As I listen to the national education conversation, recently heightened and hyped by the movie Waiting for Superman, I am troubled that the current conversation has set up a false dichotomy that obscures the deeper challenges associated with improving the quality of teaching for every student. The current conversation suggests that if we can just find a way to get rid of those bad teachers in our ranks, and reward those good teachers, then all will be well with the world. This false dichotomy obscures the more fundamental reality which is that there are very few completely ineffective teachers and conversely very few completely effective teachers. With this month’s newsletter theme of teacher evaluation, I want to focus my message on the larger national education conversation that has spawned, among other things, the effort to overhaul teacher evaluation and accountability systems.
Every year my colleagues and I collectively spend thousands of hours in schools and classrooms across the country helping teachers and leaders improve the quality of instruction. We have observed the following:
- The vast majority of teachers are working very hard to meet the diverse needs of their students.
- The general quality of the teaching we see across the country is insufficient to ensure quality learning for all students served in our public schools.
- The vast majority of these teachers are not incompetent; they are simply working to the limits of their subject matter content knowledge and pedagogical skills. Certain parts of their lesson may in fact be effective while other parts are not. Or they may be effective with some students while at the same time not be effective with others.
- District and school leaders who are charged with guiding and supporting teachers do not share a vision and understanding of what constitutes high quality teaching and learning. Without a clear vision of quality teaching, school leaders cannot provide the support and guidance necessary to help teachers improve their practice.
A national conversation that only focuses on “effective” versus “ineffective” misses the more fundamental point: high quality teaching is ultimately a matter of expertise. If teachers knew how to teach more powerfully so that all students would learn at high levels, they would be doing it. Most teachers are not coming to work every day giving us their “B” game, while leaving their “A” game in the closet just waiting for some kind of pay for performance incentive. Generally, teachers are doing the best they know how to do. The fact that the current state of teaching leaves too many of our students without a quality education is due to the prevailing level of expertise among our teachers and leaders – not simply a prevailing lack of moral will and courage.
The issue of expertise is missing in the current national conversation. Perhaps this is because the understanding that teaching is a highly complex and sophisticated practice is also missing in the national conversation. I was recently in a middle school where language arts teachers from the host school along with the language arts teachers from another school gathered together for an entire day. A host classroom had been identified called the “studio.” The studio teacher (who was willing to open up her practice for public scrutiny) co-planned a lesson with her instructional coach while all of the other language arts teachers (called residents) observed. The residents then gathered together (much like medical residents) in the classroom to observe the 90-minute lesson – 16 people including the principals from both schools. The residents took notes.
Using CEL’s 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning instructional framework that provided us a common vision of quality teaching, we were able to focus clearly on the different aspects of the lesson – purpose, student engagement, curriculum and pedagogy, assessment for student learning and classroom environment and culture. The truth is that this lesson was not completely effective. Yet it was not completely ineffective. However the most important point of this narrative is the fact that the district leaders, principals and teachers co-created a culture and environment where teachers felt comfortable practicing their craft in public; where they could inquire together and share candid observations and authentic critique; and where they could dig deep into the complexities of teaching. There is nothing glitzy about this process. It doesn’t distill into nice sound bites; it won’t make too many people cry; and, as such we will probably never see something like this on Oprah. However make no mistake; this is the road to improving the quality of teaching for all students. It is a slow, methodical process.
We can revamp our teacher evaluation systems and fire all of the “bad” teachers in our midst tomorrow but it will not make an appreciable impact on the quality of education for our students. The only long term sustainable course of improvement for the thousands of remaining teachers lies in developing their expertise to engage students in high quality learning. And we must simultaneously develop the expertise of our school leaders to guide and support teachers in this improvement process. Our redesigned evaluation systems must contribute to, and support the formative development of instructional expertise, otherwise they will do little to improve the quality of teaching.
I welcome the heightened national attention to public education and teacher performance. Movies like Waiting for Superman can be helpful if discussed in their proper context. Having the Governor of New Jersey, the Mayor of Newark and the CEO and founder of Facebook all appear on Oprah to decry the current state of education can be helpful if discussed in its proper context. In fact, I completely concur with Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker’s assertion, “we cannot have a superior democracy with inferior education.” I just hope that somewhere in the confluence of Superman, Facebook, and Oprah, attention can be focused on the long and arduous road ahead if we want to develop among our teachers and leaders the knowledge and skills necessary to ensure quality learning for all students. I fear that because real improvement processes of this kind require long term investment, time and stamina, our public attention span will be too limited to sustain this kind of effort and our teacher evaluation system reforms will fall short. And if this is the case, it will be the least privileged among us who continue to suffer.