Russ Roberts

Elizabeth Green on Education and Building a Better Teacher

EconTalk Episode with Elizabeth Green
Hosted by Russ Roberts
Paul Pfleiderer on the Misuse ... Continuing Conversation... Eli...

Better Teacher.jpg Elizabeth Green, author of the new book Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach it to Anyone), talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the art of teaching and the history of various reforms, mostly failed, trying to improve teaching in America. Specific topics include the theoretical focus of undergraduate education programs and various techniques being used in charter schools and elsewhere to improve teaching performance.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: September 2, 2014.] Russ: Your book is a history of the recent attempts to improve K-12 education in America. Let's start with the basic question: Is it possible to build a better teacher? Guest: I think it is. I think it's possible. I think that the history of education would tell you perhaps otherwise because we have had so much trouble seeing teaching change over time, but I think that there are enough cases and evidence to suggest that it is possible to help people do this better and improve. Russ: But there is a view out there, and you talk about it at some length in the book, that some people believe great teachers are just born and not made. And that there is a certain 'it' quality that teachers have that make them more effective in the classroom in all kinds of dimensions. What do you think of that argument, and why is it an important argument in the debate? Guest: I think that that argument is embedded in the way we talk about education policy, teacher policy. We say, there are good teachers and then there are bad teachers, and then what we need to do is either find more of the good teachers, people who are destined to become good, by doing a better job of recruiting good teachers. Or, we need to incentivize good teachers to stay, or we need to create better, easier, more effective ways to remove bad teachers from the classroom. And I think that what that construct is built on is, as you say, this assumption that teaching quality is something that's natural born in people--that it's about personality traits or character traits. But in fact every research study that's tried to connect character traits and personality traits to who becomes an effective teacher fails to find that any of them make any difference. So, an extrovert or an introvert doesn't matter for how effective you'll be in the classroom. So, I think that what instead is more convincing to me for what matters is what teachers do, and what they know. And that's very different from a natural born trait, something that you need to learn. Russ: So, we're going to talk about Doug Lemov, who was a guest here on EconTalk. He plays a large role in your book. But one of the things he emphasizes, of course, is practice. So, one view says the reason we don't have better teachers is they don't practice. What do you think of that argument? Guest: Yeah. So, Doug is obviously, for people who listen to your show, they know that he's a former teacher who became the leader of a group of schools called the Uncommon Schools network. And he encountered the same realization, that what he called the 'Build it, Buy it' problem. So, at first, early on, he tried to improve the quality of teaching in schools by buying teachers who are already good. But over time that became unsustainable, and he realized he had to help build good teachers from all of--any person that he could recruit. So, he couldn't just recruit his way to excellence; he had to build it. And in the process of trying to build it, he had to think about what does it mean to help people improve. And absolutely one of the elements that's historically been missing is thinking about teaching as a craft that you would have to practice or learn. So, what he tries to build and what I think is one of the pieces of evidence for why we can build better teachers is systems for helping teachers do what another researcher calls 'approximations of practice.' So, before they go into the classroom, how can you create a scenario that's not exactly a classroom, but that has some of the key features of a classroom, so that teachers can practice key moves[?] and hone key ideas that they'll need to master before they get into the classroom. Russ: So, if you were principal of a school--or let's say, Doug Lemov was--what do you think--let's say it's a good school. Not a horrible school. We're not talking about a disaster. We're talking about an okay, regular American public school. Not a charter school, where Doug has been working--and I suspect has been very effective. But let's just go into a regular school and we make Doug the principal or we make you or I the principal. What do you think could be implemented in that setting that would make the teachers there, who of course range from, probably some not-so-good ones, probably some very good ones already--what could be done to make those teachers better? Do you think that Doug Lemov or a principal who understood the lessons of your book could go in there and make a difference and improve the quality of the learning? Guest: Yes. I think--in terms of what they could practice, there are lots of key moves in teaching that are important, that are possible to practice; and same with ideas, that can be drawn out and knowledge that can be drawn out through the act of practicing. So, one example: A key piece of any classroom is figuring out how to monitor students while they are working independently. We can take these very discrete places [?] and that's an important part of any teacher's work. There are important questions that are raised while you monitor students while they work independently. On is: When do you intervene? Another is: How do you manage to keep the students focused while also giving some individual attention to different students? Another is not just when do you intervene, but how do you intervene? So, if a student is making a mistake, do you correct the mistake? Do you redirect? Do you consider another problem? At what point do you end the independent work? This is one scenario you can allow teachers to practice, and I've seen it happen where teachers will practice with their peers, acting the part of students. And also what can be worked on within that sort of bucket of work that the teachers can practice together is a problem itself. So, the academic content that the students are working on together. Just by having discrete opportunities like this to focus on one slice of the work of teaching, I think a lot can be opened up that can change the way teachers think about their work and give them real opportunities to learn from one another.
7:18Russ: So, I totally agree with that. And as listeners know, my wife's a math teacher. She's also used a lot of Doug Lemov's techniques from his book, and she's convinced--maybe fooling herself. But I think she's right. She has convinced herself that she is a better teacher--not just that she's got, say, a quieter classroom or a happier classroom, two things that are pleasant but not really what she sees as her job. But she has a classroom where students across the board--meaning not just the top tier--but all of her students have a better grasp of the material. So, I think you are right. Now, my data set is small. It's one sample point. But as you pointed out, a lot of people have looked at this, tried to figure out whether it works. It's very hard to measure things in education. But let's say it's true. That raises the following question: Why are teachers--students who major in education--learning these techniques? And why aren't they being taught them, either there or after the fact when they get on the job--unless they happen to work in a charter school system that takes this kind of approach? Guest: I think there's a few reasons. One of the reasons that I was surprised by is that within the scholarship about education--so, schools of education, departments of education, folks whose job title is Professor of Education--there's very little focus on teaching as a craft or even something to be studied at all. And I was surprised to find that this goes back to the fathers of education research. And the key moment in time that this shift happened was the taking over of teacher training by universities. So, when universities took over