Monday, January 31, 2011

Teacher, I Mean Teaching Quality Series, Part II: Teaching for Dummies

In my last post of this series, I discussed the myth of the innately talented teacher. So, you might ask, if great teachers aren't innately so, what, then, are the components of great teaching? People have spent entire careers and written entire books answering this question, but I'll take a crack at a brief and superficial explanation.

In the last post, I talked some about teacher education or teacher training. Before flying solo, aspiring teachers need education, training, and experience. Does that mean all teacher education programs work well? Absolutely not, but that doesn't mean they should be eliminated. I say they should be mended and not ended. Furthermore, the only route to teaching does not have to be via university programs; however, alternative paths should be equally rigorous and thorough. (School finance blogger Bruce Baker offered this data-rich analysis of the current state of ed school programs.)

I completed my master's degree in Education at a well-regarded program. Overall, the program is well-regarded with good reason. Even so, some of my classes were a waste of time and some of my internship experiences could have been much better designed. Some of the courses could probably have been eliminated from the program or fused with others. Otherwise, the useless classes were primarily so due to lack of preparation on the part of their instructors. The best courses were thoughtfully designed and executed, assigning rich and varied readings, facilitating stimulating discussions, giving useful and practical assignments, and offering insightful, actionable feedback (hey look at that--I just listed some components of quality teaching!) The student teaching/intern experience, however, is the most important piece of teacher training, so important, in fact, that it should be extended to a year or two. Cooperating teachers should be better vetted and compensated and teacher candidates paid an intern's salary. Again, some unconventional internship experiences should be considered as equivalent experiences, if only in part.

Good teaching means preparing for classes, a.k.a., lesson planning, preferably in chunks called thematic units. The teacher should have a good idea of what he wants students to know and to be able to do. Lesson planning also includes being technically and logistically prepared for class: making copies, preparing power point presentations, reserving needed technology, giving feedback on student work. Teachers shouldn't necessarily have to write down and turn in lesson plans, especially if that's not how they plan best, but they should show evidence of planning in their teaching and reflections. After all, a teacher can easily write down and turn in great lesson plans without actually executing them well in the classroom. Preparation should also include on-going learning in teachers' content areas, pedagogy, management, and assessment.

Classroom management is probably the trickiest and most important part of teaching. A teacher can be very knowledgeable about their content area and pegagogy and write great lesson plans, but without appropriate, positive, and effective classroom management techniques, it will be very hard to implement instruction. Of course, the key to management is engagement, i.e., if students are engaged, classroom management is much less of a factor. Even so, teachers must think hard about factors such as seating and classroom layout, facilitating student participation, dealing with peer interactions, navigating and discouraging negative or distracting behaviors, channeling students' energy positively and keeping them on task, recognizing effort and positive behavior, and giving useful feedback.

For me, the following are key to effective classroom management (which is not to say I was always able to do them consistently):
  • staying organized.
  • consistent and transparent routines and lesson plans, so that students know what to expect.
  • fair, limited, but consistent rules, so that students know what is expected of them.
  • a focus on catching students being good rather than on catching them being bad.
  • treating all students with respect and empathy.
  • allowing respectful and reasonable disagreement.
  • disciplining students discretely and so that their dignity stays intact.
  • choosing my battles wisely.
  • providing options, choices, and a sense of ownership for students whenever possible.
  • acknowledging the significance of peer relationships (I taught mostly secondary school :)
  • avoiding rigidity, e.g., allowing some movement and relevant chatter within the classroom. 

Once lessons and units have been planned, the teacher must decide how she will present the material or demonstrate the skill she wants the students to know and be able to do. Before presenting, teachers should have or gather some idea of the students' prior knowledge of or proficiency in the topic or skill. Then, they'll need to show students why the topic is relevant or interesting. There are many ways to present (similar to what I said earlier, there are entire courses just on this aspect of teaching): traditional lecture, using exemplars, via text, using visuals, using technology, etc. Some caveats, though: teachers should avoid trying to "present" too much material or too many skills at once, nor should the "presentation" part of the lesson take too much time. While engaging and effective presentation can be and often is creative, it should avoid gimmicks. For example, I doubt the effectiveness of expecting kids to learn new material "cooperatively" without any knowledge of what it is they are supposed to know and be able to do, nor would I advise, for example, teaching map skills by way of a podcast. (For more on limitations of the learning styles theory, check out this article.) Furthermore, quality teaching is not rigid and does not get bogged down in attachment to methods that are simply part of the latest trends or ideology. Best practices and methods must be chosen and blended based on how effective they are and how particular groups or individual students respond to them.

