Conditional Excellence

This is long–my apologies. I have taken an interesting and succinct interview with a real education expert and interspersed it with my comments. Now it is long-winded and wordy. Mission accomplished!

Prepare teachers well, create the conditions for excellence

Des Moines Register | May 21, 2009       by Linda Lantor Fandel 

From an interview on teacher preparation with Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, where she started the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute and the School Redesign Network. She is former president of the American Educational Research Association and was executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future from 1994 to 2001. Darling-Hammond began her career as a high school English teacher.

Q. U.S. schools tend to have a mix of teachers in terms of effectiveness. Why don’t parents, school board members and others insist on a great teacher in every classroom?

A. There are some schools that routinely hire very able teachers. Some schools – with lower salaries, poorer working conditions, or administrators less attentive to quality teaching – have many poor teachers. And most schools have a mix.

Why don’t people demand an excellent teacher in every classroom? We have behaved for a very long time as if that is not something to be expected, in contrast to high-achieving nations that have put in place an infrastructure for producing high-quality teaching. We haven’t done that. The last attempt at strengthening that infrastructure [in the United States] was in the 1960s and ’70s. We have gotten used to this variable quality. At the end of the day, however, every reform depends on having good teachers.

[I agree with D-H, who I greatly admire. Imagine how different things might have been if she had been selected as SecofEd, instead of Arne Duncan.

However, it is not so much that folks on both sides of the schoolyard fence do not insist on or even expect great teachers. In reality, they may not know for sure what they have in the way of quality teachers. Like the accurate and fair evaluation of workers in any skilled job, teacher evaluation is time-consuming and challenging. It requires a valid instrument that is equitably applied, produces reliable results, and shares meaningful observations and recommendations with teachers. It requires calculated and focused training and re-training of observers. It requires careful and fair analysis. Up to a few years ago, our principals were revered for being good managers. Only recently have building administrators been obligated to turn themselves into so-called “instructional leaders.”

(“Poof!”—you’re an instructional leader!)

Teaching has been saddled, forever, it seems, with the repulsive cliché: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I cringed when I first heard that back in 1969. Now, I want to scream. To burden my profession with such an onerous characterization is beyond anyone’s comprehension. Whatever did teachers do to deserve this?

My experience has been that there may be 2-3 teachers in any one school who perform in a less than satisfactory manner. So deal with it: spot it; observe it; identify it; describe it; categorize it; analyze it; remedy it; fix it. If it is true that all students can learn, then surely, all teachers are trainable and can also learn ways to improve. OR, do what it takes to prove that Mrs. McGillicuddy does not have what it takes to be a teacher, exit her from the profession, and move on. Most teachers do not have lowered expectations for themselves or their colleagues—why should anyone else?]   

Q. What are the qualities of a great teacher?

A. I’d like to talk about great teachers in two ways. What are the background characteristics that tend to predict better teaching? And what are the practices that good teachers engage in?

Teachers tend to be more effective when they have a strong background in the field they are teaching, and a strong background in how to teach that content, how to make it understandable to other people.  In terms of practices, effective teachers set up active learning situations for students, so kids are applying and using their knowledge. They have a wide repertoire of teaching strategies. They are very attentive to the learning of each individual child. They have strategies to help kids use their strengths to get the learning done.

[Yep—she’s right. Quality teachers need to be all-around teaching experts. I teach science, so, I must know the science content—pretty much inside and out–well beyond the actual material I impart to 6th graders. Plus, I also need to know how to deliver that content in a totally effective manner. I need to implement instruction that makes the BIG IDEAS understandable and meaningful to my students. I have to be skilled in following established curriculum to create engaging lessons that fit into the context of the theme or unit or topic—in my case, the science kits for my grade level.

Overall, my lessons must allow kids to absorb key information and apply, synthesize, analyze, and transfer knowledge about science. I must have a wide range of instructional strategies at my fingertips—ready to make mid-course corrections and adjustments necessary to meet the needs of different groups of students with different abilities. At the same time, I need to be informed and aware of the more individual needs of each of my 145 students.  

And, I must not forget about science literacy. I may not be producing future rocket scientists, but I certainly want to create learning that will enhance my 11-year olds’ experience as reading, listening, and thinking adults who know and understand basic scientific fact—who will know astronomy from astrology, evolution from creationism, and can assess scientific information and news for themselves.]   

Q. What sort of support do teachers need to become more effective, from professional development to time for collaboration with colleagues?

A. In most high-achieving countries, teachers have 15 to 25 hours a week where they are planning collaboratively with their colleagues, so they are not just making up lessons at the kitchen table on a Sunday night by themselves.

