What It's All About

January 3 on NPR:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. The way America teaches its teachers is under fire. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been leading the charge with a series of speeches calling for education schools to reinvent themselves.

That's what this blog is all about.

It's about our story here in Boston.  It's the "invention" of one little fledgling brand new Ed School, a start-from-scratch operation, along the lines of what Duncan has proposed.

And this blog is about our sector, the efforts of education schools to reinvent themselves.  One such effort is underway at University of Michigan Ed School (which Larry Abramson's NPR story explores).

a. The tipoff

I first heard that U Michigan might be breaking the Ed School mold came back in 2007. I'd known them only as the one-time home of the Fab Five.

A grad student -- a razor sharp, no nonsense grad student -- was telling me about her Ed School's dean, Deborah Ball.   That Ball would actually teach a weekly math class to 27 kids -- real live children -- from a nearby high-poverty school.

"Not only does the dean teach, but there are probably two dozen observers. Mathematicians, researchers, academics, teacher educators (there's a big debrief after math class is over). And everyone questions her teaching and makes suggestions.  She talks about what she thinks worked and didn't, and is pretty candid about her mistakes. It's fascinating.

Last week, we spent maybe 10 minutes (of the hour debrief) talking about a note she sent home to parents. What was good about it, what wasn't. Why it might achieve the goal she intended, why not.  She is learning, as are we."

I was impressed.  How many leaders would risk their credibility this way?

b. Then a few weeks ago...

A reporter, Elizabeth Green, is examining various teacher prep models.  She'd mentioned Dr. Ball during a chat with me, and sent me a powerpoint and video.

You can view them here and here.  Ball argues that "Effective teaching is unnatural and intricate work."  And that teacher training should be prescriptive.

That got my attention.

Prescribe. Don't just cover every possible permutation of what a teacher trainee MIGHT do, which is the normal Ed School approach.  With limited time, tell trainees what to do.  Have them practice it over and over.  Make it like learning to fly a plane, cut a patient, play piano, figure skate.

Is teaching unnatural?  Yes.  If there's anything I've learned in the last 10 years, as a fly on the wall in charter school trenches, it's that effective teaching is NOT intuitive.

Imagine any hour-long lesson as perhaps 100 or more micro "teacher moves."  All interrelated.  For each of the 100 teacher moves, there might be 3 plausible options -- all of which would pass the common sense test.  But only 1 of the 3 is optimal (or at least optimal in that particular context).  Sometimes that optimal move is even unnatural.  Too many suboptimal moves, and the class reaches a tipping point where little learning happens.

If you're a chess beginner, there are lots of plausible first moves.  It's not intuitive that PK4 is an optimal first move.  You need to be told.  Otherwise you may end up here.

c. Rx Know-How?

Do we know the optimal moves to do this unnatural work of teaching?  Do we know the PK4s of K-12?  Have we decoded the Teaching Genome, to the point where we can confidently prescribe?

Not in a clinical sense.  Not in a "If you do X, Y, and Z, your kids will learn 24% more over the course of the year" sense. Gates Foundation's Tom Kane is trying to do this work in an elaborate study.

But what about with a lower burden of proof? Can we identify what seem to be high-leverage teacher moves, stuff that people who at least SEEM to be good teachers do?

There's healthy debate over this, which this blog will return to constantly.

Has any graduate or undergraduate teacher prep program put together "all the right moves?" Can anyone say their grads disproportionately become standout teachers, better than those of other programs? I'm not aware of anyone making that claim.

But for the first time ever, a number of statewide efforts are underway precisely to find out. That's the sort of research and accountability Arne Duncan is pushing, to his great credit.

And that's the way our Ed School hopes to be judged. Not on inputs, not on the number of books in the library (do we really need one), not on the count of big name faculty. Judge us entirely on the degree to which the teachers we train go on to become standouts (in some measurable way) -- or not.