Once the material and/or skill has been presented, the teacher must consider how students will practice and hopefully be on the road to retention or mastery, or developmentally appropriate mastery, of the material and skill. Again, the road to mastery can take many forms, but the practice should match the skill. If students, for example, are learning about osmosis and note-taking then they should probably take notes on a text, lecture, or demonstration of osmosis.

Once students have been presented with the material and skill and been given a chance to practice and work towards retention, the teacher should assess student knowledge and performance of skill. Even more so than presentation, students' learning can and should be assessed in varied ways; assessment does not necessarily mean tests. This part of teaching serves the dual purpose of assessing student knowledge and the effectiveness of the teaching. Integral to the assessment/evaluation process should be teacher and student reflection on what they've learned, how they learned it, and how it was taught. I will dedicate an entire post in this series to teacher evaluation, so stay tuned. . .

This component, similar to classroom management is not technically part of instruction, but is very important nonetheless. Quality teaching is not possible without strong and caring, but professional and appropriate, relationships between a teacher and her students. That being said, a good teacher-student relationship can fit many molds. I don't mean at all to imply that the connection should be a personal one, but there should be a connection and the student should be able to trust and respect the teacher and vice-versa. Furthermore, knowledge of students' educational background, aspirations, and family situation (without, of course, overstepping boundaries or violating students' privacy) can really help to inform teaching.

In conclusion, quality, effective teaching is thoughtful, well-planned, ordered but not rigid, clear, content-rich, respectful, applicable, engaging, and interactive. The components of teaching described above are carried out successfully by trial and error and after some experimentation. Also, how they are implemented is heavily dependent on the population and even individual students in front of the teacher. That's where the teacher education and training piece is so vital: hopefully, teacher candidates learn what has worked and has been effective from others who have already taught, from those who are currently in classrooms, and from research that has studied programs and policies BEFORE they have the immense responsibility and task of being in classrooms themselves. Of course, learning should forever continue on the job, but it's imperative to start with a strong base. Finally, these components, successfully executed, don't exist in a vacuum, that is to say, without adequate resources, support, and leadership. More on this in future posts. . .

Monday, January 24, 2011

Teacher, I Mean, Teaching Quality Series, Part I: The Myth of the Innately Talented Teacher

Last week (or was it the week before last?) I introduced my series of posts on teacher, I mean, teaching quality. Today's post is about the myth of innate teacher talent.

The current crop of education reformers claim that the crisis in our educational system is due to the lack of talented teachers. This view--that the solution to the “teacher problem” is almost purely one of talent and one not of education, experience, or other school-based conditions--is as wrong as it is disturbing. The architects of new school reform and Race to the Top are blindly focused on the qualities of people who become teachers and on the process of credentialing, hiring, and removing them while missing the boat almost entirely on the practices of these teachers and on the conditions that support (or discourage) those practices.

The questionable claims of Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, provide supposedly scientific foundation for these claims, finding that "the quality of the teaching is the most important factor in student achievement.” Hanushek and his supporters quickly make the leap that quality teaching springs forth from quality teachers, manifested in high scores on standardized tests. Their pedagogy is somehow mystically better than their "low quality" colleagues.

Under the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) legislation, schools are required to have a certain percentage of “highly qualified” teachers (I’ll return to this in a moment). One goal of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is the establishment of national standards. Under NCLB, schools’ making AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) includes meeting a certain benchmarks on standardized tests. This has been problematic because the rigor and content of those tests and their accompanying standards is up to each state and hence vary greatly. Likewise, “highly qualified” translates to “certified by the individual state." Certification requirements vary from state to state. In Washington, D.C., for example, there are three pieces to teacher certification: general knowledge and general education, which can be determined by Praxis I or SAT scores; content knowledge, which can be determined by Praxis II tests and content-area courses; and, pedagogy, which are either approved teacher training programs, such as found at universities or training done by programs like TFA (Teach for America) and NTP (New Teachers Project). Such programs provide only five weeks of training and viola! you’re certified to teach in a high-poverty school. The ideology behind this is that talent, talent, and talent matter.

