“Great” Teachers?

Teachers are the new Paris Hilton and iPad. They are popular icons. Pundits and politicians prize them—thus far, in words only—as the best way to improve U.S. schools. Beyond that agreement and popularity, however, is an impenetrable swamp of unanswered questions: What makes a “great” teacher? What does a “great” teacher do everyday in their classroom? How do you know a “great” teacher is “great?”

Wait a second, Larry, why do you put “great” in quotation marks?

The quote marks are there to signal that “great” (or “good,” “excellent,” “effective”) is an adjective that varies in meaning among parents, teachers, researchers, and policymakers—much less students. Ask a friend, a child, an expert to describe a “great” teacher they had. Chances are those descriptions will contain similar features but still differ in important respects. Beyond differing descriptions of “greatness,” however, there is another reason for the quote marks that is anchored in ideology.

The majority of adults in the nation believe schools should test students to see that they prepare children with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in an increasingly competitive labor market and diverse community. In short, they embrace the dominant ideology of standards, testing, and accountability to prepare graduates for college and career. In the historical tradition of teachers transmitting knowledge and skills to students, Maurice Butler, William Taylor , Michele Forman, and other teachers push, prod, and inspire students to get high test scores, go to college, and succeed in life.

But for many other parents, practitioners, and researchers, a “great” teacher goes beyond high achievement. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the wellbeing 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 nurturing, inspiring, and connecting to students.

Because parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers vary in their beliefs about “great” teachers and different historical traditions of teaching, I put the word in quote marks.

Even more troublesome is that the current concept of a “great” teacher squashes together two distinct aspects of teaching that need to be separated: the difference between good and successful teaching. They are not the same.

Good teaching is teaching that 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 mixed together 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 “great” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “great” 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. Consider, for example, the stark differences between Houston’s pay-teachers-for-performance and Denver’s ProComp plan. Most important is that policymakers have, again, 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.


Filed under how teachers teach

16 responses to ““Great” Teachers?

  1. Thank you for this great blog, Larry. Honestly, I have been thinking about this difference in light of the new “teacher evaluative reports” coming out in NYC, that’ll eventually endanger the jobs of tons of teachers under criteria that none of us knew existed until the rumors started coming out. I’ve found that, as teachers, including me, become more concerned with teaching to the test, we’re actually doing less good teaching. Very few have mastered capturing the depth and breadth of teaching the standards, and those who have have experience in this practice.

  2. Pingback: Borderland › The Right Kind of Education

  3. Surely, Vivian Paley is a great, good and successful teacher, scholar and writer. I think she is in a different league, don’t you?

    • larrycuban

      Hi Gary,

      We agree that Vivian Paley represents a fine example of a “great” teacher within the progressive beliefs of “greatness.” My hunch is that some parents who wanted their kids to be reading in Paley’s kindergarten by October might not have thought her “great.”

  4. This is a superb analysis that demonstrates how educational policy of recent decades has been driven not by professional, or ex professional teachers (as per your definition of ‘great’, with high levels of experience and understanding) but by politicians masquerading as teachers, who see education as the tool by which they can act politically.

    I would alert you to the work being done here by Teach First, who I’m a great fan of. Certainly from my in depth experience of how they work, they aim to instil quite a lot of what you would describe as “great” teaching characteristics in their trainees.

  5. Bob Calder

    I would argue that there is a population that is attempting to gain ownership of a meme.

    If the rest of us don’t grab hold of it, the meaning will be lost. So good for you! Keep “effective” and “great” separate.

    Many effective interventions in teaching k-12 consist of mandating professional development in subject knowledge. (Puerto Rico, Minnesota, Massachusetts, & Singapore have effective math teachers according to TMSS.

  6. I’m missing the controversy here.

    “But for many other parents, practitioners, and researchers, a “great” teacher goes beyond high achievement. ” — So, we all agree that great teachers, at a minimum, facilitate high achievement. Some may go beyond and do even more, but all facilitate high achievement, right?

    “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.” — So, standardized tests as a way of assessing the extent to which schools are accomplishing the minimum objective of high achievement are also just fine; we all expect the average scores of all students of great teachers in the range of “high achievement.” Right?

    • larrycuban

      Nope, Dave, you missed something. Progressive-minded teachers believe that academic achievement and college entry will be a by-product of their concentration on active learning, project-based teaching, and classroom/school focus on the whole child. On the other hand, those committed to concentrating on high achievement, everyone going to college, etc. believe that those goals must be front-and-center in daily classroom and school activities with anything else being seen as distracting from the mission. These are ideological differences and they have shown up repeatedly both in rhetoric and practice. If your point is that there are hybrids that combine both approaches and these hybrids damp down differences between the ideological positions, I would agree.

      • Larry, it seems to me we’re actually talking about three things here:
        1. what the teacher is thinking about, e.g., “progressive minded” or “ideology”
        2. what is happening in the classroom, and
        3. what the student obtains from the learning experiences.

        I think where we probably differ is in the importance of student learning and how to measure it. Student learning trumps. Period. Standardized tests that are appropriately developed based on current knowledge and practices in the field can provide a reasonable assessment of student learning as an input into leadership. Thus, a teacher who thinks in the way you describe and is doing all the things you support, but whose students are not learning (or who are even regressing) as measured by such a system needs to rethink his or her approach. Further, leadership needs to be concerned about the fate of students going through that classroom.