teacher training and created the first real professors of education, what they did was they recruited people from other disciplines to do this job. So, they would recruit people who studied psychology, for example--that was one of the first major fields to be imported into schools of education. And then they would have these psychologists. And, you know, it makes sense. If you studied psychology or [?] Russ: There's a certain logic. Guest: Right. You are studying learning, and teaching is very related to learning. But the professors of education, even in psychology, did not have any interest in teaching. In fact, the guy who is known as the father of Educational Psychology, Edward Thorndike, he told people that he thought schools were boring; that he didn't like to visit them. And when he once was speaking to a group of educators and a principal asked him a real problem of practice--you know, this thing happened in my school today, what should I do, what would you do, Professor Thorndike? And Professor Thorndike told him: 'Do? I'd resign.' He had absolutely no interest in real problems of practice. And I think that's carried through. Today we have, in education schools, we have people in the history of education, the psychology of education, the economics of education. But we have very few people who study teaching itself as a craft. And as a result, the folks who are left to train teachers in teaching methods are drawing on a very impoverished science. And they have very little to draw on. There's been a little bit of a change in the last 20 years, and that's what I write my book about. I think there are emerging ideas about what teachers should be able to do. But kind of no surprise that teachers don't leave teacher training prepared for the classroom when we haven't really put any resources into figuring out what we should be preparing them to do. Russ: Yeah. There's another factor, I think that gets neglected, which is the culture of universities themselves. If you teach in a business school, or even a law school, there's a certain embarrassment--and I've taught in business schools so I think I'm right--that you're not as scholarly as the other parts of the university. So, I think a lot of business schools and law schools push away from being seen as a trade school. Of course, the students certainly see it as a trade school. They want to know how to do it. They want to learn how to be lawyers; they want to learn how to be managers. But instead what they are often taught is the theories of management, not the practice of management, for example. And what changed in business schools, interestingly--that's a little bit of a parody what I just said, a little bit of an exaggeration--what has changed is that business schools started getting ranked. And some of the rankings had to do with how happy their students were. So it actually forced business schools to see their MBA (Master of Business Administration) students as customers. And since the customers actually want to learn how to succeed in business, with trying or without, they actually wanted something a little bit different in the classroom, something a little more "realistic." And I think education schools have a similar problem. But they are a bit immune to that customer focus, at least so far. Guest: Yeah, the incentives are really misaligned. So, education schools financially are capital flow and not just education schools, but my understanding is the economics go to other parts of the university. The education schools are cash cows. And the reason is that they're training teachers, the largest of all of the professional professions that we have, 3.79 million people in this country with huge turnover rates that mean we need hundreds of thousands of new teachers every year. So it's a great business to be in. But the people who are training those people do not have any incentive to leave them prepared. So there's been now a new conversation, like maybe we should before we graduate a person from an education school, actually make sure that they can do some of the core practices that Doug writes about and other researchers have talked about that are what a responsible teacher should be able to do. But it's not really in an education school's interest to do that, because they will graduate fewer students if they create such a bar. Yeah, there's an incentive problem, too. Russ: But I think part of it, again, is cultural, not just financial. I think a lot of teachers of education right now don't want to be in that business. Even if a school said, 'Hey, there's a market opportunity here; let's teach our students the craft of teaching,' the current faculty at most education departments would say, 'Ew, I don't want to dirty my hands.' Like Professor Thorndike, they'd much rather pretend they are like other scholars at their university, which is what they were trained to be like, actually, so it makes some sense. Guest: Yes. And it's a worse problem probably in education schools than in business or law schools because not only are they lowering themselves from, you know, as you say, theory to practice, but they are also lowering themselves to one of the lowest-prestige professions. Which many people still don't think requires any training. Including some of the education school deans that I talked to for my book. So, yes, there's a big cultural problem, too. I agree. Russ: It's interesting you call it low prestige. And certainly there are jobs that have higher prestige. But there are a lot of glorious things about being a teacher. And I think a lot of people respect teachers. I do think there's that impression, that it's a sort of unappreciated profession. But I certainly appreciate my kids' great teachers. And I know that the parents of my wife's students appreciate her tremendously. So, there is a lot of nonfinancial reward for being a great teacher, I think. Guest: I agree. And there's a strange duality. On one hand, there could be no more respected profession; in some ways it's almost like a secular priesthood. But in other ways I think there is no doubt that teaching is lower prestige in terms of, not just financial, what the salary is, but how we think about the complexity of the work. I think, you know, that we assume that there's a marching order in which the professor is the highest, at a university level; and then teachers are lower because it requires less challenge, cognitive challenge. But I actually think that that's really, really wrong. One of the things I found in my own reporting, is as much as I claim to respect teachers and certainly have a deep appreciation for my own great teachers in my life, who absolutely changed the course of my life, I also came to realize that I did not recognize the degree of complexity that they were doing, because the best teachers do that and make it look invisible, make it look easy. Russ: That's a great point. Guest: So I think that's one important thing to change the understanding of. Russ: That's a great point, yeah, you're right--the content can be relatively accessible. But that doesn't mean that inveighing the contents [?] so that people understand it and learn it is easy. It's not. And it's also exhaustingly hard work. I think people totally mis-appreciate and misunderstand how draining it is to be a teacher for a full day in a high school or a middle school or a lower school. It's an incredible challenge, physically and emotionally. Guest: Yes. And I think seeing why that is, is also important. I used to think about my teacher friends and see how hard they were working and, as you say, how emotionally, physically drained they were by the end of the day. But it was only when I started to write this book and see inside the minds of teachers that I could understand some of the factors beyond, like, dealing with a bunch of adolescents or even children, that would lead to that. Part of is, a huge part of it, is the academic and cognitive challenge. So, even teaching elementary school, it may be very easy to do elementary school content for adults, but that doesn't mean that it's easy to diagnose a student's misunderstanding of dividing fractions or negative numbers or the meaning of zero or how to read--a very challenging task to teach someone to do. Easy for us to do as adults, but really, really complex and not to teach one person but 30 people at a time, or if you are an interdepartmentalized system, a hundred, more students at a time. So it's cognitively just as taxing as it is emotionally and physically.
