Thinking about School Reform, Teaching, and “Great” Teachers

Writing about school reform from a historical perspective can be, well, depressing. So many examples of hype-on-steroids, past and present, of school reform solving community and national problems. So much policy talk, past and present, that overestimates success while underestimating the difficulties of converting words into classroom deeds. But melancholia and teaching a seminar twice a week do not go hand-in-hand.

For me, teaching about school reform and the history of making “good” schools and districts stimulates the brain and clutches the heart. It lifts me up. My mind races with the questions that I need to ask students. And in asking questions, who do I call upon, which student to probe further with a follow-up question, what to do when a student asks me a question–answer it? Redirect to the class? Ask student to answer her own question?

And over the past six weeks in the seminar of “good’ schools and districts my brain has raced a lot. So, too, have my   emotions. In any given class, they range from anxiety to a soaring feeling of connection with a group to tedium to spontaneous outbreaks of laughter. Thus, both the brain and heart are fully engaged when I am teaching my seminar. I am not depressed when I teach although  when a part of a lesson flops I surely feel blue for that moment. But most of the time, student engagement with the readings I assigned, questions I ask, questions students ask, when students disagree with me, all of these keep me thinking on my feet as I improvise my way to what I had hoped would happen in the lesson.

In thinking about the complexity of my teaching and how hard it is to keep pace with sharp students while at the same time pushing and prodding them to think about school reform, my thoughts turned to how policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and parents think about the many “great” teachers in K-12 schools. Over two years ago, I wrote a post on “great” teachers and offer it again for readers’ consideration and response. A number of interesting exchanges  occurred between readers and myself at that time.

Since early 2010, readership of the post has expanded and broadened. Because I have been doing a lot of thinking about teaching–as I teach this seminar–I offer this post again.


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

4 responses to “Thinking about School Reform, Teaching, and “Great” Teachers

  1. Thank you for the repost. The use of the adjective is a negotiated process and grows out of relationships. I find without healthy relationships for teachers the use of the adjective is just more rhetoric. I watch teachers burn out and simply give up, because the words used are hollow.

  2. Reblogged this on Reflection ~ Roots ~ Restoration and commented:
    Today I am thankful for a thinking human who helps other think further and change more than ever thought possible…

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