"Building a Better Teacher," Elizabeth Green’s article in a March 2010 issue of The New York Times Magazine, takes a refreshing look at teaching strategies as opposed to “innate” teacher qualities. Green describes Michelle Rhee’s efforts as DCPS Chancellor to bring a "different caliber of person" into the profession, i.e., high achievers from selective colleges who arrive at teaching through TFA-like programs. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has reaped praise on such programs and ideas. Attracting individuals from top notch colleges who might otherwise go into business, finance, medicine, and law instead to teaching is a laudable goal. I don’t doubt that these kids are bright or that they have potential, but without adequate education, support, and relevant experience, despite their SAT scores and pedigree, they are likely to struggle and leave the profession.

Rhee, Duncan, and Bill Gates are certainly not alone in their beliefs. Again, according to Elizabeth Green’s report, on the topic of teacher quality there is a,
". . . belief in some people that good teaching must be purely instinctive, a kind of magic performed by born superstars. As Jane Hannaway, the director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute and a former teacher, put it to me, successful teaching depends in part on a certain inimitable 'voodoo.' You either have it or you don’t. 'I think that there is an innate drive or innate ability for teaching,' Sylvia Gist, the dean of the college of education at Chicago State University, said when I visited her campus last year."
I agree some dispositional qualities can lend themselves more easily to teaching than to other professions, for example, presence. Presence exudes and inspires confidence and it gets students’ attention. At the end of the day, though, the teacher who studies, practices, and employs the most effective ways to engage, instruct, manage, and assess their students will prevail, presence or no presence. Without some grounding in practice, without thoughtfulness about what students should know and to be able to do, how they best acquire information and skills, and how best to assess their learning, a teacher can have all the charisma and presence in the world, but she won't be a successful teacher.

Although teacher certification and education programs need revamping, the solution is more training and experience for aspiring teachers, not less. Teacher preparation programs, such as TFA and conventional ed school programs, would be much more effective and their teachers more likely to succeed and stay in the profession if they compelled candidates to commit to longer terms of service and required something akin to a two-year student teaching internship along with relevant courses and seminars BEFORE tossing their candidates in the deep end.

In short, the idea of magically talented teachers is a myth. Certainly gaining admission to an elite college does not automatically confer someone with quality teaching know-how or certify that they will be a great teacher. Good teachers are not born; rather, they are made with desire, education, knowledge, experience, support, and hard work. Michael Jordan may have some innate abilities that helped him to get where he was, but he was a superstar because he was driven, he practiced, and he was the hardest working guy on the court.

The idea that anyone with high SAT scores would inherently be a great teacher is silly and it's elitist. But I don't doubt that given adequate training, support, and experience, anyone with commitment, compassion, and perseverance can become a great teacher.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Publish or Perish

(This was cross-posted at Rachel's Rants, Raves, and Recollections.)

I got an essay accepted at truthout. Yay! I wrote about the Obamas' decisions regarding the education of their children and President Obama's statements about that decision in the context of his administration's education policies. (A recent excellent and comprehensive review of Obama's promises on education in contrast to his actual policies can be found here.)

"Mr. President, We Want Your Children's Education, Too" went through many, many drafts and I was very pleased when it was accepted by the first place I sent it. (An aside about the writing/publishing process: Almost all of my publications had been submitted to targeted publications I know well.) I submitted the piece back in November 2010, but the editor I corresponded with warned me it would probably be a while. It happened to come out on January 9, 2010. At first, I was ashamed of its publication date, given it was the day after the shootings in Arizona; it didn't seem to be an appropriate time to be so critical of the Obama administration.

But then I found out that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was butting (yet, again) into D.C. Mayor Gray's DCPS Chancellor selection decision, urging him to permanently appoint Rhee right-hand woman and Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson, of whom he's "huge fan," and in the process by-pass a 2007 DC law which requires a rigorous review process including consulting a panel of teachers, parents, and students. Duncan also dangled the possibility of taking back Race to the Top money the District was awarded if his wish were not granted.

Besides registering my disgust with Duncan's confirmation that Race to the Top is nothing but a bribery scheme, with his interference in local affairs, and with his spitting in the face of transparent and democratic governance, I'll repeat one of the same questions I asked in the essay: If Duncan and his boss are such "big fans" of the reforms and "progress" in D.C.P.S., why do they not send their own children to them?

