“Good” Doctors and Teachers (Part 2)

1. Has the definition of “good” teachers changed over time as has the one about “good” physicians?

2. Are there many different versions of “good” teaching as there were for “good” doctors?

3. Even with the differences in definitions over time and setting, are their core characteristics that transcend both as there were among “good” doctors?

4. Are “good” teachers dependent for success on their students, as doctors are on their patients?

The answer to each of the four questions is yes.

1. Has the definition of “good” teachers changed over time as has the one about “good” physicians? 

From the 1960s, researchers laid out the following personal traits and behaviors that “good” teachers exhibit:

[E]ffective teachers carefully monitor learning activities and are clear, accepting and supportive, equitable with students, and persistent in challenging and engaging them.

In the 1980s and 1990s, researcher findings added up to the following attributes of “effective” teachers. They:

*are clear about instructional goals;

*are knowledgeable about their content an strategies for teaching it;

*communicate to their students what is expected of them and why:

*make expert use of existing instructional materials in order to devote more time to practices that enrich and clarify the content;

* are knowledgeable about their students, adapting instruction to their needs….;

*address higher- as well as lower-level cognitive objectives….;

*accept responsibility for student outcomes;

*are thoughtful and reflective of their practices.

Then there are the features of “good” teachers that progressives then and now hold dear:

*A classroom that is student-centered:

*Teaching methods that are inquiry driven and organized around problem-solving and investigation:
*Instructors who are passionate about their subject’s real world significance.
*Metacognition—critical reflection about content
and pedagogy—is an integral part of the classroom

Lists of attributes and behaviors of “good” teachers appear every decade. Some lists overlap, some do not.










2. Are there many different versions of “good” teaching as there were for “good” doctors?

Surely, there are. Consider that since the 1990s, policymakers have rushed to raise academic standards, hold teachers and administrators accountable for student outcomes, and expanded testing. In that push, a narrowed view of what constitutes “good” teaching has unfolded that focuses more on direct instruction and teacher-centered behaviors.







Yet there are students who see “good” teaching as different than this current mainstream view (e.g., “What makes a great teacher is being kind,” “A great teacher is someone that cares for his or her students,” “Someone who can make learning fun and someone who can be funny and focused at the same time”).

And for many, but not the majority, there are parents, practitioners, and researchers, who define a “good” teacher as going beyond high test scores. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the well-being of the child, see students as whole human beings, believe in active learning, create structures for students to collaborate and explore. In short, these folks embrace a progressive ideology of teaching believing with supreme confidence that students exposed to this tradition of teaching will do well on tests, graduate and go to college. They would point to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, and Foxfire teachers in rural Georgia as “good” teachers who nurture, inspire, and connect to students.

3. Even with the differences in definitions over time and setting, are there core characteristics that transcend both as there were among “good” doctors?

Yes, there are. Just as when medical staff, patients, professionals and non-professionals define “goodness” in physicians, two essential features crop up again and again for teachers: competence and caring.


4. Are “good” teachers dependent on their students as doctors are on their patients for success.

Yes. they are. To see how the dependence works, one has to sort out the notion of “good” from the idea of “successful.” They are often seen as equivalent terms. They are not. Once sorted out, it becomes clear that both teachers and doctors depend on their students and patients to learn and heal.

Keep in mind that doctors and teachers using “good” practices do not automatically yield “good” results. Following the best practices in either job leads, from time to time, to failure, not success. Why? Because motivated students and patients have to participate fully for “good” teaching to turn into “successful” learning and the same is true for doctors and their patients.






Here is how the distinction works for teachers. Good” teaching pursues morally and rationally sound instructional practices. “Successful teaching,” on the other hand, is teaching that produces the desired learning. As Gary Fenstemacher and Virginia Richardson put it:

“[T]eaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.”

