correct answer. Parent's will never know what goes on in their child's classroom if they do not pop in from time to time."
03/30/2011:
"Very nice job on the video clip. The teacher is focused on the 4 children. Where is the rest of the class, and what are they doing during small group time?"
03/28/2011:
"The article didn't give me a simple list of what to look for in a great teacher. Though it was a real eye opener of the stats that great teachers do vs not so great teachers do. And there where some great comments from parents, but in general the article left me wanting more. Besides, here in PA, especially where we live, we have great schools. Actually there are very few 'bad' schools in our general area. But as great as the school / teachers are, there are always a few bad apples out there."
03/28/2011:
"The only way parents will find the teachers effective is if they themselves do a good job at home in preparing their children mentally to make good out of every teacher. Any child can learn something from any teacher if they would make an attempt to comply with their part. Nowadays, students try to get by with minimum effort. Don't get me wrong but I do beleive we also need to find a way to detect effective parents parallel to finding effective teachers."
03/28/2011:
"Carol Lloyd says, ...since when do parents have any power over motivating, choosing, training, or hiring teachers? Isn't that the province of the politicos, unions, and principals? That is all right except that politicos and unions don't choose, train, or hire teachers. And even motivating is a stretch since their roles, especially unions, is pretty well circumscribed by law. What is missing is the role of local central administration in all this. Those nice people at the School Board and Superintendent's office are supposed to handle these matters."
09/14/2010:
"This was a very informative perspective on exceptional teachers. When I met my sons teachers for the 1st time one in particular caught my attention as well as my heart. As I stood waiting to greet her she addressed a student with her mother present and let it be known that she isn't allowed to dress in the clothing she was wearing and would be sent home. She let it be known that she had high expectations for her students and the only way a student fails in her class is if they don't show up for class. She has found creative ways to get the students engaged and stated that she does not send home homework because the students simply don't do it. So she used every minute of her time in class to see to it that her students are learning and quality time is spent teaching. Standardized testing is so unfair to the teachers and students. The teacher could be do her best but if the student refuses to learn and do his part then the teacher should not be held accountable. That ! works both ways."
09/13/2010:
"It is interesting how the author describes Lemov's teachers in a charter school. Public school educators don't like the competition that charter schools offer to parents. Most charters are more successful than the traditional public schools because of better screening of teachers and the lack of interference from unions."
09/10/2010:
"I agree with you Carol about what to look for in Great Teachers. As an unemployed middle school teacher, who has been with the students for over 10 years, the word 'science' of teaching is frustrating. My opinion is that teaching is a 'calling' not a career so to speak. I have such a sense of yearning to teach and connect students with knowledge that I drove across the country from LA to NYC in order to find a classroom of students who can benefit from my skill as an educator. I was one of the first 8,000 teachers layed off from Los Angeles Unified School District, being lowest on the totem pole so to speak. What I am finding is that there is an unspoken expectation in the new description of a 'highly qualified teacher' and that is that they must be under 35 years of age. It is sad really that there is discrimination according to age. Each teacher is a unique individual and conveys the curriculum in varied ways. A major aspect of schooling is the social perspective. Students are learning how to discern the teacher's expectations. Society is not made up of 'cookie cutter characters' who all act and behave the same. Students learn valuable social skills in school. I tell my students 'study to the teacher.' That is the methadology of every college student who succeeds. I realize that my views are a bit skewed at the moment, what with not being hired by a principal that could be my son's age, but my passion to teach has never wained. "
09/10/2010:
"In every school in every school district, parents need access to valued-added evaluations based on pre-and post-testing results like the analysis of LA teachers the LA Times did recently. School districts would be required at the parents' request to provide free tutoring to students of teachers who scored below a certain minimum rating; perhaps some of the cost of extra-curricular tutoring could come from the teachers' pockets. That would provide a great incentive, otherwise known as money, to improve teacher performance. Teachers rated as excellent could earn extra money as mentors for less effective teachers. It would also help for an organization to produce a 'best standards' information packet for parents, which would be distributed at the start of each school year. 'Best standards' would describe the best teaching practices, such as returning graded tests to students so students can learn from the tests, rather than reusing tests year after year. This would give parents some objective indicators in assessing teacher performance. "
09/9/2010:
"Nice article - does a good job of summarizing and pointing to some interesting research"
07/19/2010:
"I was lured in by the email title saying 'Read our parents' primer on the latest findings on what makes a great teacher � and why you should care.' Do you really think it is a primer? I feel no more enlightened than when I first started reading the article. Not uncommon for your site though. But this time I was annoyed enough to comment."
07/19/2010:
"I find the topic is very apt and useful. Thanks GREAT SCHOOL . I am sure by sharing and caring we all can contribute for a better planet."
07/19/2010:
"the long article in itself is proof of the complexity of the subject. as soon as you layout the list for effective teaching you are assuming every student in your class needs similar motivations and would learn at the same pace and that we all know is not true. i look at teachers these days and all i think is, 'gosh they look stressed'. think how much fun kids are having learning in his/her class. in my opinion steps should first be taken to motivate our teachers, remind them what fun it is to mold young minds instead of handing them list/studies that delineate 'effective' teaching. "
07/19/2010:
"What a great article! I am a preschool teacher and director of a private parochial school and I would like to think that I have some of the qualities listed as a great teacher. I do know that I LOVE teaching and look at each new year as an opportunity to observe the miracles of early child development. For me it is such a privilege that parents entrust their little ones in my care. I truly feel blessed to be able to do what I do!"
07/19/2010:
"monitors in the classrooms are the answer to discipline & teaching skills. large screen tvs with top notch instructors are the future."
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