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Biting the Hand that Feeds Me

GothamSchools Editor Elizabeth Green’s cover story in the March 7th edition of the New York Times Sunday magazine tackled the problem of preparing teachers for K-12 classrooms in the United States.  Embellished with the provocative title “Building a Better Teacher,” Elizabeth’s piece profiled two approaches to teacher preparation:  a grassroots approach emerging outside of the academy which focuses on a set of techniques that teachers can use to increase learning time and improve learning environments, and a research-based approach developed in colleges and universities emphasizing the knowledge and skills that enable teachers to teach particular school subjects effectively.  Elizabeth’s story opened with a description of Doug Lemov, who has developed a taxonomy of 49 instructional techniques that he and others believe are critical to effective teaching, and especially to closing the achievement gap between poor, minority children and their more advantaged peers.  If we were to judge the relative merits of the two approaches based on the amount of ink devoted to each in her article, we’d conclude that, in the battle for the minds of education policymakers and practitioners, classroom management (i.e., Lemov’s taxonomy) had won, and pedagogical content knowledge (i.e., the work of Deborah Ball on Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching) had lost.

The disproportionate emphasis on Lemov’s approach in Elizabeth’s article surprised me.  To be sure, he’s a fine human-interest story, and the schools he works with have shown remarkable performance on state achievement tests.  But Elizabeth briefly acknowledged the lack of a research basis for Lemov’s approach, writing:  “And while Lemov has faith in his taxonomy because he chose his champions based on their students’ test scores, this is far from scientific proof.  The best evidence Lemov has now is anecdotal…”  Why would she and the Times choose to feature an approach with so little evidence to back it up?

Lemov’s book, “Teach Like a Champion:  49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College,” was published two weeks ago, and currently ranks #30 on Amazon’s bestseller list.  I wanted to see what he had to say about the research evidence underpinning the techniques.  A thin research base does not, of course, mean that the techniques are not valuable—I expect to learn quite a bit from studying them, and seeing if there are opportunities to adapt them for teaching my graduate students (who will tell you that classroom management is not my strong suit.)  And, of course, who wouldn’t want to be a champion teacher?  Because it is, after all, a competition, right? 

But my motivation runs a bit deeper.  Yesterday, the New York State Board of Regents unanimously endorsed a proposal to pilot new programs for preparing teachers that would allow organizations that are not institutions of higher education to offer programs leading to the master’s degrees that New York requires of certified teachers.  Writing in Monday’s New York Times, Lisa Foderaro saw the parallel between this proposal and State Commissioner of Education David Steiner’s approach when he was Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College, where he “sought to elevate the practical aspects of teaching:  when to make eye contact, when to call on a student by name, when to wait for a fuller answer.”  At Hunter, Steiner pioneered an innovative teacher preparation program called Teacher U, partnering with leaders from Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First, three networks of charter schools operating in New York State and elsewhere.  Doug Lemov is an instructor for Teacher U.

I’m on record expressing fear that that the Regents’ proposal will decouple the preparation of practitioners from the colleges and universities where research about practice is produced.  Lemov’s book does nothing to assuage that fear.  It provides no research evidence that these 49 techniques produce high levels of student achievement, either singly or in particular combinations.  Lemov’s book does not describe either the incidence or prevalence of the use of these techniques in any population of teachers—there’s no way to tell if more frequent or intense use of a particular technique by a teacher is associated with higher student achievement. 

This doesn’t stop Lemov from writing, “The techniques described here may not be glamorous, but they work.  As a result, they yield an outcome that more than compensates for their occasionally humble appearance” (p. 6).  The book provides no evidence that these techniques work.  What is clear is that there is a set of schools that Lemov works with or is familiar with that demonstrate exemplary performance on state standardized tests, and that, through observation, he has found evidence of these techniques in some of the teachers who teach in these schools.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s the techniques, singly or in combination, that account for the success of the schools.  There may be any number of other explanations for why these networks of schools are demonstrating high levels of success on state assessments. 

If these practical teaching techniques matter, it should be possible to demonstrate their effectiveness using methods that meet conventional scientific standards.  Before we give out master’s degrees based on mastering them.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.