April 12, 2010

What makes good teachers?

George Leef over at Phi Beta Cons ponders:

In today's Pope Center Clarion Call, Jay Schalin writes about a very important piece of research that has just come out of the UNC system. It's a report on "The Impact of Teacher Preparation on Student Learning," and finds that students perform better if they're taught by "non-traditionally" trained teachers rather than those with education-school pedigrees. Teach for America wins high honors.

What explains why teachers who have not specifically studied to become teachers (Teach for America people have earned degrees in actual academic disciplines) tend to impart more knowledge than ed-school types?

One reason is that TFA only takes graduates of top universities — an intellectually gifted group of people. In contrast, the students drawn into your standard ed-school program are generally among the least gifted at any college or university. Smarter teachers are better at engaging with students, motivating them to learn.

Another reason is that TFA teachers have not been put through the ed-school processing plant, where you find weak and dubious courses having far more to do with politics than academics and professors you would hardly entrust your children to — for example a professor of "science instruction" who questions the objectivity of science, saying that it depends more on "factors like power, culture, race, gender, and ethnicity."

I've opined numerous times here and elsewhere that, by and large, ed schools need a LOT of work (meaning, "improvement") in prepping teachers for what they'll face in a classroom. And Leef is certainly correct that way too many [new] teachers aren't exactly the brightest folk, whether in their subject area or in general. It certainly makes sense that teachers with a greater knowledge base would be better at engaging with students ...

... but is that a given? How often is this the case?

I ask because over my many years in the public schools I have seen rather brilliant people get "eaten alive" by modern public school students, and for some it was enough to send them looking for another career. And I often wonder how many education professors have actually taught in [public] schools -- and if they did so for more than five years.

So, by "smarter teachers," I hope Leef also means "street smarts." The best combination (I've found) for teachers is to be an intellectual who's "hip." This means you can relate to the kids, and once you "have them" (metaphorically, obviously), your intellect (hopefully) will then "grab them" ... make them intellectually curious!

Posted by Hube at April 12, 2010 05:14 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

I trained social studies teachers for more than a decade and my wife has been a public school adminstrator throughout her career. We both agree on this: the kids who come in with the innate talent to manage a classroom are almost always bright enough to be taught the content they need to succeed. The kids with some feel for managing a classroom can have their skills improved, but it will always (at least for the first ten years) feel like a struggle for them. The academically gifted with no "street smarts" can only survive in very specialized environments, and never thrive. Carts before horses: you have to be able to deal with your students before you can teach them anything.

Posted by: steve Newton at April 12, 2010 08:17 PM

Thanks for agreeing w/me, Steve! :-)

Posted by: Hube at April 12, 2010 08:42 PM

While I am a State U person, my SATs and GREs are of Ivy League caliber. I went to teaching as a second career, and washed out. I had difficulty in managing a classroom. I did improve, but not enough.

While it is possible that at different schools or with better teacher training at the ed school, I might have made a go of it, the facts are that I did not make a go of it.

Those who think teaching is easy have never tried it.

Your point about "street smarts" is well taken. Intellectual ability and subject knowledge are necessary but not sufficient to become a competent teacher.

Posted by: Gringo at April 12, 2010 10:41 PM

So I clicked on the Schalin article and then clicked on the actual UNC Ed Schools study to look at their findings. And I've got to say, assuming I understand how they organized their sample, Schalin did some MAJOR cherry picking to try to support the idea that this study somehow says Teach for America is awesome.

For one, in the UNC Ed Schools PDF, Teach For America is only mentioned once - the authors state that they included people from TFA in the "All other Teachers" category. Incidentally, this category also included, in the authors' own words, teachers from "independent colleges and universities within North Carolina, teachers from outside of North Carolina, and teachers who entered North Carolina public schools via an “alternative” route."

Now here's the really interesting part: Schalin, in his article, states that there were 310 Teach For America participants included in the study. I'm not sure where he got that number, I couldn't find it in the UNC Ed Schools study itself. But assuming it's an accurate number, there is a major issue with the conclusion he's making. If you look at the "all others" category in Table 1 of the study - there were 97,130 teachers included in that category. And for the statistical analyses that were conducted, those 97K teachers were treated as one lump group. So assuming Schalin's number of 310 TFA participants is accurate - the TFA participants made up 0.3% of the "All Other Teachers Group." And yet he is willing to claim that TFA teacher had such a huge impact on students. Gee, what about the other 99.7% of the teachers in the "all other teachers" category. You think maybe they had something to do with it?

Posted by: JohnnyX at April 14, 2010 11:11 AM

As a a graduate with degree in the academic discipline I currently teach, I was retrained in certification courses under the guidance of by Steve Newton. I concur. Before I could impact knowledge, I had to be able to handle the kids.
I am blown away by the manipulation of TFA results. Although the promise of a intellectually gifted, ivy league graduate with a degree in an academic discipline teaching students IN THAT same discipline appeals - to older grades, this is not the case. TFA's with business degrees are teaching K, 1, 2, 3 grades in northern DE. The degree and correlation to discipline are not required. In these early grades, methods of teaching reading and fundamental math skills are much more important than an ivy league degree in science. TFA's ration of TFA mentor per candidate exceeds hundreds. Unfortunately, it becomes the drowning experience for a well intentioned person at the cost of student growth for a year. I find it reprehensible that an exciting reform would be used inappropriately in discipline and grade level. However, since this happens in poorer schools where poverty parents don't have the same voice, you won't hear the screams. Years from now when a study is conducted by "leading experts," who will pay for the consequences to students?

Posted by: AncoraImparo at April 15, 2010 02:08 PM