Building A Better Teacher: Some Hard Lessons of Ed Reform

Building a Better Teacher

I picked up Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher, with great anticipation. By the time I finished reading the nicely written, highly detailed descriptions of some of the latest efforts to improve teaching, I was alternatively gratified, intrigued and more-than-a-little frustrated.

Let’s start with why I was gratified: Her book argues that good teaching can and must-be taught. This would seem to be mere common sense. But what Green calls the “black box” of teaching has been long neglected not only by university based schools of education, but also by education-policy makers.

Green’s narrative seeks to debunk the notion that the secret to improving U.S. education is to place a superstar teacher in every classroom. She argues, instead, what many education reformers would consider heresy: That improving education is about teaching teachers, including ordinary ones, how to improve. Being a good teacher, Green painstakingly shows us, is extraordinarily difficult. And teaching someone to become a good teacher is even more difficult. Writes Green: “By misunderstanding how teaching works, we misunderstand what it will take to make it better—ensuring that, far too often, teaching doesn’t work at all.”

Green argues that by making accountability (via test scores) and autonomy (the notion that teachers are professionals who should be treated accordingly) the two dominant theories of teacher improvement, policymakers and pundits “have left us with no real plan. Autonomy lets teachers succeed or fail on their own terms with little guidance. Accountability tells them only whether they have succeeded, not what to do to improve. Instead of helping, both prescriptions preserve a long-standing culture of abandonment.”

Students of both management and management’s influence on education also will be intrigued to learn that much as the Japanese bested U.S. manufacturers 40 years ago by neglecting home-grown quality management practices, the Japanese education system is built on long-neglected American ideas. Moreover, the methods used to improve education in Japan are strikingly similar to the collaborative, iterative practices they use in industry. Without saying so explicitly, Green reminds us that it is possible for educators to learn from business. But they need to learn the right lessons!

Green’s subject is hugely important. But to make her argument she must navigate the minefield of the highly politicized education-reform movement. And, at times, she seems to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid offending education reformers who have made accountability—not improvement of either teachers or pedagogical methods—the centerpiece of both private education-reform efforts and the nation’s education policy.

In a recent phone interview, Green noted that the education-reform “insiders,” especially those she calls the “entrepreneurs” are much more invested in teacher training and development—and less focused on accountability—than “outsiders” realize. As I will explain later, even if this is true, it is a problematic argument given the adverse impacts the accountability movement has had on American education and its close connection to the education “entrepreneurs” she writes about.

Green, it should be noted, is CEO of Chalkbeat, which describes itself as a “nonprofit news organization covering educational change.” Chalkbeat funders include, among others, philanthropies at the forefront of the privatization and accountability movement—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and Seachange Capital. Fair disclosure: Green and I both worked at U.S. News and World Report, though our tenures didn’t overlap and we have never met.

Green begins her narrative with Spartan Village, a lab school affiliated with Michigan State University, and the efforts of Magdalene Lampert and Deborah Ball, two extraordinary educators who are trying to unlock the mystery of how kids learn and to develop better teaching methods and teachers. (See Aaron Pallas’s concise explanation of the three types of knowledge teachers need in order to help students learn. )

Efforts to scale the model, painstakingly developed at Spartan Village and nurtured by MSU, were overtaken by the accountability movement, which promised a quick fix for the ills of the American public education system. In the process, the Spartan Village ideas were sidelined even as a very similar pedagogy was developing in Japan.

Thus, students of American business will see history repeating itself—this time to the detriment of kids. Green recounts how the most innovative American approaches to teacher training were exported. Japan, for example, took inspiration from three key thinkers, all of them American: John Dewey, the philosopher; George Polya a Stanford Univ. mathematician; and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which was inspired by Magdalene Lampert and written in part by Deborah Ball of Spartan Village.

Green’s chapter on the lessons Japan learned from the U.S. marked a jarring déjà vu for me. As researchers on Japan’s education reforms toured the island nation, they kept hearing the name of W. Edwards Deming, the Iowa-born statistician and quality expert who had taught the Japanese what we have since come to associate with Japanese quality management. (My own first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality, became a best-seller in the Midwest and Japan, was about Deming.) Writes Green:

“Like Deming’s work, the NCTM standards had a more loyal following in Japan than in the country that birthed them. Not only had the Japanese discovered the American math standards…They’d taken a population of earnest but ordinary teachers and produced a country full of Magdalene Lamperts.”

And: “The Americans produced wonderful intellectual work on what teaching could look like, but they had failed to implement any of it.”