18:14Russ: Let's talk about classroom discipline. One of the hardest things about being a teacher is controlling the classroom. And some teachers, as you talk about in your book, they seem to just command the room. They walk in and the students are attentive. Anybody who steps out of line, the teacher somehow manages to just get them right back, because they have this charisma or whatever it is. And others, especially new teachers, can really spiral into a horrible situation where the students test them; they push them; and the teacher starts screaming and then it just spirals out of control. But you point out that you can actually learn to be better at this seemingly God-given talent, skill. What are some of the techniques that people have come to understand work to make people, teachers better disciplinarians? Guest: Well, so I think the common trait that they all have is they are very counterintuitive. So, for example, Doug Lemov talks about the 'fundamental ambiguity of Ssshhhh.' What is an average adult's intuitive response to a group of children talking out of turn? We tell them to 'sshhh.' And Doug points out that this is problematic for a few reasons. One of them is, are you asking students to stop talking? Or are you asking them to talk more quietly? And, you know, I think that even students who are trying to follow directions need specificity, even if they are acting in the best intentions. And then the question is, the other problem with 'sshh' is that it draws attention to the misbehavior, rather than describing what students ought to do instead. So, that's another of Doug's techniques, is: what to do. So, what good teachers do to manage a classroom is describe with great specificity exactly what their expectations are. And that might sound obvious, but it's really not the common response. Again, when, for example, he describes a moment when a student is being so disruptive that he needs to take that student out of a classroom and send him to the dean's office. And this isn't [?] one of those terrifying moments that as a bystander watching teachers deal with this they can see--I would have no idea what to do; there's an emotional student, doesn't want to do anything that he is being told to do-- Russ: And sometimes he wants to go to the principal's office. Right? He wants to get thrown out; he wants attention. Whatever it is. Guest: Right. So, how do you get him instead to focus on his work and the task at hand? There's a lot of psychological mind games going on. And what Doug found is that what effective teachers would do is be extremely specific in their direction. So, in even the most highly charged situations, you can defuse them by giving students an alternative thing that they can do that's very specific. So: Walk to your desk; sit down; open your binder; put away your paper in this folder; close your binder; put it in your backpack; and get back to work--is a very much more effective redirection than to focus on what's going wrong. Russ: One of the insights that you talk about of Lemov, which I found fascinating and didn't really appreciate when I read his book, when we had him on, is the role of language. As he talked about it on this program he tried to draw the lessons for teaching that he has drawn from watching hours and hours of videotape of successful teachers. It's not just his personal theory--oh, I wonder if this will actually work better. He actually claims to have seen this in action over and over again. But this idea of language and giving teachers a language to communicate seems to me to be extremely important and unappreciated. So, explain that. Guest: Sure. So, I actually, it was interesting because I learned this lesson from Doug, but I also in parallel learned it by traveling to Japan. So, I think that one of the features of the American educational system that holds us back from treating teaching as a craft is that we have no professional language to talk about teaching. So if you think about other highly complex work, like building a bridge or architecture, medicine, or law, there are a lot of terms of art that help you have a more granular view of what it is you are doing. But teaching doesn't have this, at least not in the United States. So, Doug started as an accountability-minded consultant who would help teachers and schools study data, student assessment data, about what each student was struggling with and then try to use that data to change their practice. But what he found was that he came up against a wall where he was able to identify what students couldn't do, but he had no language to describe what teachers should do instead to help them learn what they were not understanding. And one of the ways that this came into focus for him was when he would take teachers to see better teachers in action--have them watch a better practitioner, a more expert practitioner, do the things that a teacher should be doing--that they would take away the wrong lesson. And I think that's because they were watching this very complicated work, very interactive, that has many different elements, but they had no language to describe the parts of the performance that they were supposed to be paying attention to. So, what he came to do is try to name the more granular pieces of teaching work that he could use to help teachers see them better and make that invisible work more visible. And it turns out that in Japan, where there is a very different culture that focuses on teaching as a craft, there actually is just this same kind of language to describe teaching. There are words in Japanese that there is no translation for in English because they're professional teaching craft words. So, I found that very interesting as well.
24:24Russ: It really is extraordinary because you really don't appreciate how important language is in that context. I'll give you an example from a different form of craft that I mentioned here before, that this idea reminds me of, which is, say, hitting a baseball. So, you have a kid who is struggling--and I've been a Little League coach--you have a kid who is struggling and there are two things that are of absolutely no value whatsoever. But Little League coaches, I hear them say it over and over again, and I said it over and over again until I realized how unhelpful it was. They'll say things like, 'You've got try harder.' Now, if you have a teacher who is mediocre, giving him a pep talk is--it just doesn't--they don't know what to do. How do I implement--I want to try harder. A lot of teachers I think do want to do better. But then there are specific stuff that's still useless. Like, 'Keep your eye on the ball.' And 'Keep your eye on the ball' is clearly one of the most important lessons you have to teach a kid who wants to learn how to hit. But, if you are not thinking about it, we don't teach, most coaches don't teach their kids how to keep their eye on the ball. You think, what's so hard about it? You just keep your eye on the ball. No. Because hitting involves moving your head counterclockwise as the ball comes into the plate--excuse me: your head is turning clockwise; your body is turning counterclockwise. If you are a right-handed hitter as you swing the bat, you are pivoting your hip around counterclockwise to drive the ball, but your head has to go in the other direction. But what happens is, most kids, their head goes with their hips. So their head spins out of the strike zone; they don't see the ball; and they miss it. So the coach says, 'Oh, I watched; see, you didn't keep your eye on the ball.' He didn't tell him how. You have no chance of helping them. So I think this language thing--I love your point about granularity. If you can break things down into smaller steps, you actually have a chance of achieving something. Guest: Yes, and it's the same thing that if you think about that what-to-do technique that Doug uses with students and the teachers he studies use with students, it's the same thing for teachers. So, it's not enough to tell the kid he's having an emotional overreaction, to stop having an emotional overreaction. You have to give that kid actual concrete things that he can do. And what's complicated about teaching--baseball is a great example--we as expert practitioners, and I'm not going to pretend I'm one but maybe you as an expert practitioner of swinging a baseball bat, you can say 'keep your eye on the