Another way to distinguish between “good” and “successful” is when a 8th grade teacher teaches the theory of evolution consistent with the age of the child and best practices of science teaching (the “good” part) and then has her students complete three written paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate their understanding of the theory of evolution (the “successful” part). These teaching acts are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

For the past quarter-century, however, policymakers and politicians have chopped, grated, and blended the goals of schooling into a concoction seeking to make education an arm of the economy. They scan international test scores, focus on achievement gaps, and boost teacher pay-for-performance plans. This policy direction has shoved the notion of “good” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “good” teaching means test scores go up and students go to college. A big mistake.

Why a mistake? Erasing the distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching muddles policy prescriptions seeking to improve how teachers teach and what students learn. Best example of that muddle is evaluating teacher performance on the basis of student test scores. Consider, for example, the stark differences between Houston’s pay-teachers-for-performance and Denver’s ProComp plan.


The answers to the four questions are monotonously “yes.” The string of “yes” answers reveals that policymakers have, as so often they do, ignored the history of diverse teaching traditions and different ways of teaching that parents, practitioners, and researchers prize resulting in an unfortunate monopoly on only one way of teaching while students—in their glorious diversity–learn in many different ways.










*The quote marks are there to signal that “good” (or “great,” “excellent,” “effective”) is an adjective that varies in meaning among parents, teachers, students, researchers, and policymakers.



Filed under comparing medicine and education

“Good” Doctors and Teachers* (Part 1)

During the 1930s, my grandmother saw a specialist about a melanoma on her face. During the course of the visit when she asked him a question, he slapped her face, saying, ‘I’ll ask the questions here. I’ll do the talking.’ Can you imagine such an event occurring today? Melanomas may not have changed much in the last fifty years, but the profession of medicine has.  Eric J. Cassel, 1985[i]

Today, a stinging slap to the cheek of a patient who asked a question of her doctor could lead to an assault charge. Doctor-centered practice–paternalistic authority is no more. Shared decision-making between doctor and patient has become the ideal. In short, the definition of a “good” doctor has changed dramatically in the past half-century.[ii]

Even with this 180 degree shift in defining “goodness,” there remains much variation even among former TV doctors Welby and Kildare and today’s Dr. House. All are seen as “good” in different ways as times change.

And that is why I put “good” in parentheses. Personal features (e.g., communication skills, empathy), expertise (e.g., credentials on walls, medical specialty), what others say, and context matter greatly in judging how “good” a doctor is.

Here is how one doctor puts the issue of defining “goodness” among physicians.

In my view, there are many ways a doctor can be good, so it’s difficult to know what someone means when he or she says a doctor is good.

For some people, being a good doctor is all about bedside manner, personality and communication skills. Other people value smarts, technical skills or expertise in a particular condition. Still others rely on credentials, such as where a doctor went to medical school or residency training. I’ve even known patients who care little about these other factors and instead care most about how the office runs, how quickly the phone is answered or how friendly the receptionist is.

The type of doctor may also determine how a person defines a good doctor. For example, many people I know say they don’t care about a surgeon’s bedside manner as long as his or her patients have outstanding results. Yet those same people might say that a good bedside manner is much more important for their primary care physician.

Then there are those magazines that list “best” doctors in their cities annually. How do they compile such lists? New York magazine, for example, depends upon a private firm that polls doctors for their recommendations:

The idea is that medical professionals are best qualified to judge other medical professionals, and if one recommendation is good (think of your doctor referring you to a specialist), multiple recommendations are better. Licensed physicians vote online (castleconnolly.com/nominations) for those doctors they view as exceptional.

So if the notion of a “good” doctor varies by time–doctor-centered then and patient-centered now– it also varies by what patients and doctors, each having quite different perspectives, value most in medical practitioners (e.g.,competence,  empathy, bedside manner). In short, there is not one single definition of a “good” doctor that covers all settings, perspectives, and times.

Yet even with all of this variation over what constitutes a “good” doctor, even with all of those lists of personal and technical features that patients want in their doctors, two generic characteristics emerge from the flow of words time and again. These basic features: competence and caring–turn up in studies (see here) and public opinion polls among both physicians and patients.