To those who tell me to mind my own business: Point taken. I'd be happy to. Just as soon as Obama/Duncan change course on the policies that are undermining the quality of my children's education and just as soon as, of course, they mind their own business.

UPDATE 1/20/11: A reader was puzzled about this sentence from the truthout piece:
My DCPS past, warts and all, has made me a different person than I would have been had I gone to a place like Sidwell, different in a way that seems lesser to my current eye. 
Reading it out of the context of the rest of the piece, I can see that the sentence is confusing and needs a re-write. Given the stance that I took, most readers probably knew what I meant, but I hardly want to assume that readers "probably know what I mean." Rather, I want them to know what I mean because my writing is clear. I can't go back and fix it in truthout (and there was never an interaction with an editor about clarity or wording where this might have come up) but just to be clear, what I meant was that:
My DCPS past, warts and all, has made me a different person than I would have been had I gone to a place like Sidwell. Had I gone to a place like Sidwell I think I would have been different in a way that seems lesser to my current eye.
Readers, if you ever see something that gives you pause or puzzles you or that you think may be factually incorrect, even if it's a simple typo, by all means, let me know. I value your feedback and pushback.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Huck Finn, Post Two: Beyond Bowdlerization

I know, I know. A few days ago with great fanfare (ha!) I launched a series of posts about teacher, I mean teaching quality, and that series is, indeed, simmering on the stove. However, before the moment passed, I wanted to do a post or two on the whole Huck Finn firestorm. For those of you who aren't familiar, a professor of English from Auburn University recently decided to publish a version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the K-12 classroom that would substitute all the "nigger" words with "slave."

My first reaction was to say "that is sooo ridiculous." Granted, I hadn't read anything about it or spent any time thinking about it, nor do I know much about Huck Finn or Mark Twain; I didn't think I needed to. Once I started reading more, though, I realized that just saying "that's ridiculous" was simplistic of me, that it's a complex topic.

Colorlines had a thoughtful post about it, supported by some good links. (Um, math) teacher and blogger Jose Vilson has some interesting things to say on the topic, i.e., so this is what we're going to do to counter racism?!?! I also recommend reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog on the topic here (by guest blogger Jamelle Bouie) and here.

I also read The New York Times "Room for Debate" segment on the issue. At "Room for Debate" only a few people are selected to give their insights, and unlike Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog, it doesn't take me as long to slog through the hundreds of comments normally posted in response to a post. I did have a hard time, though, being lectured by some of the NYT commentators on the literary travesty of not keeping the word "nigger" in the text while they themselves employed the "n-word" version of the word. They and other commentators can hardly urge classroom teachers and students to dig deep and find their comfort zone with the word "nigger" as it is in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when they hardly seem able to refer to it themselves.

There is, honestly, also something that rubs me the wrong way about firestorms such as these. I had a somewhat similar response during the Louis Gates Jr. arrest incident (see ironically, The New York Times, "Room for Debate" on this for perspectives that convinced me of the incident's complexity). It's not that I'm a proponent of teaching Huck Finn devoid of the word "nigger" or that I think what happened with Gates wasn't outrageous, or that we shouldn't have public conversations about such events. Rather, it seems like they provide the impetus for well meaning and "enlightened" citizens, writers, pundits, and literature enthusiasts (yes, in essence, me) to scream, that's ridiculous!, denounce racism, racial profiling, white washing, and censorship, and announce their unwavering support for teachable moments and acceptance of our white supremacist, slave-holding past. All of this clamor is (sincerely) well and good, but even better would be to expand the conversation, to take a step beyond the default setting of outrage, to roll up our sleeves and get into the muck of the causes of the disease--righteously condemning its symptoms is a no-brainer, and it's not enough. As Ta-Nehisi Coates characteristically said regarding the NAACP's response to the secessionist brouhaha in South Carolina, "At some point, there has to be something more than 'You're wrong.'"

So while I agree with the sentiments expressed by Bouie, TNC, and the diverse array of viewpoints at "Room for Debate," besides the few teachers who spoke up in the TNC comments' section, I wanted to hear from more K-12 English teachers and K-12 students on the topic, especially from those who are actually teaching and receiving the work. With that in mind, I asked my father-in-law, Joe Riener, who has spent four to six classes per year for nearly fifteen years on Huck Finn while teaching high school English at Wilson Senior High School in DCPS, to write a guest blog post here. (Also, after I wrote this, I came across this forum for student input in The New York Times.)

