President Obama recently visited a Boston school and said: "We've got to lift up teachers ... We've got to reward good teachers [and] stop making excuses for bad teachers."
I agree with the President that we do need to lift up teachers and, given the critical role that they play in our society, we should want the best and the brightest in our classrooms. That said, I believe we are using the wrong tool to identify excellence.
Would a teacher consider his or her teaching truly outstanding if his or her students scored well on a standardized test, but didn't really understand the topic well enough to write a persuasive essay or apply the concept to solve a problem? I think the answer would be an unqualified "no." And I also think that using standardized tests as the only tool to rank teachers and students has resulted in the poorest type of instruction -- the type that prizes right answers over deep understanding.
Educational thought leader Diane Ravitch recently discussed this in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System,:
"The schools will surely be failures if students graduate knowing how to choose the right option from four bubbles on a multiple choice test, but are unprepared to lead fulfilling lives, to be responsible citizens, and to make good choices for themselves, their families, and our society."
Following this line of thinking, I believe that the real question -- the question that we, as a society, must ultimately grapple with and answer -- is what makes "good" teachers?
The real challenge is finding ways to lift up and develop legions of them, in order to truly engage students, and make classrooms from coast to coast more interesting and knowledge-friendly over the next decade.
There is no magic formula or strict set of rules here, and there certainly isn't one solution that can -- or should -- be deployed in every school across the country. But here are six ideas that, in my view, can help shape the encouraging national conversation that is currently taking place about teaching excellence.
Before we discuss the six ideas in depth, however, I think it's important to acknowledge that we need a different job description for the teacher of the 21st century -- one that drives the best type of instruction.
In my view, teachers should be expected to teach for understanding, rather than simply covering every lesson in the textbook. Teachers should also make learning interesting. And, finally, teachers should teach children how to learn and to contribute to their school community.
Often, what is most essential is difficult to measure, but that shouldn't stop us from having the highest expectations for our schools. If we are to move beyond teaching facts that appear on a standardized test, teachers will need to be inspired. They need an interesting and rich curriculum, a deep knowledge base, and support from the principal and school district to individualize instruction. We should see our teachers as a precious human resource to be cultivated; only then can we expect to see the best that they can offer, and only then can we hold them accountable.
Now that we've established a solid framework, let's move on and explore those six ideas.
The first idea is that teachers must help children learn both the tangible and intangible in their classrooms.That means blending tangible skills like spelling, reading and arithmetic with intangible necessities like understanding how to learn.
Teachers should have the opportunity to really know each of their students, and, armed with this knowledge, they should be responsible for the learning dispositions of these children. Teachers should also be expected to teach children how to set goals and achieve them, persevere, solve problems, collaborate, debate, reflect, and communicate effectively.
In addition, teachers should be given time, training and techniques to help their students develop the skills and confidence they will need to participate fully in our democracy.
A prerequisite is the teacher's ability to harness John Medina's "Theory of Mind", which means understanding the interior motivations of students, and then constructing a predictable "theory of how their mind works" based on that knowledge. This theory, detailed in Medina's "Brain Rules," is quite possibly the most important skill a teacher can have today.
The second idea is that teachers must address and re-define the concept of failure. The reality is that failure is part of any learning process. Young children are not surprised or alarmed when their initial efforts fail. As a result, they continue to practice until they gain competency. They learn to speak by trial and error, for example, and master their native language or languages with no formal instruction. It often isn't until children enter school that they encounter a learning environment that is designed to identify failure.
Great teachers know that even the best curriculum or program isn't designed to move at the appropriate speed for all students. Teachers should be able to differentiate instruction and have the flexibility to continue to teach a concept until the child learns it.
This will require a different way of organizing classrooms and curriculum, as well as tracking student performance. Most importantly, teachers need principals who are educational leaders to advocate and defend this kind of flexible and targeted instruction.
Good instruction stretches students at every level of understanding. Children who are fully engaged in a challenging endeavor and are convinced that mastery is possible are more likely to work enthusiastically in spite of initial failure.