Keep in mind, however, that even the most competent and caring doctor depends upon the patient for any success in diagnosis and treatment. The truth is that expertise and caring are necessary ingredients for any definition of “goodness” in medical practice but, overall, insufficient in the helping professions without the patient’s cooperation.

While doctors can affect a patient’s motivation, if that patient is emotionally depressed, is resistant to recommended treatments, or uncommitted to getting healthy by ignoring prescribed medications the physician is stuck. Medical competence and empathy fall short when patients cannot or do not enter into the process of healing.

This basic predicament in the helping professions of being dependent upon the cooperation of the patient for any success–often unremarked upon–hobbles any definition of a “good” doctor.

Does the historical shift in definitions about “good” doctors and the fundamental dilemma they face apply to teachers? I answer that in Part 2.




















[i]Epigraph story in Christine Laine and Frank Davidoff, “Patient-Centered Medicine,” JAMA, 1996, 275(2), p. 152.

[ii] Ronald Epstein, Md., et. al. “Communicating Evidence for Participatory Decision-making,” JAMA, 2004, 291(19), pp. 2359-2366; Simon Whitney, Md., et. al., “A Typology of Shared Decision Making, Informed Consent, and Simple Consent,” Annals of Internal Medicine, 2003, 140, pp. 54-59.


*Synonyms for “good” are “best,” “great,” “effective,” “stellar,” etc.


Filed under comparing medicine and education

Kindergarten and Technology (Sharon Davison)

This post comes from kindergarten teacher Sharon Davison. It was posted on June 17, 2014. I have taken  her self-description from “About” on her blog.

My name is Sharon Davison and I have the pleasure of being a Kindergarten teacher in Vermont. I have been teaching for 25 + years.  During my teaching career I have worked with 1st through 4th grade.  I am now embarking on a new journey… Kindergarten!

Kindergarten is like a breath of fresh air everyday.  Young children are curious and great observers.  They naturally look for patterns, similarities and make connections spontaneously. Kindergarten life was designed and created by me with these ideas in mind.  I love the daily energy and excitement that children bring each day.  This genuine interest and love for learning is what I enjoy the most.  Through a young child’s natural ability to seek out understanding I try to capture this idea to help promote the love of learning.

I use a variety of technologies that help to engage, enhance and inspire children to want to pursue their ideas.  I have found that once you are inspired to learn, you learn how to learn through your ideas about what you understand.  Blogging, wikis, voicethreads, podcasting, ePals and SKYPE are just a few of the technologies that I use to promote the love of learning in Kindergarten.

I value collaboration and innovation.  The world is changing so fast and the tools that are available to support, enhance and engage from a teaching view are endless.


As I am finishing up last minute things in my classroom today I was thinking about all the different ways my students have been mentors this past year with each other, helping model how to tweet and blog with other classrooms as well as sharing their expertise with adults.

Last spring a teacher approached me and wanted to observe how I use technology with my students and was also interested in how I use the SMARTboard as well. I asked one of my students to provide additional support and more 1:1 time after our meeting.  As I watched and listened to the conversation I was really impressed with not only how comfortable my student was with the SMART technology, but the problem solving that took place during this 1:1 support time with a teacher.  I loved seeing the teacher take notes as she asked questions about not only the operation of the board, but what happens when things go wrong and do not work.  Watching my student navigate through how to solve problems as they arise was really wonderful.











I am not only proud of all my students, but this experience reminded me of the importance of  self direction, problem solving and critical thinking.  All of these ideas were happening at once and being facilitated by one of my kindergarten students.  As a teacher of young children I have a unique opportunity to model explicitly how synchronous and asynchronous tools can be integrated in a seamless way in regards to learning.  Once my students understood how this tool works, how we use it, then they are able to create and design their ideas as well and make contributions.  Through our contributions and being able to teach and share what we know with others we get inspired, experience positive self esteem and make connections.  This student was empowered because she was able to make a contribution, help another teacher and engage in conversations that challenged her thinking and helped her reflect on what she has learned.  For this amazing teacher, my friend, I think about what great professional development this was for her!