ball' means something to you that you have not unpacked because you have become an expert at it, so it has become invisible to you. Similarly when we learn to read, it's invisible to us as readers of the English language why certain combinations of letters make different sounds in different contexts and different words. But as teachers we have to unpack those things that we now take for granted, decompose them into their steps and make them visible for children so that they can learn. It's not as simple as doing what you already do. You have to say, Well, why did you get the wrong answer? And reverse engineer the mistake that they made and the steps that they would have to take to get the right answer. Russ: And of course, part of the problem is that, because it's invisible--you want it to be invisible. You want it to be so ingrained that you don't have to think or else you are not going to do it very well. So, there's a certain tension there. Let's stick with discipline for a minute and classroom behavior. Discipline can have a negative connotation. I mentioned a disciplinarian, which has a certain pejorative characteristic sound to it. But I just meant people who can keep their classrooms controlled. The charter school movement that you talk about with Doug Lemov and others was extremely regimented in the early days, and to some extent still is. Talk about what 'no excuses' means; and there was a bit of a backlash against that. So explain that. Guest: Yeah, sure. 'No excuses' is the term that I use to describe a certain movement of charter schools that arose in the 1990s. It doesn't characterize all charter schools. But a certain group that Doug Lemov is a part of, and KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) is a part of--if people have heard of KIPP. Achievement First. There's several different brand names. And what they all share is this idea that we have for too long made excuses for low achievement in high poverty settings, and so we have to instead of making excuses, as Doug characterized this approach--hug 'em to Harvard--if we show these poor black children enough love then they'll make it out and change their life path. No. We have to--that is a form of racism in and of itself; we have to have extremely high standards for kids and that applies to behavior very much first and foremost. We have to start with having a foundation of order, and that means we're going to be radical about that, because it's the path to fighting poverty and ending racism. And so radical order means in the classroom things like we will have no talking in the hallways, even in high schools; the students will walk silently in straight lines. Even in many schools they put tape along the hallways to demarcate the exact line on which students should walk. And lunch will also be silent, to create order and explain the priority that learning has here in the school. And to change the culture of the school away from chaos and toward focused academic work. So that's the idea behind 'no excuses.' But as you say, there's been a rethinking even within that movement, of exactly how effective that approach is. Russ: It's pretty creepy sounding, for starters. And when you see it in action--and it comes up even in less creepy but everyday settings such as having all the students answer a question at the same time, go through a set of physical motions in the classroom say: raising their hands in certain ways to signify answers--it reeks to some people a little bit of fascism. So, what was the backlash and where are we now, do you think? Guest: I tell the story of a student of Doug Lemov's who became a teacher, named Rousseau Mieze, and I think he exemplifies the backlash within the movement. Outside there are critics from the beginning who said this is wrong. But the more interesting thing to me is the internal critics. So, Rousseau was a student at Doug's first school, and he described just the unhappiness in many ways of the students living in this disciplined system. And also questions that were raised in students' minds about what they were really learning. Were they learning to be independent decision makers about their own behavior and how to conduct themselves as students, or were they so heavily structured that when they faced unstructured reality of the real world and college and work, they didn't know what to do. They were filled with resentment for their teachers as well as for this order. Many of them dropped out of school. So that's the backlash. And I also tell the story of a KIPP school in Newark that had the same experience. They had radical order; and then they started to see that the same students who had seemed to be so positively affected by this order, who were very happy to be part of the structure when they were in 5th grade, by the time they got to 8th grade were rebelling, resentful, and hadn't learned very much from what seemed to be a very strong learning environment towards order. They didn't know how to conduct themselves: as soon as they got on the bus to try to go home from school they were acting out and fighting. So the question is: Why did this happen; what are students actually learning from all this structure, and what's the solution? One solution that folks are coming up against that does seem to be successful is not to abandon structure--not to treat discipline just as any other academic subject, like there's a choice between total teacher direction and total student direction; but instead to create different kinds of structure that allow for students to get a lot of guidance from their teachers but to still be independent. So, at the school in Newark, they erased the silent hallways but still had monitors in the hallways. And had consequences for behavior but created more opportunities for students to make behavior mistakes, that the faculty could then unpack with the students, they could think through what they had done as well as have consequences. So, adding this extra dimension seems to be effective. Russ: Of course, the other extreme is 'school should be fun.' And I find that a little bit scary, because learning is hard work; and it's not always fun. It's exhilarating at the end sometimes--ideally. But along the way there's lots of stuff you have to give up doing, like watching TV or playing video games, to master, say, your basic math skills. And any particular skill is not so fun. When you see a great proof, you want to cheer. But that doesn't always happen. So, do you think this is a problem in the American school system, the fun problem? The dumbing down of, the lack of rigor? Guest: Definitely the lack of rigor is a problem. I'm not sure if it originates from a desire to have fun. I think that's probably one element, but I think it also has to do with a lack of content knowledge on the part of teachers and a lack of good materials, curriculum materials, to support rigorous learning. But yes, one of the educators I write about is named Deborah Ball, and she talks about how some people go into teaching because they just 'love children.' And that's not a good enough reason. It's make an important condition but not necessary. Russ: And not sufficient. Guest: School is about academics. What did you say? Russ: It's neither necessary nor sufficient. Guest: Exactly. So, yes, I think there's a huge rigor problem and there's lots of reasons for it. But certainly one of them might be that our culture is a little bit anti-intellectual.
