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.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Too true! Stickability is a key characteristic of a good teacher. Never give up. See it through.

  3. Really interesting article! You're making my brain crunch on this...

  4. I must disagree with the premise that there is no such thing as the "innately talented teacher." There is indeed, just as there are those who possess a natural affinity and/or ability to play an instrument, dance, draw, etc. This does not in any way imply that I agree in any way with the deformers. But I have known many teachers who simply "have it", that ability to teach that is impossible to measure but so easily recognized when observed. Of course, there are skills to be learned, but I think that most would agree that some people are truly boen to teach.

  5. First of all thank you so much for reading & commenting, Anon. You don't know how exciting it is to have non-spam comments, especially ones that push back a bit.

    "Affinities" and "abilities" are very different things. I totally agree one needs to have an affinity for something to do it well, and I think I said this about teaching, but termed it, insufficiently perhaps, as "desire." Furthermore, I agree that certain personality traits can be more amenable to teaching than others, but there's also room for many different styles, and charisma alone will only get a teacher so far before students realize the teacher doesn't know what the heck they're doing.

    However, I'm going to have to disagree with, or at least strongly question the notion of "natural abilities." I can't say with any certitude that natural abilities don't exist (this, frankly, is getting into a type of "nature vs. nuture" debate, which I am woefully unqualified to have).

    I'm just not sure there's any such thing as natural abilities at all, for anyone, unless you're talking about some rare kind of genius or savant syndrome, or about physical attributes in athletics (being tall for basketball, for example--but even that will make a potential player slightly more likely to be eligible for success in basketball than a short person).

    Affinity is key, but otherwise, I think being good, talented or effective at anything is about expertise and practice.

  6. I agree that there are affinities for teaching (personality characteristics maybe? charisma?), but I think the way that these affinities become good teaching is not just by coasting through, but rather through dedicated and intentional practice.
    This is what gets lost in any discussion of talent vs. practice.
    You can see some discussion of the talent myth from Malcolm Gladwell or Geoff Colvin's book Talent is Overrated.
    Basically, talent is useless without practice, and practice without talent is... well, indistinguishable from what people call talent.
    There are plenty of fun examples: Michael Jordan didn't make his high school basketball team, etc etc. What they boil down to is this: A far better predictor on how good people are at some craft is not talent, but how much you like to practice. In teaching, we would be far far better off providing the people who like to practice with better opportunities to do so. I think we probably already have a group of people who like to practice, because they have endured the terrible way that we treat teachers to get what little our school systems offer in the way of practice, and they still find it rewarding enough.

  7. ive taught in a few schools for a total of about 8 years and ive come to feel that the teachers the powers that be consider "great teachers" are those that above all, get high test scores and then on a day-to-day basis keep kids quite and on task - and the parents off the admin's backs. they don't bring up trouble that the admins have to deal with.

    good test scores aside, ive tried to figure out what makes teachers able to do all that other day-to-day stuff? i've recognized 3 key elements.

    1) they're a hard ass. the kids respect/fear/are intimidated by them. its mostly in their personality or they've through will and experience or great acting become a hard ass. machiavelli was right.

    and/or 2) they're freaking fun. they're engaging. but then this only goes so far and they have to jump into hard ass mode. plus often being so fun and engaging isn't on the curriculum. its outside of lesson plans. it doesn't really help the kids pass their tests. (but they still when the boss comes in have the kids happy and engaged and doing something and getting good grades and no troubles and no upset parents so the boss is ok.)

    and then 3) they have a reputation for being 1) or 2) - even if it's not founded or true. maybe the kids just see them that way in comparison to the other teachers. good cop bad cop sort of thing. not sure but the kids will say "oh you'd better be good." and you'll ask "why?" and the kids will say "i don't know."

    so i guess the powers that be can look for hard assed, animated people who know their content and put them in the classroom. and i guess they'll at least get on task kids who are engaged and doing something out of fear or fun or both. but are they passing tests? are the test worth passing?


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