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

MOOCs and Online Instruction: Cartoons

Recently, I posted an update on MOOCs after three years in the hype cycle. Afterwards, I scoured the web for cartoons on MOOCs and its kissing cousin, online learning (aka elearning, distance education). Here are some that might make you smile, giggle, or even prompt a chuckle. If not, maybe you can point me to one that does get you to laugh. Until then, enjoy!









































online homework








early version of MOOCs













































Filed under technology use

The Gift That Never Stops Giving–Teaching*

I wrote this post four years ago. With graduation ceremonies in K-12 and college occurring now and in the next few weeks, and so much in the news about the quality of teaching and how to capture it, I thought I would run the post again.


A dear friend and I exchanged emails recently and she mentioned that she had heard from a student she had in 1960. She had taught in the New York area for a number of years before returning to graduate school but recalled with much warmth how fine a group of sixth graders she had that particular year. The then 11 year-old, now a grandma, had stayed in touch with my friend over the years. She had become a teacher and had just retired and was now writing about the adult lives of classmates.

I began thinking of the often unspoken psychic rewards that accrue (in business terms, I would call it: the return on investment) to experienced teachers who have had many groups of students pass through their classroom over the years and how some of those students (such as Steven Strogatz) make a point of visiting, writing, and staying in touch with their former teachers. Fortunately, that has happened to me when a few former students at Glenville High School in Cleveland and from Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. have stayed in touch. Ditto from some former Stanford graduates. When letters or pop- in visits occur, I get such a rush of memories of the particular student and the class and the mixed emotions that accompany the memories. Teaching is, indeed, the gift that never stops giving.

Those former students who stay in touch over the years, I have found, attribute far too much to my teaching and semester- or year-long relationship with them. Often I am stunned by their recollections of what I said and did. In most cases, I cannot remember the incidents that remain so fresh in their memories. Nor had I tried to predict which of the few thousand high school students I have taught would have reached out to contact me, I would have been wrong 75 percent of the time. My flawed memories and pitiful predictive power, however, cannot diminish the strong satisfaction I feel from seeing and hearing classroom tales from former students.

However policymakers and researchers define success in teaching or produce pay-for-performance plans the hard-to-measure influence of teachers upon students turns up time and again in those graduates who reach out to their former teachers. Those graduates seek out their former teachers because of how they were pushed and prodded, how intellectual doors were opened, how a ready ear and kind words made possible a crucial next step for that young man or woman. Student test scores fail to capture the bonds that grow between experienced teachers and children and youth who look for adults to admire, adults who live full, honest, and engaged lives. Am I waxing romantic about the currently unmeasurable results of teaching and the critical importance of retaining experienced teachers? No, I am not. I have a point to make.

My friend’s story of her former 11 year-old student still staying in touch because the relationship forged in 1960 between a group of sixth graders and a young teacher has resonated in a handful of graduates’ lives for many years. Something beautiful and long-lasting occurred when those bonds were forged in that Long Island elementary school, something that eludes current reformers eager for getting new teachers into classrooms and not worrying too much if they leave after two years since a new crop of fresh newcomers will replace them.

Turnstile teachers cannot forge those lasting bonds with students. Staying at least five-plus years give teachers the experience and competence to connect with classes and individual students. For those students lucky to have experienced teachers who had their older brothers and sisters, whose classrooms they want to eat their lunches in, whose reputations for being tough, demanding, caring, and a dozen other admirable traits draw children like magnets to their classrooms, the impressions and memories of these teachers will serve as guideposts for the rest of their lives. These are the teachers, district, state, and federal policymakers need to retain through mindful policies that encourage, not discourage teachers–policies that spur teacher growth in what and how they teach, foster collaboration among teachers, and motivate teachers to stay at least five-plus years in classrooms.