35:31Russ: Let's move on to accountability, which you associate with Rick Hanushek. Rick Hanushek's been a guest on EconTalk many times. What was the idea behind it and how has it manifested itself when you think of it now? Where do you think we stand with it? Guest: Rick, I think of as the father of teacher accountability. And I think his idea came about from a set of very persuasive research findings, the natural conclusion of which was teacher accountability. So the findings are that the teacher of all the factors under a school's control makes the biggest difference in whether students will succeed academically in school. But, we don't have any inputs about teachers that we can use to predict in advance who will be successful. Meaning, no character traits; no traits about whether they have gone to--have certain degrees or certifications. And so as a result--and yet, we focus all of our resources on these inputs rather than on the output, which does seem to matter, of whether the teacher influences students' achievement. So, the natural conclusion that Rick makes is, given that we have this distribution of some good and some bad teachers, and we have all of our cards in the wrong place. We've put all of our investments in incentivizing inputs rather than outputs. So let's instead think about how to identify which teachers are successful in the classroom and reward them. And then think about how to eliminate the teachers who are unsuccessful in the classroom. And today that idea manifests in, I think the Obama Administration has embraced this idea. Rick describes how he used to be a real kook; nobody wanted to listen to him talk about this idea. But now he's the establishment. And we have: teacher evaluations are one of the hallmark policies of the Obama Administration. Meaning the evaluations that public school teachers are given which have historically assigned 99% of teachers as effective, are now being pushed to be more discriminating. And to have more weight in decisions that are high stakes, like tenure decisions. So that's the accountability idea. And I think that the only flaw that it has is that it fails to account for this other important piece, which is what teachers need to learn to do along the way in order to become good or bad. And there's lots of other nuances about that idea. But the big one I think is that accountability alone is not going to be enough. It hasn't been enough in improving schools and I don't think it will be enough in improving teachers. They also are going to need development and supports. Russ: So, it raises the question: Why don't they get it? I didn't phrase that very well. Why don't they get these skills? Why isn't it--I'm an economist, I'm a big believer in the power of competition; I think it's a huge problem, maybe we'll talk about it in a little bit that our current school system is not sufficiently competitive. But most of the people in teaching actually do care about the students. They would prefer to be a good teacher rather than a bad one. It's true that being a great teacher requires a lot of work, and people are often eager not to work so hard. But put that to the side. Most of them care. It's striking to me how little the craft part of teaching gets conveyed. Even forget the, 'I want to be the greatest teacher of all time.' Just, 'I'd like my students to learn something.' Why aren't principals helping their teachers learn to be great? Guest: Yeah. Russ: Better. Guest: So if we start by thinking about what is a system where this is working, and then we think, are the features that make a system work appearing in the traditional public school system, I think that's a good way to answer your question. So, Doug Lemov's schools, Uncommon Schools, are--that's an organization, that's a network of charter schools that really treat teaching as a craft and create supports for teachers to do well so that teachers can do that rational thing you are talking about--help your teachers do it; most teachers want to be better. Well, how does that work in Uncommon Schools? One thing that they have is, they have a rational organization of the workday. So, teachers have time when they are teaching and they also have time when they are not actively working with students; but instead studying the curriculum with each other, watching other teachers teach, learning about teaching and the craft and the curriculum. Together they have whole data days when they can step back from their work and study student data, whether that's standardized test data or student work that they are looking at together. So they have organization of work that allows them to do that. Another feature that they have is, they have a common curriculum. So that allows teachers to learn together. They have, instead of one teacher in one school working on one problem and another teacher in another school having a totally different curriculum, they can have a common conversation about, why are our students not understanding division of fractions in third grade when we've decided they should learn that? And, what can we do about it? They have also a system of subject-specific teacher groups. So, if you think about the difference between what it means to be an effective English teacher versus an effective math teacher, there's a lot that a person observing a math teacher at work needs to know about math in order to give the math teacher good feedback. And that's so specific, that kind of knowledge, that it's very unlikely that someone will have that detailed knowledge about all the subjects in a school. But in a traditional public school system, the only person observing a teacher, generally, is the principal, who is either one content area expert, or may be a former gym teacher. So how can that principal be expected to give highly detailed feedback? Instead, in Uncommon Schools, where Doug works, teachers work with subject-specific groups. So, a math expert will watch a math teacher. And they will have content groups together within this network of schools that can work together on that specific skill and the specific questions of math teaching. Or the specific questions of the developmental age of the students. So those are three features that I just mentioned that make Uncommon Schools able to do this obvious rational thing, help teachers be better: they have organization of work; they have a common curriculum; and they have subject-specific mentorship. Well, in the traditional school system, none of that exists. We do not have a common curriculum, even within some school districts. And we do not have organization of work that allows teachers to do pretty much anything in their official time or their spare time other than work with students. So, they don't have time to observe each other unless they are defying their rules and regulations of their school system. And they do not have a common curriculum and they do not have subject specific mentors. So, I think there's many other features other than that, but basically my answer is that the system has been designed kind of the worst possible way you would want in order to help teachers learn to be better. Russ: Yeah. Arnold Kling, on EconTalk has said that education is about feedback. It's about helping your students understand what they know and don't know. But that works for teachers, too. And if teachers don't learn what works and doesn't work, and most of us only learn that through, as you point out in the book, most teachers are sort of in this little island called their classroom. They don't get a lot of feedback from mentors, peers. They only get the feedback from their students. That's something, you learn something if you are paying attention. But not like you'd learn if you share ideas and you talk about it, etc.
42:58Russ: So, one response to your point--so, I'm with you. Having seen my wife transform her classroom through these ideas and work with other teachers from her school and get the feedback from them, I think it's an incredibly transformative process. But one might say, Well, Elizabeth, you've drunk the Kool-Aid; you've been charmed. Doug Lemov's data is not really data. You've been suckered in. You're just--you've over-romanticized the effectiveness of this. What do you say in response to that? And let me ask it a different way. Would you push to see those techniques put into public schools? And again, do you think that might happen? Is it happening in any way right now? Because I see some signs of it in my reading of the educational field. Guest: I think there's a lot of positive change happening in lots of places. In terms of, am I overly romantic? You know, like what Rick would say--and by the way, I just heard from Rick having [?] he just finished the book, and he said I nearly persuaded him, but not quite. Russ: Don't worry, Elizabeth. I'll work on him. I see him from time to time. I'm going to give him a hard time. Guest: Well, I treat that as a real accomplishment. Here's my attempt to summarize the best Rick Hanushek counterargument. And that would be: Okay, it's nice to say that anyone could learn to teach or that if we do a good job on recruitment we also have to do a good job on development, but why then is it that for 100-plus years we've had schools of education whose sole business was to train teachers? We've had a professional development structure for teachers in the United States whose costs, you know, there's different ways to measure the size of the