Joe's take is similar to some of the English professors' at "Room for Debate." I value his opinion because I liked and learned from what he has to say, but also because he is actually doing the work of teaching high school students Huck Finn. That being said, I still think it's important to think beyond ideals and theories, and to seriously consider the practicalities of teaching either version of Huck Finn, and all of the depth, analysis, discussion, and learning that should go along with it. This is particularly true in the context of the currently popular education reformers and Obama administration's emphasis on tenure reform and accountability.

I'm all in favor of removing teachers who are refusing to do their jobs, but tenure is meant to help protect teachers from unfounded dismissal, based, for example, on curricular choices, politics, race, or ethnicity. The teaching of Huck Finn has long been problematic, causing its censorship in schools. Tenure could protect a teacher from consequences to her career when she, for example, takes on the worthwhile project of teaching Huck Finn in all its complexities. Furthermore, I'm afraid this attack on the idea of this version of Huck Finn is missing the big picture. In the face of ceaseless, out-of-proportion emphasis on accountability via standardized tests and the inevitable math and reading skills drills that accompany them, the entire study of liberal arts including literature, art, music, history, science and humanities is being corroded. Bye bye, in depth and interdisciplinary coverage and discussion of Huck Finn. Bye bye, rich and meaningful curriculum. Hello, knowing who wrote the book, in what year, what it's main idea is, and how to identify those correct answers on the multiple choice standardized test. Hello, anti-intellectualism.

So, yes, by all means, let's preserve and teach Huck Finn as is, but let's consider the pressures that cause educators to request the "white washed" version in the first place. And let's confront the possibility that soon the likes of Huck Finn and its historical and cultural context won't be taught at all, especially not by Joe Riener, who refused to put on an "IMPACT" lesson. His feedback on thousands of student essays was not deemed relevant to his evaluation. His time and energy spent on mentoring the student newspaper, the drama players, and his nuanced teaching of Huck Finn, other texts, and of the writing process to a diverse group of students landed him towards the bottom of IMPACT's scale, and for this he received a letter that stated,
"You have been rated 'ineffective' under IMPACT. As a result, your position as a Teacher, English with the DCPS is terminated." 
He has become one of the hundreds of teachers Michelle Rhee brags about firing.

You want teachers like Joe Riener who will take hold of teachable moments and teach a rich and challenging curriculum? Then stop blaming them for our society's failures and start supporting them. You want Huck Finn in schools? Then as you fight to keep a crucial word from being purged from its text, fight against the purging of those teachers who are experienced, skilled, and bold enough to teach it. Now.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A High School English Teacher on Huck Finn's Bowdlerization

After doing some reading and thinking about the bowdlerization of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huck Finn, I realized I wasn't hearing as much directly from K-12 teachers or students as I wanted to. Hence, I asked what my father-in-law, Joe Riener, had to say. He's a high school English teacher and Mark Twain aficionado who spends four to six classes each year teaching Huck Finn.

I would LOVE to hear from other teachers and students on this, and I hope they'll comment below or on my next post, my own analysis of the controversy.

Here's are Joe's thoughts on the recent revision of Huck Finn:

It seems quite natural to me that the descendants of those who felt this
word’s lash would seek to protect their children from it. Like the swastika, it
evokes the enormity of human suffering in our collective souls. I can
imagine, if I were to stand outside a DC Metro stop shouting “Nigger!” that
middle-aged men and women, in suits on their way to work, would beat me
to death, or weep as they flee from the sound of that terrible word.

I do remember the knot in my stomach when my ten year old son asked me,
“Dad, what’s the Holocaust?” To explain human evil to children robs them.
Let’s not have children read this book. We don’t want them to know. This is
better than concealing the truth, covering up our awful history like a mass
grave or a burial at sea. When we decide we want to educate the young,
let’s do it for real.

I’m an educator who teaches Huck Finn every year to high school students.
Before we begin, I have them read Gloria Naylor’s short essay, “Mommy,
what does nigger mean?” Naylor came home one day from grade school. A
white boy, irritated that she’d done better on a test that he did, had used it.
She’d heard it many times before that, fondly characterizing relatives or
friends. Clearly the angry boy intended it differently. So mom told her what
he meant. We then talk in class about the power of language to oppress.
That’s the word’s purpose. It’s in the novel 219 times because oppressors
have to work hard to maintain a lie.

