Summer reading: Teachers near and far

It’s the dog days of summer. Read an education book! Heck, read two!

Read these two together: Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) (Norton, 2014), and José Luis Vilson’s This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education (Haymarket, 2014). Together, they provide a clear-eyed picture of the challenges facing teachers in U.S. classrooms, and why so many efforts to prepare teachers fall flat.

Click to read an Q&A with author Elizabeth Green.

When the New York Sun folded in 2008, education reporter Elizabeth Green co-founded Chalkbeat (née GothamSchools), an education news service, for which she now serves as CEO. She spent the 2009-10 school year as a Spencer Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she wrote a widely read and much discussed New York Times Magazine feature, which became the basis for her book.

In Building a Better Teacher, Green traces the development of two clubs, which I’ll call the “This Kind of Teaching (TKOT) Club” and the “Classroom Efficiency Club.” The TKOT club had its origins in the work of educational psychologist Lee Shulman, who named different types of knowledge that teachers need to support their students’ learning. The first is obvious: teachers must have knowledge of the subjects they teach. The second is also unsurprising: teachers must have a general knowledge of pedagogy, including the nature of teaching and learning, educational aims, and strategies for assessing student learning.

The third type of knowledge teachers need is where the action is: pedagogical content knowledge, or what teachers must know to teach specific school subjects to particular learners. Pedagogical content knowledge, in its classic conception, might involve knowing the kinds of mistakes that students are prone to make when engaging with new concepts, or being able to see and draw connections between two students’ different representations of an idea that at first glance seem unrelated.

Although I was never a full member of the TKOT Club, I had a guest pass. After all, I spent a decade on the faculty at Michigan State, the epicenter of efforts to improve teacher education in the 1980s and 1990s. (I even show up in an uncredited role in Chapter 3, “Spartan Tragedy.”) Acting Dean David Cohen hired me the year that Judy Lanier was on leave to develop her ambitious plan for a statewide system of Professional Development Schools in Michigan. (Both Cohen and Lanier figure prominently in the story.) Deborah Ball, then in the early years of her academic career, and now the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, was kind enough to observe me teaching statistics to doctoral students at Michigan State; her comments revolutionized my pedagogical approach. Shulman, Magdalene Lampert, Pam Grossman, Heather Hill … all prominent members of the club whom I counted as friends and colleagues. I knew them to be serious scholars of the practice of teaching particular school subjects, and preparing novice teachers to deepen their understandings of these practices.

Where Green’s narrative shines is in portraying the complex cognitive work of teachers using pedagogical content knowledge to advance their students’ understandings. This is clearest in the portrayals of Ball and Lampert as teachers, two expert educators who have devoted many years to teaching others what they know about the teaching of mathematics and other subjects. Perhaps I’m biased—I’ve watched videos of Ball and Lampert in action, and they are mesmerizing—but Green’s word-picture is the best representation of the cognitive work of teaching for a general audience that I’ve ever seen.

The “Classroom Efficiency Club” emerged in the 1990s from the efforts of a small group of educational entrepreneurs, most affiliated with charter schools, to develop classroom practices that would instill the discipline necessary for students to master foundational knowledge that could then serve as a base for more advanced learning. The practices, codified by Doug Lemov in his book Teach Like a Champion(Jossey-Bass, 2010), were not specific to any subject, and hence would be classified as general pedagogical knowledge. They captured the imagination of the entrepreneurs, who used the taxonomy as a playbook in a set of charter schools sometimes labeled “No Excuses” schools. Students at these schools posted terrific test scores, providing support for the taxonomy as a pedagogical advance.

Click to read more Aaron Pallas.

The two clubs developed independently, and I would say that Green’s 2010 article was the first effort to position them in relation to one another. Building a Better Teacher provides a nuanced accounting of their successes and failures, and their efforts to learn from each other. The book’s concluding chapter, “A Profession of Hope,” offers the TeachingWorks professional development system founded by Ball and the Boston Teacher Residency (BTR), which has hired Lampert in a leadership position, as models for disseminating teaching practices that work to novice and experienced teachers alike.

There are some blind spots in Building a Better Teacher, however. Green takes what counts as “legitimate knowledge” as uncontested. Perhaps that’s inevitable given the prominent role of mathematics in her account, but in other disciplines, whose knowledge counts and why cannot be taken for granted.

How to assess learning is also left unexamined, defaulting to the current generation of standardized tests. Does “great teaching” always lead to “great learning”? There are some warning signs. Hill, Ball and Brian Rowan find only modest links between measures of the mathematical knowledge that teachers need for teaching and their students’ performance on standardized math tests, and the vaunted Measures of Effective Teaching project had to abandon its content knowledge for teaching measures, designed to assess some aspects of pedagogical content knowledge, as they were not associated with student achievement.

