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Education Secretary Arne Duncan once called education schools the “Bermuda Triangle of higher education.” Students sail in and no one knows what happens to them. Some succeed as teachers. Many do not.

Public debate about education often focuses on what children and adolescents are learning, possibly because of education’s formative role in turning young people into adults. A new book, however, calls us to pay more attention to how we teach the teachers.

In Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), out this month from W. W. Norton, Elizabeth Green, editor in chief of the education news organization Chalkbeat, takes aim at one of the education world’s most cherished myths. She attacks the idea that teachers are born, not made. And she says education schools aren’t doing enough to prepare teachers for the rigors of the classroom.

The myth of the natural-born teacher is “a core belief of our culture,” Green said in an interview. “The problem with that argument is that we do know that teaching is an expertise that needs to be learned, even by the most brilliant person, and it’s a different kind of knowledge than just knowing a subject well.”

In her book, Green does not offer a single set of principles for how to build a better teacher. Instead, she introduces education reformers old and new -- from John Dewey, who hoped to develop a “science of education,” to Doug Lemov, the founder of a “no excuses” charter school known for its strict behavior rules. And she dives repeatedly into individual classrooms -- math lessons in Japan, a literature class at an urban high school in California -- to show how the craft of teaching unfolds. Yet from her wide-ranging look at education reform, some clear lessons emerge.

Too many people believe there is something magical about teaching, Green writes. This idea shapes education policy. Consider President Obama’s prescription for improving schools through teacher accountability. Obama has insisted on using student testing and on-the-job evaluations to measure which teachers are performing and which aren’t. This line of thinking holds that some teachers simply know how to teach, and others don’t. Reward the stars, fire the duds. But this change will not produce better teachers, Green warns. It’ll just create thousands of teachers who will need to be replaced.

The other major argument for how to improve teaching – the thesis that teachers simply need more freedom and respect -- falters for the same reason. Both the autonomy argument and the accountability argument erroneously assume that the average teacher will attain expertise on his own.

Even people responsible for training teachers subscribe to the idea of the natural-born teacher. Early in the book, Sylvia Gist, dean of Chicago State University’s College of Education, tells Green: “I think that there is an innate drive or innate ability for teaching.”

The natural-born teacher narrative leaves teachers unanchored, Green argues. If teaching is something you naturally know how to do, then it can’t really be taught. But the ability to teach competently isn’t something people organically acquire.

The Michigan Approach

“Learning on the job – as in, you’ll figure it out, we’ll give you the classroom, if you’re just out there for a while you’ll get the hang of it – that’s how most teachers in this country had to learn,” said Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education, who is lauded in Green’s book for her work on rethinking math teaching. “People put a very large amount of faith in being there, being in schools, getting experience. [But] just having experience in any realm doesn’t automatically make you better at it.”

Teachers must develop specific skills, few of which come intuitively, Ball said. These skills include the ability to understand why students make the mistakes they do; the ability to assess the merits of a textbook or a curriculum for a particular class; the ability to communicate with parents and guardians; and more expertise in their subject than people outside education would guess.

Too many education schools, Ball said, give lip service to in-the-classroom training without providing the coaching and feedback that aspiring teachers require.

“Ed schools will say, ‘We have a lot of time in the field,’ ” she said. “If you ask for more detail, like, how do they learn to lead discussions … it would turn out they’re not providing the careful training you’d expect a professional to get to be competent.”

At Michigan, Ball overhauled teacher education. “You no longer pass in our program by writing a nice paper about what you did when you went to a school,” the dean said. “Now what we assess them on is, how did the lesson actually go? We observe them, we watch videotapes … They don’t pass if they just do well on their theory courses -- they actually have to perform.”

In her book, Green homes in again and again on specific classrooms. Her reporting attends to what might at first seem like minutiae. One student stumbles on fractions. A first-grader intuits place value in addition. A teacher persuades his class to clear their desks without raising his voice. But just as the reader lingers in classrooms, observing how instructors lead students in surprisingly sophisticated discussions about math and other subjects, so too should aspiring teachers, Green’s book suggests. Teachers need to closely observe classroom activity. And they need to discuss it afterward.