The reasons U.S. education reformers failed to adopt their own best teachings recall the experience of U.S. industry, which came to be clobbered by the Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s after they embraced quality ideas long neglected by American companies. American education-reformers established goals and standards (management-by-objective in biz-school parlance) and tests (accountability) but they didn’t develop the systems and tools for helping teachers achieve those goals. By contrast, Green tells us that Japanese educators pursued a continuous improvement philosophy called jugyokenkyu or “lesson study” that was the educational counterpart to Japanese industry’s kaizen, which is all about developing the training, mindset and processes for the continuous improvement culture that, for years, made Toyota the world’s leading auto manufacturer.

This is how Green describes jugyokenkyu: “(A) bucket of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft, from observing each other at work to discussing the lesson afterward to studying curriculum materials with colleagues.” Japanese teachers were good, not because they had been born that way. Rather, studying how to teach was part of their every-day job, putting their work under a microscope and working collaboratively with colleagues to constantly improve their practice.

“The truth is, with teaching 10 percent of it is the technology or the idea or the innovation,” Green quotes James Stigler, a UCLA professor who has devoted his career to studying and improving classroom teaching. “Ninety percent of it is figuring out how to actually make it work to achieve our goals for students. American ideas might have taken the Japanese 10 percent of the way there, but Japanese jugyokenkyu had done the rest.”

The parallels to American industry and its failure to adopt the homegrown ideas that would transform Japan are striking. Ignored at home, Deming’s theories on quality improvement laid the foundation for Japanese kaizen, and soon companies like Toyota were beating U.S. competitors with superior quality products and services. By the 1980s, U.S. companies had rediscovered Deming, and a few successfully adapted his ideas. But many others who sought to replicate Toyota’s production techniques failed because they saw only the most visible manifestations of kaizen—the statistical tools that were used to analyze process quality or the “andon” cords that allowed production workers to stop the line when they sensed a problem.

U.S. companies either misunderstood, or rejected, the underlying philosophy that informed kaizen, especially its repudiation of the command-and-control methods at the heart of American management. Command-and-control has been a cornerstone of American business culture for over a century, ever since Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management experiments sought to deskill work and workers.

By contrast, Deming argued that long-term improvement could only be achieved by enlisting the knowledge and creativity of every employee in an organization. Deming’s work was built on two interwoven ideas both of which were informed by statistical theory. First, a system cannot be improved unless it is in control, i.e. stable and predictable (Predictable doesn’t mean perfect; it just means that you can anticipate, say, a 10 percent defect rate.) Second, once a system is in control, it is only those closest to a given process—in the case of a classroom, the teachers and the students—who are in the best position to identify opportunities for improvement, assuming they have been given the tools and training to do so.

However, because only senior management can control key factors needed for systemic change—everything from organizational culture to the way supplies and technology are purchased—the responsibility for improvement ultimately rests with senior management. The biggest problem with American quality wasn’t the worker or the union, Deming invariably intoned in his basso profundo, “The problem is management!”



Via kaizen, Japan created an organizational culture that made improvement a priority and that both welcomed employee ideas and acted on them. Employees receive special training and learn to use statistical tools in combination with their specialized knowledge of a given process—as well as their intuition—to develop creative improvement ideas. Throughout there is constant collaboration, process improvement and iterative learning.

So, how can American’s reclaim lesson study and similar grass-roots improvement efforts? Don’t look to traditional university based schools of education, says Green, because these have “marginalized” the practice-aspect of teaching. Green notes that when Lampert, one of her heroines, went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, only one class in the course catalogue included the word “teaching.”

What’s needed, Green writes, is a better infrastructure for teacher education. One solution might be a return to the residency type lab schools, like Spartan Village or the old normal-school model. A good idea although, as she noted during our phone conversation, residency programs are expensive and the work they do is time-consuming, and both U.S. culture and policymaking favor quick-fixes.

Less credible is Green’s assertion that the charter movement has taken up an approach akin to “lesson study” and that it might help provide part of the much-needed infrastructure for teacher improvement. She devotes a surprisingly large chunk of her book to Doug Lemov, the managing director of Uncommon Schools, a charter chain, and author of best-selling books that have become the gospel of the no-excuses behavioralist approach embraced by most charter schools. This approach holds that what disadvantaged kids need more than anything is strict discipline, even if it sometimes verges on being “punishing, even cruel.” Lemov also holds an MBA from Harvard where he focused on studying accountability systems and once served as chief of accountability at the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute.

