Monday, April 13, 2009

Here's to Teachers or How to Improve Education

“What we’re striving for,” the textbook publisher explained, “are materials that are teacher-proof.” My face revealed my incomprehension. “You know, materials that can be picked up by anyone, and as long as they do exactly what the teacher’s guide says, they will have taught a lesson.”

“You mean, like a script?” I asked.

“That’s not a term we like to use,” he replied, “but that is the idea.”

I don’t remember my reply, but I do remember feeling nauseated by what he described. I went to college and graduate school so I could have someone in an office somewhere write a script for how I should teach? I removed my self from the project a few days later. My philosophy conflicted with the publisher’s desired results.


Take a moment to recall a period of significant learning in your past. Perhaps it was early in your education, throughout second grade, for example. Perhaps your memories as a ten-year-old are full of learning. Or perhaps middle school enriched your mind unlike anything prior. Or maybe it was high school or even college before you felt like a true learner. Got the experience in mind? Now, what was the title and who was the author of the textbooks you read during that time? Hmm, can’t recall? How about the teacher? I bet you do remember the teacher!


Research confirms that the teacher in the classroom is the single most significant school-based factor influencing student learning and achievement. A mere two-year span of great teaching vs. ineffective teaching can produce achievement test percentile ranking differences as high as 90% (Marzano, 2003). Think about that! Two years with great teachers and a student can soar; two years with ineffective teachers and a student can sink.

Dr. Ken Robinson (2009) recognizes the value of teachers in his latest book:
My own extremely strong belief, based on decades of work in the field, is that the best way to improve education is not to focus primarily on the curriculum, nor on assessment, important those these things are. The most powerful method of improving education is to invest in the improvement of teaching and the status of great teachers. There isn’t a great school anywhere that doesn’t have great teachers working in it (p. 238).

When we began Clerestory Learning, we committed to investing in education’s most valuable asset: its teachers. That’s why we include graduate-level quality professional development components for all our programs. (In fact, graduate credit is offered for all our programs!) It may not be the most profitable approach, and our programs cannot be described as “teacher-proof,” but research and our experience confirm that you improve education by further equipping one teacher at a time.


So here’s to the true teachers. The Miss McHugh’s (4th grade), Mrs. Hennessey’s (6th grade), Mr. Webber’s (high school), Dr. Post’s (college), and Dr. Carwile’s (graduate school) of the world. Teachers who invested in learners rather than sticking to a script. May we be as brave and effective!

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA; ASCD.
Robinson, K. (2009).
The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York: Viking.

8 comments:

Kara said...

Three years with bad teachers was enough for our family. Now we home school, and watch them soar!

Angela Maiers said...

As a parent and an educator, this is appalling on so many levels. Unfortunately, it is pervasive. There is a belief that if we cover everything in the book, that learning will magically occur.

What textbooks, curriculum guides, and standards edocuments fail to provide is information and support to teachers about the context and the environment the learning takes place in.

It is what the teachers and students DO with the content and the materials that matters most. Thank you for the work you are doing and this powerful post!

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Angela, thanks for visiting the blog and reading this post. I concur with your comments 100%. Research shows that the quality of the TEACHER makes the difference. I had a college professor say frequently that a great teacher can teach with nothing—no text, no tech, nothing. Coverage does not equal learning. We need our school leaders need to recognize that. I am grateful for the truly great teachers we have, and for those, like you, who work to further equip them for continued excellence.

mrsfollis2 said...

Very good post. Before I got my own classroom, I subbed, usually in elementary classrooms. While this was an enlightening experience because it enabled me to practice (bc subbing w/HS is a unique challenge) I found that I was sometimes appalled.

I still remember a 3rd grade classroom of an established teacher (ie no "newbie" excuse) whose science lesson was to listen to a CD that came w/the text and read the lesson.

It took me just as long to find the correct track on the CD player as it would have taken to read the section out of the book myself. Worst part? ZERO engagement. It was like the entire day was a checklist of "yes, we spent 20 minutes on that subject"...

And it was a very reputable school district in our area. I can only imagine what happens in the districts that are "undesirable".

Paul Bogush said...

Now I know what you wrote is so very true. But how do I walk into a meeting on textbooks, curriculum, or standards with other teachers and say the problem with the school is you.

If there is a problem with writing in a school, guess who is asked to form a committee to solve it? The teachers who are a part of the "problem." Even if there is bullying going on. A committee is formed with the same teachers who could not prevent the problem in the first place and now they are in charge of stopping it! Grrrr....

"The most powerful method of improving education is to invest in the improvement of teaching and the status of great teachers." Most teachers already believe they are great. By pushing to improve themselves they are admitting that they might be doing something "wrong." That is why teachers form committees to improve student learning, but never their own.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Paul, I think the answer to your question has to begin with the school leadership. Has the school created a culture of continual professional growth? Does the leadership model a value for professional development? I once asked an administrator what he was doing to promote greater achievement (a concern of his at the time). He mentioned several new textbooks and "training" by textbook reps. On questioning, he admitted the training was how to use the textbook. nothing more. I asked him if he would hire a plumber with mediocre tools. He said no. I then asked, "What if he had a brand new set of tools?" "No," he said, "the plumber's still the same." It dawned on him as he said it. The teachers were getting tools but not growing in their capacity as teachers. I recommend teachers like you start feeding school leaders information in non-threatening ways—e.g., I just read this article on a successful approach to math instruction. Thought you might enjoy it. Do what you can to encourage the leadership to value professional development and make it a value of your school culture.

Paul Bogush said...

Maybe your post hit a nerve because I actually had that conversation recently...
If the leadership believes that everyone is doing great and will only get better with more "stuff" I struggle to continue the conversation because it turns into a "I know better than you" sort of conversation.

It also worries me when we talk about giving teachers more PD. If a teacher is sitting back waiting for PD I think at best at the PD that teacher simply is "trained." You have the same teacher walking out, just carrying a shiny new tool.

The other problem is that the PD has to be for a very "safe" program. For example, everyone could agree to doing more writing--who could disagree with that. But teaching writing differently, that would be taking a chance, that would require some risk, and people might make mistakes. So instead of getting a shiny new tool to replace our hammers, we just get bigger hammers.

oooooo....for some reason I really feel like I can go on and vent and whine on this one...

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Paul, I completely understand your frustration. Been there! One of the best things a college professor drummed into my head was 1) if you are not growing personally and professionally, you are not qualified to teach, and 2) no one else is responsible for your professional development. A true professional will constantly be learning how to improve his practice. It frustrates me too that many don't seem to have gotten this message. I'm encouraged, though, by the very intelligent teachers who often "tweet," such as yourself. There are growing professional teachers out there. Perhaps by finding one another we can figure out some effective ways of changing the status quo. Thanks for conversing. This is great, and I value your input!