Improving Teaching

Few contest the power of effective teaching in the classroom, yet even fewer have come to terms with whether great teachers are born or made.

An article How to Make a Good Teacher in the June 11th, 2016 Economist, tackles both these issues and investigates their implications.

For decades, many have bemoaned the plight of the US educational system. Globally, according the to the 2015Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) resultswhich measure international capabilities in reading and math, the US was 24th in reading, right behind Great Britain, and 36th in math, right behind the Slovak Republic.

After such news, questions begin to fly as to how best to contend with the mediocrity of our schools, or rather the mediocrity of some of our schools. Because if you were to compare on a state level you’d find that math students in Massachusetts, for example, are on a par with students in Japan, and that science students in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin are behind only Singapore and Taiwan. As in wealth, there is a big gap in the delivery of education throughout the US.

John Hattie of the University of Melbourne wanted to know what accounts for the discrepancy in delivering effective education. He scoured over 65,000 research papers on the effects of hundreds of interventions on the learning of 250 million students. He discovered many of the aspects parents cared about: school uniforms, class size, or streaming students by ability mattered little. What mattered was the capability of the teacher:  it is all about the quality of the teaching.

To underscore the importance of quality teachers, Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, found that students taught by teachers at the 75 percentile of their profession gain a 1.5 academic year of material annually compared to those taught by teachers at the 20 percentile, who gain a paltry 0.5 per year.

In fact, if teachers in the 75 percentile taught African Americans in eight years the academic gap between blacks and whites would close. Moreover, if the average American teacher were in the 75 percentile, the gap in PISA scores between the US and Asian countries would close in four years.

What then makes a top teacher? According to Robert Coe of Durham University in the UK, great teaching requires collaborating with peers, gaining feedback on teaching techniques, generating good behavior, high expectations, and –most importantly—blending superior subject knowledge with the craft of teaching.

The quintessence of reaching the highest level of teaching expertise is captured by Charles Chew of Singapore’s elite master teachers, “I don’t teach physics; I teach my pupils how to learn physics.”

Yet, being aware of the best teaching practices does not equate better teaching. Attaining higher levels in the craft of teaching requires actual classroom practice. Unfortunately, David Steiner of Johns Hopkins Institute for Educational Policy has concerns with America’s teacher training institutions. Most, while strong in theory are weak in application. Moreover, Thomas Kane of Harvard research indicates that most new teachers lack classroom management and instruction skills, which take 3-5 years to improve upon.

New organizations have sprung up in the US such as Sposato Graduate School of Education in Boston and Teach for America to improve the efficacy of the teaching craft. Orin Gutlerner, Sposato’s founding director, has created a taxonomy of good teaching processes. Of the 5,000 skills that go into superior Sposato’s teaching graduates learn the top 250.  Teachers in training spend 60-70 hours a week studying and tutoring or assisting teachers. Responding to feedback after classes is a strong predictor of a future teaching star.

Obviously gaining the skills and capabilities of a teaching star is hard work. In Spasato’s two-year educational graduate program a third dropout. However, improving the average teacher could revolutionize education and improve the quality of life immeasurably.