        That said, I would add that there are some REALLY weird things out there in the name of “accountability” and “high standards”, especially in the form of grade-level content standards in some states.

        My experience with these kind of exchanges is that, if we sat down and talked about it, we would likely find quite a bit we agree on, both theoretically and in practice.

      • larrycuban

        Perhaps we would agree on much of this exchange were we to have coffee and discuss the issues. But perhaps not. You assume that even the best developed standardized tests capture the wide range of student learning in a climate of high-stakes accountability. You further assume that these tests capture the very different goals progressives and traditionalists have for what knowledge and skills students should learn. I do not make those assumptions.

      • What suggests to you that I think in accordance with your assumptions? I did not suggest that standardized tests capture the “wide range of student learning” — both good and bad — in any environment. You don’t have to assume. I’m right here; ask me.

        [As an example of “bad” learning, it’s pretty clear, that law school teaches lawyers to disconnect from values, become skeptical and cynical, and often to use alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms. None of these are an intended educational outcome (well, maybe values, but there’s a big discussion to have about that!) and none are “captured” by standardized bar examinations. Well, maybe they are. See Sheldon & Krieger’s research. Anyway…]

        As for goals of progressives and traditionalists, let’s take an example from what we know does happen in real school systems. Assume two school systems have 1000 students who, based on test scores in sixth grade, have a reasonable shot to learn enough math in high school that they would have a reasonable chance of making an “A” or “B” in an engineering calculus course as a freshman in college. “Traditional School System” helps 1/2 of that group achieve that chance. “Progressive School System” graduates <20% of its comparable group of students with that same chance.

        –What learning (and how much of it?) would have to take place in Progressive School System and not in Traditional School System for this to be an acceptable result to you?

        –Is there any evidence that school systems that get good learning for students in math do a poorer job of the kind of learning you favor?

        –If there is no inherent conflict between achieving the learning you identify (and which I suspect I will also favor) and helping students maximize their opportunities for math-based careers, then on what basis should we ignore inequities in helping students secure those opportunities?

  7. Maybe being a great teacher is teachable? nyti.ms/d0Cbn8

    • Bob Calder

      If you think creating high performers is easy, you need to talk to sales organizations like insurance companies.

      The problem with the article is it conflates the many factors that contribute to high performance. Sensitivity to feedback, situational awareness, subject knowledge, the need for approval, empathy, vocabulary, clarity of speech, and sense of purpose are some things I think of when I consider technique.

      On another level, you can look at that five percent figure and consider it in the context of a natural distribution. If you take your population of teachers and ask them to adopt these behaviors, what will happen?

      Common sense says students will have better outcomes. But experience in sales driven businesses may say otherwise. (Prudential Ins. Co. sales force changes from 1980 through 1994.)

      After you learn everything there is to know about technique, what makes you an Olympic-class athlete? I think we can agree the athletes from all nations practice hard and have good technique. Only the Russian coaches got fired.

      • Hi, Bob? Easy? Not at all. I took the import of the article to be that helping teachers improve might be possible.

        And, yes, there are attitudes, values, beliefs, emotions, and habits that go beyond technique. They can affect motivation and success in learning and applying technique, among other things. We know, for example, that optimism matters for insurance sales (your point) and that it is teachable.

        You ask the VERY good question — what professional development program can move a work force of over 5,000 classroom teachers toward greater effectiveness in a value-added, standards based sense? And, as Dr. Cuban notes, what will the schools and classrooms that result from such efforts look like? Will they be places we’re proud to say we have provided for children? Very good questions. And now we have a robust and meaningful learning-measurement component to help assess the answers to those questions. “Help” is the operative word here. I’m not saying that test-based data is the be all and end all of evaluation. But it will be helpful.

        The best think to me is that we’re finally making some progress. We’ve known about the impact of teachers in TN for 15 years now and, I’m sorry to say, done very little about it. I was pushing for research on what really works in classrooms more than a decade ago when I was on the school board here in Nashville. I’m just glad to see it beginning to happen. Ultimately, I think we’ll find that the best schools for achievement are also the best schools as places for adults and students to work together. At least, that’s what everything I’ve learned from positive psychology and positive organizational studies points toward!

  8. ea

    What is good teacher or teaching is what people and pupils think -e.g.: http://www.orhanseyfiari.com/ariteachertributes.html because of what makes it so -e.g.: http://www.orhanseyfiari.com/arigreatteachers.html

  9. Bob Calder

    I was certainly wrong this year! The North Korean soccer coach got fired.

    To some extent this can be instructive because the coach was fired for not hitting the mark set for him although he is demonstrably one of the top ten coaches in the entire world.

    It doesn’t really matter how well schools perform and it doesn’t really matter how well teachers perform unless the students perform well on the test. The problem arises when we look to a metric that can’t really measure everything we want it to measure.

    My school and my fellow teachers over a ten year period have helped the students in our school match or exceed the district averages in math and writing, but reading remains elusive. Why? Is it likely that our efforts are falling short? Should we be put into a labor camp like the Korean coach? I suspect that our reading technique is not likely to fall short compared to math or writing. Unfortunately the measurement used continues to point to our institutional incompetence.

    Welcome to North Korean systems analysis.

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