Gates: It's the Teachers
In a previous post, “Just Hire the Best Teachers,” I described a situation in which, after delivering a keynote speech on school turnaround, I was told by a noted expert, “all you have to do to improve schools is hire the best teachers.” Apparently, Melinda Gates agrees. In a recent Washington Post op-ed pieces, Ms. Gates states, “The key to helping students learn is making sure that every child has an effective teacher every single year. Teachers are at the center of our strategy at the Gates Foundation,” which is currently “working with more than 3,000 teachers in seven school districts to develop measures of teacher effectiveness.”
Ms. Gates correctly points out that the schools making the biggest gains in student achievement were those doing “revolutionary work inside the classroom.” The challenge is to find out what the revolutionary work actually entails.
Her optimism is supported by the successes of schools around the country that are beating the odds including the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). Ms. Gates observed that the key to the success of the KIPP schools was its principal and the dedicated and talented teachers on the staff. She goes on to point out that the classroom teacher is the most important variable in student achievement.
Ms. Gates then asks an important question. “Why hasn’t education policy focused more on raising teacher effectiveness? Here are my thoughts:
First and foremost, I am reminded that “for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” (H.L. Mencken) We keep saying “No silver bullet will cure the ills affecting the nation’s education system” (Arne Duncan) yet we insist on coming up with one solution after another. In fact, Ms. Gates, herself, expands the range of solutions when she attributes the success of KIPP to the principal and the teachers.
When my friend, the expert, told me that all we had to do was hire great teachers, I turned to him and said, “Who do you think recruits, interviews, hires, and trains your great teachers?”
Teaching is a profession, and professionals learn and grow from experience. New teachers don’t walk into schools with all the skills and knowledge that they will ever need in their entire career. All new teachers must rely on mentors and advisors, most of whom are provided by the principal. Teachers must be trained in effective teacher preparation programs, and they must be nurtured and grown throughout their careers.
Teachers need instructional leadership. They need a direction and focus. If it is great teachers who make great schools, then it is those who hire, nurture and develop teachers who are equally as important to the equation.
Teachers need a support system to succeed. Learning cannot take place in a chaotic, high-threat environment. Teachers need warm and inviting, safe and orderly school environments.
Teachers need adequate, focused, and uninterrupted instructional time in order to teach each and every student. In addition to the fact that KIPP students must apply for admission, students in KIPP schools spend 68% more time on core subjects than do students in other schools in their districts.
A colleague recently confided to me that the starting teacher salary in her state was $18,000. Low starting salaries make it difficult to attract the best and brightest into teaching. While teachers don’t enter the profession for financial gain, they must make a living wage. More knowledge about teaching will not change low salaries.
Do we need more research? I am reading a book that is a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses of research into student achievement. That is a lot of research. The reality is that we need to apply the research that we already have. The problem with improving schools over the past fifty years is the fidelity of implementation. We keep searching for the silver bullet, when, in fact, we already have a good idea about what we need to do, but we don’t implement well. We are hopelessly searching for educational riches when we are literally sitting on top of acres of diamonds. I predict that no principal or teacher will be surprised by what the Measures of Effective Teaching project reveals. What we need is to stop searching for greener pastures and to focus on actually putting research into practice.
Finally, and most importantly, we all need to strongly believe that all students can be held to high standards and that they can achieve to high levels. Unfortunately, two of three teachers do not hold that belief. All the research and strategies on effective teaching will not overcome a fixed mindset. The achievement gap, may, in reality, be an expectation gap.