Teachers need tools and training to keep students working at the edge of their learning capability. At the same time, they must provide children with ways to practice until they're proficient. As Salman Khan, the innovative online educator, has put it, "If a student gets a B, they really have not fully grasped the concept."
The third idea is that teachers must actively stress the social and emotional, as well as the academic in their classrooms, in order to help develop the best next generation possible.
Teachers know that a child's social and emotional development is critical to success in school -- and in life. Yet, in many classrooms, children rarely get to speak at all and there's little time in the school day for children to talk with teachers about issues they care about. In most schools, teachers are held accountable for progress in reading and math, but not for developing strong relationships with students, or for teaching students how to participate in a community.
As David Brooks recently wrote in The New York Times:
"When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else."
The fourth idea is that learning should be interesting. In the end, what may matter most is that the teacher models what it means to love learning and is able to ignite a fire under his or her students. To put it simply: Great teachers are interested in learning themselves. They're curious and they know how to keep students interested and engaged.
That's why I look for curiosity in the teachers I hire. These are people who will ask second graders questions, listen intently to their responses, and then engage in a real conversation. These are people who try hard to understand where the students are, and what they're thinking and saying. And, these are also people who feel completely comfortable admitting that they don't know something to an eight-year-old who is desperately seeking answers. Educational reformer Deborah Meier discussed this in her book, The Power of Their Ideas:
"Teaching is mostly listening, and learning is mostly telling."
To help make things interesting, teachers need better curriculum written by experts in each academic field, rather than by textbook companies. The true learning in all of this is that we should care that our children are exploring the "why and how," as well as the "what."
The fifth idea is that teachers must genuinely collaborate to increase constructive educational risk-taking, and that teachers must be learners themselves. Teachers should enjoy the opportunity to share their successes and challenges with their colleagues. But, the basic organizational structure of schools has not changed much since our public school system was built over a century ago. As a result, teachers still work in relative isolation. In addition, the current practice of ranking teachers by test scores works against the collegial professional culture that is needed in each school to grow and develop great teachers.
Teachers represent a tremendous untapped asset in our schools, and they deserve a schedule that supports and permits collaboration. They also deserve school leaders who can create a professional culture of trust.
The shared leadership model I'm suggesting would help everyone on the faculty feel that they have an ownership stake, and would ensure that teachers have ample opportunity to talk to one another about effective teaching.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. When teachers leave teaching, the main reason is usually lack of professional support (after low salary). The latest data indicates that half of all new teachers leave the profession in the first five years, in large part because of an isolated and negative work environment. We must change this -- for the good of our students, who are missing out on some very sensitive and talented teachers.
The sixth, and final, idea is that new teachers must get concrete, on-the-ground training before embarking on their careers. We must upgrade and revamp teacher education programs for the 21st century. It's no longer enough to earn a degree in education today -- aspiring teachers must also get out of the clouds and learn to teach in serious and demanding internship settings that move them from the theoretical to the ultra-practical.
These internships must teach fledgling teachers how to engage children by asking questions, listening to responses, stimulating open thinking in real time, and creating an individualized environment that positively and profoundly affects diverse learners.
We also need to better understand what good teaching looks like and make best practices available to all teachers. Fortunately, we will soon have the results of a large-scale research project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to develop measures of teacher effectiveness in 3,000 classrooms and seven school districts across the U.S.
This transformation is urgently needed, but it will take time. It will require a combination of subtle, sensitive and strong efforts on the part of everyone everywhere. Even so, I'm very optimistic that these efforts will bear fruit, and that our children will engage and learn in many new, different and effective ways in the coming years.
Wendy Kopp, the CEO and founder of Teach for America, recently said during Teach for America's 20th Anniversary Summit, held in Washington, DC in February:
"Ultimately, attaining the change we need is going to require transformational leadership at every level -- inside our classrooms, at the school level, and at the system level, in our communities, in our unions, at every level of policy and in the professional sectors that influence our policymakers. Anything less buys us incremental change, at best."