Philanthropy Action

News & Commentary


What makes a good teacher? The question to date has largely been answered with a nod toward mysticism. In a recent New York Times Magazine article, for instance, a director at the Urban Institute said successful teaching depends on a kind of “voodoo;“ in the same piece, Sylvia Gist, a dean at the college of education at Chicago State University said there is an “innate ability for teaching.“

If this is true—if good teaching really is just an accident of birth, not linked to any specific things that good teacher do (and that others can be taught)—then, frankly, a lot of money is being wasted on teacher training, funded graduate education programs and the like, since studies have shown that successful teachers are no more likely than the unsuccessful (as measured by student performance) to have gone to graduate school, to be outgoing, have prior experience working in impoverished environments, or posses many other qualities that experts have long thought causal to teaching success.

And yet a group of consultants and researchers actually do believe that good teachers are made—and that our current ways of educating aspiring teachers is not what makes them. The same New York Times article quoted above profiles the different efforts of two individuals, Doug Lemov and Deborah Loewenberg Ball. Lemov works for an organization called Uncommon Schools, a nonprofit that starts and runs urban charter schools. As part of an effort to improve the effectiveness of his teachers, Lemov conducted a multi-year effort to observe and record what the most successful teachers do in the classroom. The result of that effort is a taxonomy of effective teaching practices that outlines a series of “classroom management” techniques used to ensure kids are paying attention and doing the things they should to learn the lesson.

For her part, Deborah Ball, an assistant professor at Michigan State, believes classroom management is not enough. A teacher can have a great control of her classroom, but that won’t get her far if she has nothing to teach them. As a result, she has focused her work on identifying what teachers need to know. Her work shows that teachers need not only strong knowledge of their subject but strong understanding of how others think about the information, and why a student might some up with the wrong answer (she interestingly found that teachers who scored well on a multiple choice test designed to assess their ability to judge student math work, as distinct from their own math knowledge, were among the more effective instructors).

Lemov and Ball are not alone in their efforts to identify what makes great teachers. This January article from The Atlantic on what makes a great teacher highlights an effort by Teach for America to deconstruct the actions of their best teachers, those who bring their students forward by one or more years during a school year. Far from a mystical ability or any abstract ‘care’ they show for students, that effort has likewise uncovered some shared actions that effective teachers consistently do. For example, successful teachers are constantly re-vamping their teaching methods, techniques and materials to hit on something better. The classrooms of successful teachers also operate in a predictable and rhythmic manner, so that kids know what comes next and can transition from one activity to the next without confusion or lost time. Teach for America has been taking what it learns and using it to guide how it selects its fellows and how it trains them. Internal metrics show that these efforts have resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of TfA fellows bringing their kids forward (the piece reported that there is a study underway by research nonprofit Mathematica Policy Research to see if those results hold).

The larger conversation in education today seems to focus heavily on the “market driven” experiments such as school choice and incentive programs. Little evidence exists for or against these initiatives, so there is not reason to embrace or dismiss them out of hand. But there is significant evidence that shows that the teacher can do great things or inflict great damage. From the outside, it seems logical and desirable to simply get rid of demonstrably bad teachers, but plenty of experience from New York shows how difficult that is to achieve in practice. And even if that could be done, what can school systems do with the ones who are simply mediocre? Viewing teaching as a set of skills and actions that can be taught—not as sentimental magic—offers a good beginning.


Thanks Laura. Very helpful introduction for a parent like me who has been bewildered by the general lack of clarity about what we actually know works in education.

March 16, 2010

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Comments may be edited for length. Inappropriate comments will not be published.