budget on professional development, but the best one I've seen is $9 billion a year. We have all this investment that we've made in helping teachers be better and it's all--there's no evidence that any of it has succeeded. So why are you telling me--you know, it's nice to say all the things you've said in your book, but against this evidence, why should we ever invest in something that so clearly has no return? I think the answer to that is let's just think about the numbers and who is in this profession. There's 3.7 million teachers in this country. The turnover rates, especially given baby boomer retirement patterns are huge. We have not only existing teachers who need to change their practice but we also have new teachers who are coming in, as many as a million of them in the next 15-20 years who are going to need to be trained. We are going to have to do something to ensure that they have a responsible level of practice before they get into the classroom. What standard of evidence do we need before we, in the moment, make the policy decision that we want them to be responsible? What we do know is that the different levels of teaching practices lead to dramatically different levels of student learning. So, if we only want to intervene at the accountability level and only want to remove those ineffective teachers, then we're still going to be left with the task of finding people to replace them who are going to have to meet some kind of responsible level before they start. So, I think the question is, it's the difference between policy and research. The standard of evidence that we need to act, I think, logic can be a standard of evidence, and since we already have $9 billion, why don't we change the way we spend it? Russ: I think about the baseball example we talked about earlier. When you look at a major league baseball player, they are really good at hitting a baseball. But they still have a coach. And they still have batting practice almost every day. Which suggests that coaching and practice makes you better. And I think if we said, okay, instead of hiring people we think are good coaches to coach the hitters, let's just take some fans out of the stands, because they've been watching baseball; they can probably do a good job. And I think that that's what describes--and they know something, right? It's not like they know nothing. But that's what describes to me the professional development aspect of teaching right now, which is very similar to education schools: we'll have a provocative day about neurology and how the brain processes information, rather than let's practice how to keep disruptive students from ruining the experience for everybody and get them involved rather than just sent to the principal's office. And I think that's the problem we have; the money has, as you said, been spent poorly. But that doesn't mean it can't be spent well. Having said that, it's not obvious that we can spend it well, given the incentives of the public school system. Guest: Yeah. Or I would even rephrase that to say that the lack of infrastructure--like, so, I can point to programs that are small but promising, for which there is evidence to support the idea that a person who is an average mortal human being can be trained to be as good of a teacher as the best teachers Doug Lemov studies. Because those programs do exist. But there are real impediments to scaling those programs. So, I read about a program that the Stanford researcher Pam Grossman created in the San Francisco Unified School District, where they are showing that they are, through not overly expensive interventions, but well-designed interventions, able to help secondary English teachers do a better job of helping their students to reach the Common Core standards for English. But one of the key elements of that program is Pam Grossman. And her cohort, who teach this program. And there's only one Pam Grossman in this country. There are not that many Pam Grossman graduate students in this country. There are many effective and excellent English teachers, but there are not enough of them to help change the system and do that kind of teaching. There may be a way to MOOC-ify [Mass Open Online Courses], but I haven't seen it yet. What they were doing in that professional development was not unlike what Doug Lemov describes, with these approximations of practice--rehearsals--where teachers actually rehearse and have an observer who is knowledgeable about effective teaching watch them and give them feedback in the moment during their rehearsal. So, how do you do that in a way at scale, when not only doing we not have the right knowledge in the teaching profession but we don't have the right knowledge outside of the teaching profession to teach the teachers. So, I see that as one of the biggest challenges. Russ: I don't like the word 'MOOC,' but we're stuck with it. But now you've added an even worse word: 'MOOCify'. But it's very useful. I like that a lot.
50:58Russ: Let's talk about the reaction to your book. It came out, I think, in June of this year. Is that correct? Guest: August. Russ: Oh, really? When did I see June? Maybe it's not a good question; you'll tell me. Have you gotten much reaction from teachers? Or is it too early? Guest: No, I have. I think you're thinking--there's an excerpt of the book that appeared in the New York Times Magazine at the end of June, or in July. So maybe that's what you're thinking of. But yeah, teachers have started to read it, and I've been really, really gratified by their response, because I'm not a teacher and there's definitely a lot of teachers who I think rightfully question anybody who is not a teacher pretending to know what they do. But actually that's the reason I wrote the book, is that I had been an education journalist without knowing anything about teaching, and I realized that the gaps in my understanding were so significant that I was really misreading the policy questions. So I've been gratified that a lot of teachers seem to not only see themselves in the book and feel that their work is accurately captured, but they find things that they can learn from. I've been very excited about that. Russ: You talk about your education, your journalism background. You are the co-founder of Chalkbeat, which is a news site covering news related to educational change. And you have an explicit goal of improving public schools. Tell us a little bit about Chalkbeat. Guest: Oh, sure. So, the first teacher who changed my life was John Mathwyn[?], my high school journalism teacher. I grew up in the D.C. suburbs and went to a high school that had a significant racial and class achievement gap. And John Mathwyn[?] ran the student newspaper and introduced me to the idea that journalism could make a difference. And indeed, writing for the school paper about the achievement gap in my school, I saw that I could make a contribution starting a conversation about equity in the school as well as the policies that seemed to be either supporting that or holding back efforts to make change. But then when I went into the workforce I found that there was no commercial media organization or existing media organization that I could work for that really matched this vision that Mr. Mathwyn[?] instilled in me. So the end result of that was that some friends and I created our own news organization, and the idea was to create a business model that could better support the social mission that we see for journalism. So Chalkbeat is. All of our reporters live in the community that they cover. Unlike the traditional model of education reporting where people will parachute into a community from far away, we actually are there every day. We write daily stories about the subject and we have an explicit idea of what our mission is and how we think that journalism leads to social impact. So, now we're in 4 communities--New York City; Memphis, TN; Denver, CO; and Indiana. And we're seeking to expand to many more communities that have reached out to us to ask for a bureau in their neighborhood. Russ: So, in a video about Chalkbeat, you say the following: "Our job is to help people in communities make more informed decisions about education." But I would argue that the current educational system isn't designed to allow more informed people to make a decision. And I see that as the largest problem in our educational environment, kind of the underlying problem; and all the things that we try to