Were such thoughtful policies to be adopted, the chances of alumni students returning to tell their teachers how much they appreciated their help would increase and not become just a fleeting memory of some former teachers like me and my friend.

*I thank Selma Wassermann for converting the commercial one-liner for a credit card company into an ad for teaching


Filed under how teachers teach

Philanthropic Advocacy for School Reforms

I … challenge the wisdom of giving public sanction and approval to the spending of a huge fortune ….My object here is to state as clearly and as briefly as possible why the huge philanthropic trusts, known as foundations, appear to be a menace to the welfare of society.

Frank Walsh, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, 1915


Yes, a century ago, Walsh pilloried the richest man in the world who had established a foundation in his name, John D.Rockefeller, in advancing his corporate interests–then in oil, coal, and scores of other enterprises. His namesake foundation was a “moulder of public thought.”

A century later, critics are making similar charges that donors to school reform (see here and here) shape the policy agenda of districts, states, and the federal government when it comes to improving the nation’s schools.

If you think I am suggesting that donors and criticism of their charity comes around again and again, you are on the money (see here and here). The cyclical nature of philanthropic grant-making by both progressive-leaning and conservative-leaning foundations to advance different versions of urban reform–do any readers remember the Ford Foundation in the late-1960s funding decentralization in school reform and the harsh criticism the Foundation encountered including federal legislation in 1969?– is evident to me. As William Faulkner said: The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.

How come?

There is a theory that when new organizations are born, they imprint the organizational goals, norms, and rules that last for decades as they mature and thrive even when the environment changes on them. Just like when naturalist Konrad Lorenz showed how new-born goslings saw him first and attached to him–following him everywhere for as long as they lived.








Those years in the early 20th century, then, of wealthy businessmen forming foundations to give away their fortunes to help others and getting criticized for pursuing their corporate interests of the day is where the Walsh committee’s censure of John D. Rockefeller enter the picture. Imprinted on these foundations was that wealthy donors will do what they seek to do even if goes against the public interest. Since then, legislators and critics have lambasted donors during difficult economic times, social disruption, and political divisions for not being true to their stated goals. And the first decade of the 21st century is one of those times.

Why now?

The largest donors today (Gates, Walton, Dell, Broad, Fisher, etc.) began as entrepreneurs who created wealth and have decided to focus on causes dear to them including school reform. They have shifted their attention and dollars away from individual grants scattered among state and local districts to push their version of school reform (e.g., charter schools, alternative pools of educators such as Teach for America, teacher evaluation, Common Core State Standards) by making joint grants to the same entities (e.g., charter management organizations, big districts led by superintendents and school boards partial to their agenda) and national policy advocacy, that is, creating new organizations and funding existing ones such as “think tanks” that will influence legislators, educational policymakers, and the general public (e.g., New America Foundation, Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute) to do the right thing.

Researchers Sarah Reckhow and Jeffrey Snyder have documented the extent of what they call “convergent” funding of particular organizations between 2000 and 2010 that advance national policy agendas big donors want. In 2000, for example, 23 percent of donor money went to organizations that received funds from two or more major foundations. A decade later, 64 percent of donor money was given to organizations that received grant dollars from two or more foundations. One startling fact of “convergence” is that 13 of the 15 largest K-12 foundations gave grants to Teach for America. They concluded:

By targeting resources to a more focused set of organizations and allowing those organizations to grow stronger and more influential, foundations have likely increased their influence on education policy   (p. 193).

Recent articles on “A Walmart Fortune, Spreading Charter Schools” and “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution” add heft to the above increased … influence on education policy.

Surely current foundations are politically engaged now at a national level far beyond earlier foundations were in advocating for a particular policy agenda. In doing so, this “convergence” of money and policy advocacy have unintentionally strengthened efforts to centralize national authority in advancing a particular agenda for school reform.  The previous voices of unions, parent groups, professional associations, university-based researchers, and civil rights organizations have become mere echoes of what influence they once had.

Frank Walsh, where are you?