We then read Mark Twain’s painful and ultimately tragic depiction of the
power of American racism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I am
ushering high school students out of their childhoods into our collective

We see Huck, after much struggle and careful tutoring on Jim’s part, decide
to defy his slave-holding culture rather than betray his friend Jim, now
recaptured at Phelps Plantation. When he rips up the note informing Miss
Watson of Jim’s whereabouts, and asserts, “all right, I’ll go to hell,” Huck
intends to free Jim as soon as he can. He doesn’t. Tom arrives, has plans
that preempt Jim’s immediate release. Jim becomes their plaything, a way to
act out their escape fantasies. Ultimately, despite Huck’s report to us of Jim’s
suffering, Huck can’t even tell Tom to go to hell. In the end we find that all
their efforts were for nothing. Tom knew Miss Watson had died, and freed
Jim. Huck is relieved his friend Tom was not a nigger-stealer. There’s no
anger from Huck towards Tom, that they’d almost gotten killed, that Jim had
been put through needless suffering. To see that Huck’s perception of Jim as
a human being had no consequence in Huck’s behavior breaks the heart.
Huck’s feelings for Jim are no match for the power of Huck’s racism. It’s a
novel with a very sad ending.

Twain put the book away, unfinished, in the 1870's, after the chapter where
Huck resolves to go to hell rather than betray his friend. Twain didn’t want to
publish it with that ending. It wasn’t published until the 1880's. What Twain
saw happening in that time was the abandonment of the cause of the freed
slaves by the victorious North. To read Huck Finn alongside Race and Reunion, The Civil War in American Memory, by David W. Blight; or The Day Freedom Died, The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction by Charles Lane; or Redemption, The Last Battle of the Civil War, by Nicholas Lemann makes it clear that Twain has Huck embody the
North’s retreat. The novel is a prescient depiction of the unfolding tragedy.

Union soldiers had gone into battle singing, “[Christ] died to make men holy,
let us die to make men free.” They indeed perished by the hundreds of
thousands. Yet the North pulled out their soldiers from the conquered South
in the 1870's and 1880's. This left the former slave masters to determine the
fate of their freed slaves. The militarily defeated Confederates established a
social and economic system of oppression that endured for 80 years, until
the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60's.

Many critics say Twain wrote a good book, except for those Phelps Plantation
Chapters. I’m with them. Better the feel-good ending, of the white boy, now
enlightened, rescuing his friend, than a truthful yet disturbing historical
metaphor. And let’s have Romeo and Juliet wake up, there in the tomb, and
laugh and embrace.

We’re talking about changing the word nigger for slave (that’s better? Less
difficult to explain to children?) because Twain’s novel about the enduring
power of racism still troubles our country. We’d like to protect children from
its power in our lives. Let’s do that completely. For the rest of us, Twain’s
masterpiece shows us how much work we’ve left to do.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Teacher, I Mean, Teaching Quality Series: Introduction

Teacher quality as key to K-12 students’ success is the central component of the new education reformer’s platform. For example, their manifesto, published in The Washington Post last September stated that:
". . . the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income--it is the quality of their teacher. . . A 7-year-old girl won't make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master's degree--she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success. By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career."

I agree that a seven-year-old girl's having a teacher with two decades of experience or a master's degree does not automatically mean that she'll make it to college. Conversely, I don't agree that she'll definitely make it if her teachers are "effective, engaging, and compel her to reach for success." (And what exactly does it mean to "compel someone to reach for success"? While we’re at it, can we please, please, please reform the use of meaningless education sloganese?) 

Having such teachers will certainly increase her chances of making it to college, but as the more wonky work of New Teacher Center Education Policy Director Liam Goldrick, Shanker Institute researcher Mathew Di Carlo, and Economic Policy Institute  virtuoso Richard Rothstein demonstrate, so will many other factors.

Those factors aside, I do agree that as a school-based success factor, the quality of teaching is a huge one. I think it’s fair to say that if the quality of teachers’ teaching improves than the quality and quantity of student learning will increase. So, how then, do we improve the quality of teaching what makes a teacher effective? What qualifies as effective teaching? What qualifies as meaningful learning?

In this series, I will attempt to answer these questions.