Further, a preliminary evaluation of the BTR from 2012 showed that in their early years of teaching, BTR graduates are less successful in raising test scores than other novice teachers. None of this is damning; I still find the theorizing behind pedagogical content knowledge and programs such as BTR credible. But it would be nice to know why we’re not seeing the hoped-for effects on student achievement. Certainly the problem could lie in how we currently measure pedagogical content knowledge and what students learn in the classroom, but good alternatives remain to be developed.

A bigger challenge: Throughout Building a Better Teacher, I struggled to see the souls of the two clubs’ new machines. The motives of protagonists Lampert, Ball and Lemov are clear enough, and Green brings them to life on the page. Her descriptions of teaching are vivid and inspiring, reflecting her dual attention to subject matter and discipline. It’s harder for her narratives to convey the social bonds between teachers and their students, and the deep investments in students that teachers may have. That’s because the stake teachers have in their students is not easily reduced to a discrete set of teaching practices that can appear in a given lesson. And neither camp is portrayed as paying much attention to culture beyond the notion of a classroom culture conducive to learning. Culture as the beliefs and practices of the families and communities in which students grow up is largely ignored—and race, social class and power receive little attention.

Perhaps the book is mistitled. It’s much more about teaching practices than teachers. Practices are not people. People have motives and interests, and they inhabit dysfunctional organizations. They have to respond to misguided efforts at accountability, and (Common Core) learning standards forced upon them without curricula designed to enable students to master the standards. By contrast, practices don’t have to worry that they’ll lose their jobs if students’ scores on standardized tests don’t rise year over year. They have an infinite amount of time, and never have a devalued social identity. No practice ever tried to hail a cab, only to be passed by due to the color of its skin.

That is why it’s so important to pair Green’s book with This is Not a Test. Soul? José Vilson has it in abundance. Born to a Dominican mother and Haitian father, Vilson came of age on New York City’s Lower East Side, making his way from P.S. 140 to a Jesuit high school, and then to Syracuse University. Rejected by Teach For America and nearly turned down by the New York City Teaching Fellows program, Vilson became a math teacher at I.S. 52 in Washington Heights. If there’s a club, Vilson is probably not a member; but he might be outside pounding on the door, wondering who’s in the club and why. If the club is overwhelmingly white, but our students are mainly black and brown, isn’t that worth talking about?

“I am,” Vilson declares. “Deal with it.” It’s an appropriate tone for a narrative that weaves his personal history with a sweeping critique of our education system—the false promises of educational technology, the incompatibility of the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying just-in-time accountability system, and the stark separation between children’s lives in their homes and communities and what they are trained and rewarded for in school.

What is front and center in Vilson’s narrative—and why it’s such an important complement to Green’s—is that he grew up in the same circumstances as his students, navigating poverty, making some bad choices, getting into and out of scrapes. Teachers have helped him make his way, and he’s damned sure he will do the same for his students.

Caring for one’s students in this way—what philosopher Nel Noddings has called “authentic caring,” in contrast to the aesthetic caring of the classroom efficiency club—is as important to Vilson as his students’ mastery of the constant of proportionality. There’s not much math in This Is Not a Test, but there’s a lot of humanity.

And a lot of mouthing off, but not just for fun. Vilson is committed to expanding the reach of teachers’ voices, and their control over their work. Not because teachers’ personal interests should run roughshod over education policy, but because teachers need time and resources, and their on-the-ground common sense should not be ignored.

All of which makes me wonder: What would bring a teacher like José Vilson to the clubhouse door of the This Kind of Teaching Club or the Classroom Efficiency Club? And would he become a member? The link that is at once present and absent is how the United States is to develop an adequate supply of teachers that can master the practices—pedagogical content knowledge, classroom efficiency, and authentic caring—that are described in such loving detail in these two books.

The pockets of what Green, citing David Cohen, refers to as “coherent” teacher preparation initiatives are small and scattered, serving a small fraction of U.S. schools and teachers, and operating largely outside of the traditional public schooling system built to serve the urban poor and their suburban and rural neighbors. Their coherence rests on their ability to buffer teachers from the conflicts and contradictions inherent in public education in a democracy, especially one with a long tradition of decentralized control of education.

It’s hard to see how these boutique initiatives, no matter how thoughtfully designed, could be built at the scale necessary to cultivate the next generation of American teachers. There are approximately 3.4 million public school teachers in the country, and 97 percent of them teach in traditional public schools. Where are these teachers going to come from?

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Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and… See Archive