Filed under school reform policies

Efficiency-Minded Reformers Today Draw from Efficiency-Minded Reformers of a Century Ago

The crusade among reformers for data-driven decision-making in schools and evangelizing new technologies didn’t just begin in the past decade. Its roots go back to Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s application of scientific methods a century ago to what workers do each day to increase their efficiency and productivity. In the decade before World War I and through the 1930s, borrowing from the business sector particularly manufacturing where Taylorism reigned, institutions as varied as farming, medical practice, municipal government, justice, and schools adopted Taylor’s techniques of time-and-motion studies to increase employee efficiency and find the “one best way.”

Consider Louis Brandeis, a lawyer who fought for unions, the 10-hour work day for women, and similar causes in the first decade of the 20th century. He believed in the superiority of science in gathering facts to make an argument rather than one’s opinions. Brandeis coined the phrase “scientific management, according to his biographer, and in 1914 wrote the foreword for a book written by one of Taylor’s followers called Primer of Scientific Management. Like Taylor, he saw the merits of applying scientific processes to labor and management. As a lawyer who presented briefs before state and federal courts, his biographer wrote, Brandeis brought together “the need for facts … the need to mitigate some of the harsher aspects of industrialization and the use of law as a social instrument of social policy” (p. 217). Eventually, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court justice; he served between 1916 and1939.

Like lawyer Brandeis and business and civic leaders who enlisted in the movement to use “scientific management” in every day tasks, educators including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to it. “Educational engineers” created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, checklists of what made a school building good, and measured anything that moved or was nailed down.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives” who wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant student-centered learning in schools–adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency.

These “administrative progressives” saw “scientific management” with its meticulous registering of statistics applied to every single task as the Holy Grail, a system that would bring standards, productivity, regularity, and order to public schools.

In Raymond Callahan’s Education and The Cult Of Efficiency (1962), he documents Newton (MA) superintendent Frank Spaulding telling fellow superintendents at the annual conference of the National Education Association in 1913 how he “scientifically managed” his district (Review of Callahan book). The crucial task, Spaulding told his peers, was for district officials to measure school “products or results” and thereby compare “the efficiency of schools in these respects.” What did he mean by products?

I refer to such results as the percentage of children of each year of age [enrolled] in school; the average number of days attendance secured annually from each child; the average length of time required for each child to do a given definite unit of work…(p. 69).

Spaulding and other superintendents measured in dollars and cents whether the teaching of Latin was more efficient than the teaching of English, Latin, or history. These “administrative progressives” recorded how much it cost to teach vocational subjects vs. academic subjects.

What Spaulding described in Newton for increased efficiency (and effectiveness) spread swiftly among school boards, superintendents, and administrators.  Academic experts hired by districts produced huge amounts of data in the 1920s and 1930s describing and analyzing every nook and cranny of buildings, how much time principals spent with students and parents, and what teachers did in daily lessons.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful data to inform policy decisions about district and school effectiveness continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” or the application of scientific management to schooling appears in the current romance with Big Data and the onslaught of models that use algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., “good” and which ones are inefficient, i.e., “bad” by reporting students’ test scores teacher-by-teacher as has  occurred in many big city districts such as New York City and Los Angeles Unified School District are not shockers to anyone familiar with the history of the business model in schooling. That model of competition, incentives, productivity, and efficiency has seeped into the bloodstream of schooling over the past century. Those crude efficiency studies of yesteryear are no more. But the ideas of Taylorism are present today in “standardization, the split of planning from doing, … the setting of precisely defined tasks, the emphasis on efficiency, and productivity to the exclusion of all else” (p. 501, Kanigel)

So the new “administrative progressives,” drawn from efficiency-minded wealthy donors, top state and federal policymakers, business and civic leaders, have pushed for Core State Standards, abolishing teacher tenure laws, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, charters, and online instruction as policies to make U.S. schools efficient and productive.

I say that Taylorism is alive and far too well in 2014.





Filed under Reforming schools