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On Teaching

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On Saturday, The Economist published a great article about teacher training. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s worth a read. The following post relies heavily on its content.

Educate Nebraska Board Member and outstanding educator, Jason Epting, with one of his students.

Educate Nebraska Board Member and educator, Jason Epting, with one of his students.

Everyone knows that teachers matter. Parents know, students know, teachers know. Unfortunately, more and more, we hear narratives that suggest otherwise. For instance, when schools fail to perform well, students and families often get blamed. Blaming the consumer of learning for not learning devalues teachers and their craft.

More than any in-school factor, including class size and access to technology, teachers have the biggest impact on student learning. Yet, too often, in Nebraska and across the country, we not only devalue the role of teachers, but fail to provide adequate training, support, development, and recognition of effectiveness. This mars a noble profession. It doesn’t bode well for students either.

Distribution of effective teachers is among the greatest inequities in K-12 education in America today. Low income and minority children are much less likely to be assigned an effective teacher than their more advantaged peers. The most effective teachers (performing in the top 10%) impart, on average, 1.5 years of learning per academic year. The least effective teachers (performing in the bottom 10%) impart only .5 years of learning in that time. Poverty may affect a child’s preparedness for school, but a great teacher affects her preparedness for life.

It’s not only less advantaged students who suffer from ineffective teaching. In 2011, the United States ranked 17th in reading, 22nd in science, and 25th in math among the 34 OECD countries. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore consistently perform at or near the top. According to Harvard Researcher Erik Hanushek, if the average American teacher performed as well as those in the top quartile, American students would perform as well as students in Asian countries within four years.

Mounting evidence shows that great teachers are made, not born. This contradicts what many Americans assume, a mindset which has informed how we prepare and support teachers. For instance, too many American teacher preparation programs lack rigor. “It can be easier to earn a teaching qualification than to make the grades American colleges require of their athletes,” according to the article by The Economist. Compare this to Finland, where “winning acceptance to take an education degree…is about as competitive as getting into MIT.”

Once in a teaching program, participants frequently lack the hands-on instructional experience and preparation to be effective classroom managers. This creates a learning curve in which new teachers struggle to master crucial skills during their first few years in the classroom. This compounds the inequity discussed above: the least experienced teachers often wind up in front of the students most in need of highly effective teachers.

Furthermore, at all experience levels, teachers often lack the support and guidance needed to hone their craft and constantly grow and improve. Requisite professional development, which is both time consuming and costly, should also be effective and of high quality. Too often this isn’t the case. Some estimates suggest that less than 5% of professional training courses result in better classroom practice.

We must work to better train and support all individuals going into teaching by giving them the necessary tools to become highly effective teachers. And we can help existing teachers grow, while recognizing and spreading the best practices of the many highly effective teachers currently serving students in the classroom. But, first, we must recognize that all teachers matter.

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