Green tells us that Lemov eventually embraced Japanese lesson study. “Imagining the educational equivalent of an efficient and responsive assembly line, Doug and his colleagues did not quite reinvent lesson study. But they came close, holding standing meetings on the minute details of the homework system and devising schedules to enable teachers to make regular visits to each others classrooms.”

Skeptics alert: the assembly line is an artifact of command-and-control Taylorism, NOT of employee-driven continuous improvement efforts.

Green acknowledges that Lemov 2.0 has “learned some of the most important teaching lessons the hard way, and he’d done so, he knew all too well, on the backs of some children. (Indeed, he not only rejected many of his own early practices; he rejected the ‘no excuses’ label altogether.)”

Whatever Lemov has learned, my experience in New Orleans, the chief laboratory of education reform, where Lemov’s books grace every entrepreneur’s book shelf, suggests that the no-excuses model is still used as much to help inexperienced teachers manage a classroom as it is to help kids learn. It is in New Orleans that education reformers fired unionized mostly African-American teachers (illegally, according to a recent court ruling) and replaced them with an army of inexperienced college graduates who had just five weeks of training from Teach for America. According to the latest published figures, 42 percent of the teachers in the city’s non-selective schools have less than three years of experience, 22 percent have less than one year of experience. **

Long-touted as a miracle of educational entrepreneurship, New Orleans, where virtually 100 percent of public schools have been converted to charters, has fallen short. The typical charter school in New Orleans, “is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids,” says Anthony Recasner, one of the few African-American charter-school pioneers in New Orleans.

Although Green suggests that the best charter schools are focused on teacher improvement and training, schools in places like New Orleans are caught in the accountability trap that is now the centerpiece of American education policy. New Orleans schools, for example, are graded largely based on standardized test scores. They not only compete for scarce funding from venture philanthropists based on those scores, but risk being closed down if they do not keep their test scores and school grades up. The result has been curricula focused on test-prep and a system that offers few incentives for schools to serve the neediest kids while penalizing the ones that do.

The accountability movement itself owes much to Eric Hanushek, an economist and another key figure in Green’s book. Hanushek popularized value-added measurement of teachers—the idea that you can use test scores to measure the contribution every teacher makes to a child’s learning. Among those taken with Hanushek’s research, Green tells us, is Bill Gates who once said: “If the entire U.S., for two years, had top quartile teachers, the entire difference between us and Asia would go away. Within four years we would be blowing everyone in the world away…All you need are those top quartile teachers.”

By 2009, accountability in the form of government-mandated outcomes-linked teacher evaluations had been enshrined into law via the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, a zero-sum game in which some schools win extra money if they promise to meet certain Federal requirements—chief among them punitive teacher evaluations linked to student growth on test scores.

The problems with this outcomes-oriented approach are manifold. For one thing, driven by federal mandates and venture philanthropists who equate education quality with high “value-added” test scores, states put in place complicated testing regimes before they had developed training and curriculum materials for teachers. In other words, they set kids and teachers up to fail. Some schools and districts responded by cheating.
Even without cheating, a new DOE study shows the evaluation systems haven’t been working well.

While Green’s narrative suggests that accountability at the expense of better teacher training and lesson study is a mistake, she is reluctant to criticize either Hanushek or the privatization movement, which was built on the up-or-out accountability movement. Of Hanushek she writes:

“He had not studied education’s vast middle. ‘The black box of the production process,’ he callied it. That is, classroom teaching and learning. He looked at teachers’ effects, but not at their work—at teachers, but not at teaching.

“Hanushek made the observation as an aside, but the decision to overlook teaching’s ‘black box’ would prove just as influential as his ‘value-added’ innovation.”

Of course, it’s possible to pursue both continuous improvement and a well-thought out system of accountability (though a thoughtful accountability system would be very different from the standardized testing regimes currently imposed by many states.) Green suggests that organizations like KIPP have gotten the balance between accountability and teacher training right. She even invokes one of KIPP’s superstar math teachers, Joe Negron, who returned to the classroom after serving as the founding principal of KIPP Infinity in New York City, to underscore the idea that even the best teachers need—and want—more training. Green writes of Negron: “Every night he stayed up late reworking his lesson plans from scratch. What he needed was guidance. Help. A coach.”

But charter schools like KIPP Infinity are an exception—something that Green doesn’t acknowledge in her book. (KIPP Infinity also avoids hiring first-year teachers and has experimented with shorter hours to retain teachers.) In our phone conversation, Green also argued that TFA exemplifies the commitment of educational entrepreneurs to teacher training, noting TFA’s newly announced plans to provide a year of up-front training for some of its new recruits. But by defending even the most “disruptive” entrepreneurs, and downplaying the role that organizations like TFA have played in undervaluing career teachers and teaching experience, Green risks undermining her own argument.