In Asian countries, like Japan and China, teachers engage in lesson study, where they develop lessons together. One teacher may then teach that lesson, and the others will come to watch it. They’ll analyze the student learning; they’ll figure out what worked and what didn’t. Then they’ll fine-tune the lesson further. They create what some researchers have called “polished stones.” We need time for teachers to work together, observe each other, problem-solve together. And they need access to expertise about teaching strategies in specific content areas for particular groups of students. That is not what most professional development looks like in the United States.

[OMG! Hours of collaborative planning time. Dream on, D-H.

I am lucky if I get to regularly chat about my students with a few colleagues on my teaching team during our 20 minutes together at lunch each day. We do have common planning time. However, each of us has other additional important responsibilities that need to be attended to during at least some of that planning time. So, we get together every once in a while.

In the U.S., teaching tends to be a lonely profession—you go in your room, you close the door, and you teach. D-H is absolutely on target when she states that quality teachers need time to plan together, time to observe each other, and time to resolve problems related to instruction. Quality teachers need access to other more-qualified and experienced colleagues, a.k.a. master teachers, who also have the time to guide and mentor both new and veteran teachers alike. AND, ALL TEACHERS NEED AND DESERVE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT THAT IS FAR BETTER AND MORE USEFUL THAN THE PD WE CURRENTLY RECEIVE from our respective school districts. There, I’ve said it. It’s what my teaching colleagues from across the state tell me:: “PD stinks!”]

Q. Do teacher-education programs at colleges and universities need to become more selective about the applicants admitted? And if so, how?

A. Yes, in some cases. There are at least 200 to 300 schools of education that are highly selective about the academic backgrounds of the candidates and the personal qualities people bring with them. In general, standards have been rising for teachers. The average teacher today is in the top half of his or her college class. Some states are choosing from the top third.

[Here’s an idea (not mine—not original): Make teaching as appealing as possible to college students and go out of your way during their freshman or sophomore years to attract the top students in any appropriate academic field (math, science, history, English, etc.)—recruit top students INTO teaching and into the College of Education. Let them graduate with double degrees in math and math education. They are making this happen at several top universities.

How to make teaching appealing? Not hard to imagine—probably very tough to carry out:

  • Increase pay to match that of other professions with comparable educational requirements.
  • Up the standards for getting into and staying in an education degree program.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, allow teaching to be the fallback occupation or the refuge for the lonely, disaffected, less than competent, under-achieving college student.
  • Be accountable for teachers and teaching. Toughen up the observation and evaluation of pre-service teachers and non-tenured teachers. Do not permit under-performing and less than solid candidates to move on through the system. Stop them when and where you can. If Suzy was a less than satisfactory methods student, help her find another field. If Bobby turns out to be a lousy student teacher, do whatever it takes to help him improve. For God’s sake, do not allow him to go on to teach, without attempting correction of his weaknesses, flaws, or lack of skills.

Do not pass marginal teachers with probationary status (during their first 2-3 years of real teaching) on to tenured status unless they really deserve it. Either find the resources to help them improve or evaluate them out of teaching. Sounds harsh, but, if they cannot make the grade after student teaching and 2-3 years of untenured status, then they probably do not belong in the profession.

And, it is a profession—it is my chosen lifelong profession. I want to see the professional status of teaching protected and enhanced—not corrupted, weakened, disregarded, or disrespected.]

Q. Do teacher-education programs generally prepare future teachers well? Do they do a good job of teaching them how to work with students with different learning styles?

A. Again, it is a variable enterprise. Some places have gotten better and better, and do a very good job now of preparing teachers to work with students who learn in different ways, including students with disabilities and English-language learners. These very high-quality programs are probably a quarter of the teacher-education enterprise. There are others that are pretty good, but they could be a lot better if there were incentives and supports to get them there. And there are some that need to be put out of business.

[Who would best know what new teachers need to know to do a good job in today’s schools? Hmm,… that’s a toughy. I suspect that it would be working teachers who best know what’s needed. But, no one ever asks them or invites them to participate in the education of future teachers. The age-old complaint is that too many of the people who now teach teachers how to teach (a) garnered classroom experience decades ago, (b) taught for only 3-4 years, or (c) have no classroom experience at all. HOLY COW! That is exactly what my peers said in 1972 when I graduated from Goucher College. What’s wrong with this picture?

One more thing. Could we please do whatever it takes to get minority students to join the field of education? My Black and Latino students deserve to have more than two teachers out of fifty in the building who look like them. Only one teacher speaks Spanish—the Spanish teacher. Many of our Latino students’ parents need a Spanish-speaker to translate during phone calls or conferences.]   

Q. You advised the Obama campaign on education policy, and continue to advise the new administration. What are your three key recommendations to improve teacher quality?

A. First, ensure that everyone who wants to teach [is] well-prepared.  Second, ensure that salaries are competitive and equitable. Finally, create the conditions in which teachers can teach well. That means providing the mentoring and collaboration time, the professional development and working conditions that allow teachers to use what they know and to continually get better at their difficult and important work.