Green calls for a more practice-oriented approach to teacher education. Education schools, she fears, are too divorced from what goes on in real classrooms.

“Many ed school professors’ ideas about teaching -- abstract advocacy for classrooms where order was less important than creativity and students’ voices could always be heard -- really did not work in practice,” she writes at one point, explaining why the “educational entrepreneurs” behind charter schools spurned education schools.

One problem is that education professors typically eschew research on the craft of teaching. Teaching is not a prestigious research topic. Thus the demands of tenure may steer faculty away from studying pedagogy. In the course catalog at Harvard’s School of Education, only 19 out of more than 500 courses had the word “teaching” in the title, Green said.

The American school system also suffers from a lack of interaction between education professors and teachers. The Japanese education system -- driven by American ideas that educators in the U.S. failed to implement, Green writes -- collaboration between researchers and teachers is common. Not so in the U.S.

“American teachers barely have time to eat lunch, let alone go talk to a professor,” Green said.

Green mentions the Match Teacher Residency, a program based in Boston that prepares teachers to work in “no excuses” charter schools, as a teacher-training program that is experimenting in a promising way. The master's degree-granting program is not attached to any college or university. It is entirely residency-based. In their first year, Match students work as tutors in Match charter schools. In their second year, they work as full-time teachers elsewhere while receiving remote coaching.

Stig Leschly, the chief executive of Match Education, said students in many education schools were “reading incredibly interesting stuff… but it’s not actually useful when you arrive in Brooklyn and you’ve got to walk in a classroom with 25 sixth-graders.”

“I would encourage graduate schools of education -- and I would include districts where they train young teachers on the job -- to focus less on theory, more on practice,” Leschly said. “To get [aspiring teachers] out of classrooms and into settings with the practitioners. And to hold themselves accountable to producing teachers who are truly good with kids.”

Leschly said graduate schools of education rarely kept data on how their graduates were performing -- which he deplored as a lapse of accountability.

Have Ed Schools Changed?

Saroja Barnes, senior director for professional issues at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, rejected the criticism that education schools are too theory-focused.

“Virtually all of our members require supervised teaching or an internship for graduation,” Barnes said. “This ranges from 500 to 562 total clock hours” -- meaning students spend an average of 14 to 15 weeks in classrooms supervised by a mentor teacher, she said.

The AACTE’s member institutions include more than 800 colleges and universities.

“AACTE thinks that obviously learning about practice from practice is the key,” Barnes said. “Many of our members -- I would say almost all of them -- they utilize that mode. They put their teachers in the classroom to learn.”

Ball said that when it came to problems with teacher preparation, education schools were not the only actors at fault.

“Certainly ed schools have lots of improvements to make,” Ball said. “[But] it’s also states. If states said they wouldn’t license people who couldn’t demonstrate they had a certain level of skill, we’d have a different story. We need some teeth in the system before we let people teach.”

And to build better teachers, higher education beyond the confines of ed schools must play a role.

“We need higher ed to step into this as much as they can because of the need for content knowledge to be a part of this,” Ball said. “My math department has as much to do with whether Michigan produces good math teachers as my ed school does.”

After spending roughly 300 pages following a host of different teachers, Green does something unexpected. She steps into the classroom herself. She arrives at a Manhattan high school with her heart pounding.

She'd learned a lot about teaching from reporting and from watching the gifted teachers she profiles in the book. But nothing had prepared her entirely for the challenge of leading a class. Only by teaching a lesson could Green gain a full understanding of what it meant to be a teacher, she writes.

She fumbles somewhat, responding sharply to a student's misguided question. And then she remembers what a veteran teacher told her just before the lesson: to look at the students with love in your heart.

"Staring at the girl I'd offended," Green writes, "...I thought about how she was a human, a person I cared about. I decided that I loved her."

At the end of class, Green apologizes to the student. And the girl gives her, in response, "the most precious gift," Green writes. "She turned up her lips in the tiniest approximation of a smile, finally looked me in the eye, and shrugged."


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