It’s noteworthy that Green makes no mention whatsoever of another high-profile teacher-training effort founded and embraced by the education “entrepreneurs,” the Relay Graduate School of Education, a non-university based graduate teaching program. Not only was it established by three leading no-excuses charter-school chains, presumably to solve the teaching “infrastructure” problem Green is writing about, but as she noted in a 2011 article about Relay, the school itself is built on an accountability model that makes “proven student learning gains a requirement of receiving a Master’s degree.” To graduate, students must prove that their students can make “at least a year’s worth of academic progress. Carol Burris, a respected New York State principal wrote this critique of Relay in 2012:

Both Relay and TFA’s new yearlong teacher-training pilot probably grow out of the recognition that there simply aren’t enough superstar ivy leaguers to fill openings in large urban school districts. They may also represent tacit acknowledgement that the promise of charter schools far outshining public schools has yet to materialize. Steven F. Wilson, in a paper for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, writes that Matt Candler, former vice president of school development for KIPP, addressing an audience of charter enthusiasts at a fall 2007 conference at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, figured that at most, 200 schools nationwide are truly excellent.” Two hundred. Out of what was then just over 4,000 charter schools. “Some of the movement’s most prominent leaders have begun to voice their own concerns—even their exasperation—with the indifferent results of many, if not most, charter schools,” writes Wilson.

Green might have made her argument more strongly if she had focused on a broader range of schools that have—despite the vicissitudes of Federal and state mandates—succeeded in pursuing that illusive goal of educational “coherence” and real long-term improvement. Readers of this blog will be familiar with Brockton High, the largest, once-failing high school in Massachusetts, which used an iterative approach to improving literacy—a strategy it has continued to refine over the last 15 years—to achieve an extraordinary turnaround. As in Japanese “lesson study” or kaizen, the effort was led by teachers, many of whom have taught at the school for over 20 years, including during the years when Brockton was failing. What changed at Brockton was not the teachers, but a strategic focus on teacher-led improvement.

By contrast, Green’s principle narrative example, Spartan Village, did not fare as well. The school’s principal had been able to make accommodations with the unions to build in more time for lesson-study-like teacher meetings. (Indeed, at no point does Green identify the union as a serious structural impediment to the work Spartan Village was doing or to lesson study.) But it was the outside forces that threatened the experiment’s sustainability. “Each time a new superintendent arrived,” Green explains, the principal had to “defend the Spartan Village exceptions. Every time budgets few tight, the school board always seemed to turn to Spartan Village. Did the training school across the tracks really need to exist?”

Green correctly identifies the need for a better infrastructure for more effective teacher training and teacher-led continuous improvement. But, first, the education establishment will have to abandon the fight-to-the-death now playing itself out between charters and publics. And it will need to develop public policies that, instead of imposing ever more top-down mandates, foster grassroots improvement efforts; education “entrepreneurs,” policy makers will learn, can be found in traditional public schools as well as charters. The future of American education depends on encouraging grassroots improvement everywhere.
** In a feat of pro-charter legerdemain, the Cowen Institute’s most recent 2013 study masks the high number of inexperienced teachers at the charter schools that teach the neediest children. The 2012 and 2013 reports use exactly the same data published by the State of Louisiana for the 2010-2011 school year. Yet, the 2013 report, conflates the data for the schools run by all three authorizers—the very large Recovery School District, which educates the vast majority of kids, including the neediest; the much smaller Orleans Parish School Board, which educates the most affluent; and the tiny Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which operates only a handful of schools—to show that just 38 percent of its teachers have less than three years of experience. By contrast, the 2012 report shows that 42 percent of the teachers at non-selective RSD schools had less than three years of experience compared to just 28 percent at the selective OPSB schools. At BESE, which operated just five schools in the 2010-2011 school year, 60 percent of teachers had less than three years experience.

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7 Responses to Building A Better Teacher: Some Hard Lessons of Ed Reform

  1. Pingback: Andrea Gabor On Elizabeth Green’s New Book on Teaching | Diane Ravitch's blog

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  4. Brilliant essay. I too see the reticent of once-independent journalist to fully critique the M.O. of the current reform regime. Teachers need to be able to both teach in schools as they are today as well as transform them into what they must be for kids. Schools filled with itinerant teachers, with modest technical training, will not cut it for the kinds of teaching and learned our public schools demand.

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