[Thanks again, D-H. Improving and maintaining teacher quality will require the following:

  • Superior preparation for all entering the field.
  • Salaries comparable with and equivalent to other skilled professions.
  • The best working conditions possible:
    • Qualified mentors and the time necessary to mentor teachers new to the field.
    • Collaborative time for teachers to plan and prepare lessons, to implement planned instruction together, to observe others teaching, to regroup and analyze the results, to reflect upon possible changes and improvements, to retest ideas in yet another classroom, and save the best to be reused in other classes or the following year. (Of course, the following year or even another class group is NEVER the same as the original! New kids, new needs, new adjustments to plans.)
    • Meaningful, appropriate, useful, informed, thoughtfully-designed and implemented PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT—it’s called PD for a reason—it is supposed to be professionally developmental. To have to sit through an hour-long presentation about the value of modeling instruction for students during which the presenter neither utilizes nor demonstrates modeling strategies is absurd and insulting.
    • Create and build standardized routines, processes, and practices across the entire school so that everyone knows what to do, when to do it, and who to go to in order to make things work—even the new teachers.
    • Establish a common and reliable system of discipline within classrooms and throughout the school. Sure, some disciplinary actions have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, but there needs to be an underpinning that all parties (kids, parents, teachers, and administrators) agree to and can rely on. And for my own personal bias: If repeated suspensions have not worked on quelling Johnny’s significant behavior problems, then more suspension is probably not the answer. Could we please “think outside of the box” on this one and come up with some effective alternatives? Surely there must be something else that could work.


    Thank you to Linda Darling-Hammond for her well-considered and helpful comments. Did you notice that she never once mentioned “bad teachers” or suggested firing teachers as a recommendation for improving teacher effectiveness?

This entry was posted in Education Transformation, Quality Teachers/Quality Teaching, Students and Schools, Teachers and Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Conditional Excellence

  1. Andrew says:

    Lots of good points. We all too often ignore the infrastructure when we talk about the need for educational reform. What we need is a framework for excellence, something that considers the rules, responses, and resources that make a school work. A constant theme in my teaching experience is providing students with a “scaffolding” for learning. Concurrently, we need to think about how we can “scaffold” the school environment so that teachers can actually do their jobs and do them well.

  2. fsjenner says:

    Very good analogy and I love the concept of scaffolding–a concrete support system that hold up the workers; that enables them to rework, adjust and enhance the infrastructure; that can be taken down and moved to another location, as needed; that can be colapsed or expanded when necessary. In Asia, they use bamboo scaffolding to work on even the tallest structures. What materials could be used for teacher and school scaffolding?

    I picked this up somewhere this year: “Teachers need…a safe place to wonder in and personalize their learning. We do not make it easy for students to learn by making it difficult for teachers to learn.”

    • Harrie Ellen Minnehan says:

      Linda Darling-Hammond is on target here. Back in the ’60’s when I was at Berkeley there was no such thing as an “education major.” You majored in a core subject, like English, History, mathematics, psychology etc. and then when you had that knowledge under your belt you applied to the Grad School of Education where you got the necessary pedagogical training. It worked well there, and has continued to work amazingly well for years.
      I have always wondered about programs where you have to take an entire semester long class in how to use “equipment” (in the old days it was called “Audio-visual” and meant an old film projector.) In the grad school we spent intense periods of time observing and questioning teaching and learning in a classroom setting, with hours spent discussing with the teacher exactly what was going on and why. I remember sometimes wondering why, why, why I was spending all of this time listening to the teacher, hours after the kids had gone home. But every year I taught, I knew exactly why! Every student teacher I ever had had to endure the same grueling process….and you know what! It worked!
      If we are going to truly reform education it has to start with reforming the training of the teacher and making teaching an appealing profession. Who wants to go into a low paying profession that is beaten up in the media every day and have every single failure in society placed at its feet? Nobody, that’s who!
      It is going to be impossible to make a system which is backed by the tax system become financially competitive with the for-profit world that remains attractive to all those kids coming out of school with gazillion dollars worth of loans to pay back. So many issues at work at the same time.
      And then there is the question about whether “all children can learn.” They can all learn something. They cannot all learn everything. They cannot all learn at the same rate. And, they should not all be expected to do it all.

  3. fsjenner says:

    Right. Intersting to hear about your experiences at Berkeley. I remember that damned A-V course, but mine was just a few weeks–part of methods, I think. Teacher bashing has become a national sport. Transformation of education will require changes in pre-service training and expecatations, as well as greater, more professional support for new teachers. If doctors and lawyers get to intern, and carpenters and plumbers can apprentice, why are new teachers tossed in a room all by themselves to sink or swim? What’s more important?

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