do to reform the school system, like the Common Core, or the No Child Left Behind, or whatever the latest fad is, are desperate end around attempts to deal with the fact that people are spending other people's money, students are not really the consumer; the parents aren't the consumers. And the whole system has got this terrible design flaw that fails to incentivize excellence. React to that place; and give me a little optimism. Guest: All I want to do is ask you several follow-up questions about what would a better design be, of a public system, to have? Russ: I don't want a public system. I want an unpublic system to emerge, with all of its diversity and flavor and trial and error and everything else in our economy does so much better. And I don't want a business model. I hate it when people say, 'oh, he's against the public schools so he wants to have a business model.' Or, 'he wants there to be competition--that's what businesses do.' I assume education in a nonpublic education world would be nonprofit, like it is in the private school system. There would be schools that had charity, that would help people who couldn't afford to pay tuition, just like there are now; even with our wasteful public school system, we have that. So, you're right; I don't have an answer to that question; and I don't have to. That's the beauty of my approach. Guest: Oh, right. We don't have to decide anything centrally if it's not centrally designed. Russ: It's a big trick. Guest: I mean, giving you optimism, I think that there are people who need better information to make better decisions at every level, and who want it. Not unlike teachers. Teachers are buying Doug Lemov's book by the thousands, hundreds of thousands, because they want better information. I think the same applies to parents--and they do have some power. Very limited power, but they have some. And especially too administrators, policymakers. I assume that's why 400 bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Education are gathering on Thursday and inviting me to talk with them as part of a professional development series that apparently they have. So, I think that the reality is that information will affect decision-making patterns. Our ideas about what will make a difference, like Rick's ideas did. Rick's ideas truly directly led, you could argue, to many elements of the Race to the Top competitive grant system. Other ideas continue to influence people's actions. Parents' actions about which houses to buy but also which teachers to advocate for and how to organize themselves and be part of a democratic political process. And my view is that we should have--the press's job is to make sure that whatever information people are using is better quality and that they have access to it. So, it's not perfect, but that's the best we can hope for in democracy. Russ: Does Chalkbeat push a particular policy agenda? Do you want to see more charter schools, or more accountability, or more standards? Do you have a view, either as Elizabeth Green or Chalkbeat? Guest: On those questions, no. We don't take a view on those questions because I think that our role is to help people see the plusses and the minuses which do exist. And everyone who works for us, it's not like we're hiding a secret agenda that we do have but can't say or are prohibited from saying. It's that we truly see that charter schools add some benefits and have some costs. And it's true with every policy. So, our job is not to make the decisions but to help people have the complete full picture before they make the decisions. And I think when you talk to most journalists you'll find that they chose journalism for a reason--because it's hard to make those decisions, and for us at least it's easier to paint the picture of what the world looks like. Like, with this book, I can tell you what teaching takes and what it takes to make successful teachers, but I can't tell you the exact steps for how to change our policy structure to get there. Because there's lots of decisions that we'll have to make through the democratic political process that it's not my job to make. Russ: Yeah, I view that as a very flawed process relative to some others. But that's okay. I like your optimism.
59:17Russ: Before we close: You, as you say, are not a teacher. But you did spend some time teaching in writing your book. Talk briefly about that. Guest: Yeah. My friend, Andy Snyder[?] is a New York City public school teacher, and he said that I would be a fraud if I didn't even try it before writing the book. And I said, in that case should we expect all political reporters to run for office before they cover politics, or should we ask every New York Daily News reporter to have married Kim Kardashian before writing for the New York Daily News? But anyway, he won the argument, and I had to--I taught his class for a few lessons. It was exhilarating. It was a great way to recognize that teaching really, really is a very cognitively challenging craft. And it opened up a lot of lessons for me. Maybe one that was most powerful was Doug Lemov, in particular, had talked to me a lot about love. Teachers like to talk about love--a little uncomfortable for me, as somebody who was trying to rearrange my idea of this profession beyond sort of, all you have to do is love kids, to appreciating the science of the craft. But they kept, even as they were showing me how challenging their work was and how much of a craft it was, they also kept talking about love. So I had to figure out some way to understand that. And it wasn't until I taught Andy's class that I think I really did come to understand that, because I had this moment with a student where I said something wrong to sort of set her off against me. And I didn't know what to do in that moment, because I had alienated this one student; she was defiant. And I had lost her. And the whole class had this really tense moment when we had to figure out what we were going to do. I had offended her; she was sort of growling at me underneath her breath. And the only thing that came to mind was what Doug had told me and what Andy had told me about love. And I just looked at her and I thought, 'I love you.' And it sounds really cheesy and corny but every teacher I talk to understands that there's something important about really deciding to love each student and respect them as a person, and see their point of view and give up yourself in the moment. And I was able to--if not completely salvage my relationship with her, move forward in a way that was productive. Because I looked at her with respect. Anyway, it was a life-changing experience, teaching, and that was one of the most powerful moments. Russ: My wife says, 'It's not about me. It's about them.' And that seems obvious. But it's not, for two reasons. One is, naturally we tend to think, 'It's always about me.' That's number one. But number two, and I didn't think about this till you told that story--as a teacher, and it doesn't matter whether you are in a third grade class or a college classroom, there's a certain power relationship between the person in the front of the room and the people in the chairs. And if you indulge that in the wrong way, you create a natural hostility, which exists in many classrooms. We've all been there as students, and occasionally as teachers. And it's a terrible thing. When you change your perspective, that it's not about you, and it's not about you bossing them around and telling them what they need to learn. It's about you helping them learn. It's a cliché and it seems obvious, but it's not obviously easily implemented. It changes everything, and it changes their whole attitude toward what you are expounding. And I think--I take exactly your point: I think love is underrated. Guest: Yes. Yes. And I love the way your wife puts it. That's exactly it. It actually is a science, in and of itself, to focus on another person's emotional point of view and figure out what the proper response is. And one thing that it requires that is incredibly challenging is to completely erase your sense of yourself in the moment, and only focus on the other person. And that's true whether you are teaching them math and you have to think about what they, how they are thinking about a problem, or whether you are just dealing with their emotional response. Love is a science. That was my conclusion.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
David Zetland writes:

Fascinating discussion again. It's quite a pity that many universities equate PhD with teaching skills, when there's so much more than research talent involved.

That though lead me to a big (but obvious) aha -- that women are much more often in the role of teacher. I'd guess that this has *something* to do with gender bias, low pay, etc.) but it must also matter that women are more empathetic, in terms of listening (observing) students and helping them learn.

Off to teach!

Yavor writes:

How sizable and long-lasting is the effect of better teaching at the K-12 level independent of heredity etc.?

I wish Russ addressed that question as it is a bit more fundamental and doesn't take the need for a better (and constantly improving) teacher for granted.

Studies of identical twins reared apart show remarkable IQ and life outcome convergence, especially later in life. Are we getting a bit too worked up over expensive to achieve but marginal and temporary gains that quickly dissipate 2,3,4 years after graduation? I personally do not remember even 10% of what I (and my teachers) once thought I learned in high school. And no, I do not think the exercise was worth it for teaching me to "think critically" or "to learn how to learn" or any such conveniently hard to measure thing.

Maybe an exceptional teacher is like a really good personal trainer - she may try to inculcate some useful habits, show technique, and motivate her trainees to achieve their own top performance but when she is gone, the treatment effect may be gone not long after ... or maybe not. In any event, seems like this is a worthy question to be asked before spending more money or recruiting the best and the brightest to the profession.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Yavor wrote:

"In any event, seems like this is a worthy question to be asked before spending more money or recruiting the best and the brightest to the profession."

It should be noted that this guest did not argue for either spending more money or for recruiting the best and the brightest. Her main theme was that good teaching skills can be taught, they just aren't all too often. She didn't directly address whether "recruiting the best and brightest" was a good idea, but it's not too far a leap from her arguments that doing so would be, at best, unnecessary.

Yavor writes:

Michael Byrnes - you're correct, point well taken .... But she did argue for more practice and more effort, in other words more resources expanded by both administration and teachers.

Yes, better teaching can be thought but her prescription seems to be such an engaged and consuming endeavor ... Good paragliding can also be thought but unless we are very confident that it will have real and long-term positive effects on society and/or the economy I don't see why we should bother.

I can't help but think that the tediousness of her prescriptions (and Lemov's as well) for "building a better teacher" and the need to submit to constant evaluating and re-evaluating from "experts" will drive even more teachers away from the profession and create a very top-down approach to training. Being micromanaged by the ever-observant eye of such credentialed "teacher builders" may be the last straw for many underpaid teachers who have to work with kids with serious family dysfunction or lack of motivation, while also being held 100% responsible for the output of those kids.

Suppose a teacher, by dint of being "betterfied", manages a more disciplined classroom with better knowledge transfer and as a result more kids grasp certain concepts or submit their homework on time.

Two relevant questions - 1) how permanent or fleeing are the knowledge transfer and the cajoled discipline? 2)In the eventual absence of that magnificent teacher (who through sheer expertise and craftiness manages to help kids (temporarily?) achieve understanding in perfectly conducive conditions with little pull but a lot of expert push), would the students not be ill equipped for the disorientation, ambiguity, and messiness of the "real" world where a manager of theirs (or their co-workers) may not be as perfectly attuned and accommodating?

Research shows that after a short while the gains by "disadvantaged" students from the expensive "Head Start" program are lost and their achievement converges with that of their Head Start-less piers. If, similarly, the gains from a better teacher in K-12 are quickly lost, should we still make the profession that much more demanding and tedious just so we finagle some better scores from kids while in school?

Manabu Watanabe writes:

I am a Japanese and have read the excerpt of this book in the NY Times article titled "Why Do Americans Stink at Math?".

Unfortunately I have to say that her account of Japanese education is very misleading, as pointed out also by Dr. Tom Loveless in the Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

So I wrote her a letter and put it in my blog:

It is very sad to see the misunderstanding of Japanese education spreading in your country.
So I really want to correct it.

Yavor writes:


Thank you for submitting your thoughts... I wonder how instructive the international PISA exams are when it comes to indicting or praising their public school systems.

Similarly to Japan, in Bulgaria (where I grew up) there has almost always been a network of private tutors (oftentimes they are also teachers within the public system themselves) who further prep kids in reading and math.

I suspect that is the case in many other countries as well.

bogwood writes:

I was listening to the podcast at the library when her book magically appeared before my eyes. Synchronicity. I'm having trouble with it. No data,no tables ,no graphs, no section abstracts and no chapter conclusions. No boxes for emphasis. I'm not sure she gives the reader the same consideration suggested for pupils. Maybe the point is teaching is difficult to unpack even in 300 pages. May stick with the podcast,thanks for that.

Ron Crossland writes:

Interesting conversation sparking more questions than conclusions. That the current system appears poor begs the question are we teaching things of value, even when a great teacher is involved.

The dominant alternative system discussed seems to produce unfavorable outcomes as well. And the Japanese conclusions appear to warrant more review.

A largely untested (on national scales anyway) market driven system will very likely lead to inequities and poor consequences as well, despite the successes that likely will ensue.

Despite our best efforts, understanding how we learn does not yet collide well with how we teach. And we are still teaching in ways that do not serve the society that is emerging.

The most interesting question for me is how do those who emerge from a somewhat ineffective system, with average teachers, emerge to perform well or poorly despite their home based advantages or disadvantages. In short, how do some learn despite how they are taught.

No where in the discussion did I hear any emphasis on sparking a desire and method for the student to WANT to become a lifelong learner, as opposed to having simply been taught some topics.

Dylan Wiliam writes:

Yavor asked how long do the benefits of higher teacher quality last? The work of Raj Chetty and his colleagues, who followed up the Tennessee STAR study, found that students randomly allocated to higher quality kindergarten teachers were making $1000 more per annum thirty years later. Rick Hanushek (featured in several EconTalk podcasts) has estimated that just one year in a good teacher's classroom increases lifetime earnings by around $50,000 (net present value of $9,000). I think the evidence is now pretty solid that the benefits of high-quality teaching are real, and lasting.

The really depressing thing is that as Elizabeth Green points out, we haven't been very good at making our teachers better, and in this, schools of education are almost irrelevant. We could certainly get smarter people into teaching, and we could also make preservice preparation of teachers better, but by itself, this is going to have a small impact on average teacher quality. Currently, our teachers, however good they are, don't improve much. For example, a good teacher (1sd above the mean) is better on her first day than the average teacher will be at the end of their career, but the best teachers don't seem to improve much over the first five years of their careers (while the worst improve radically, and get close to the mean after five years). If we are serious about improving educational outcomes for young people, then we need professional development for serving teachers to be hard-wired into the working day of each teacher, as it is in Shanghai. Teachers can improve, provided they are given job-embedded professional development and coaching that directly address problems of practice.

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