Good Teaching and True Grit.

In our previous discussions here about how the standard of education provided in America’s public schools might be improved we keep circling back to two issues: teacher quality and effectiveness and their relationship (or non-relationship at present) to teacher tenure.  On the surface the matter is simple enough – we need teachers to be effective, and we need to be able to get rid of those who are not. However, to operationalize such a policy requires a definition of what a good or effective teacher is or does and a metric for measuring said effectiveness.  Since education occupies a somewhat romanticized space in the minds of many as a vocation, the question of what makes a teacher “good” is hotly debated.  Isn’t it just that some people are inherently better at teaching and truly great teaching is dependent on intangibles that are too difficult to quantify? Maybe not. In this month’s edition of The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley explores the work done by Teach for America in identifying the qualities of outstanding teachers.

When reduced to bullet points it doesn’t seem like rocket science. Steven Farr, a Teach for America alumnus who is now in charge of training and support found that observations of  their teachers who were able to make exceptional gains in the classroom revealed a pattern of habits and strategies common to them all:

First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

These findings affirm what many people involved in teacher training believe  – effective teaching does not come about by alchemy, it is based on concrete methods and ideas that can be taught or encouraged. But don’t be so quick to discount those fuzzy “intangibles”. They come back to bear where it comes to recruitment of suitable candidates for teacher training. How do you know which people are more likely to exhibit the tendencies of effective teachers? In the attempt to evaluate the suitability of applicants, Teach for America has tried to identify and measure qualities thought to contribute to future effectiveness such as history working in low-income areas, reflectiveness and a preference for “constant-learning”.  What was found was despite this common sense approach to recruitment there was little correlation between identifying these qualities at the recruitment stage and the results these teachers produced later. What did matter was harder to pin down: relentlessness.

What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers. Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in TheJournal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer. (Grit also predicts retention of cadets at West Point, Duckworth has found.)

Surprisingly an even more subjective quality than “grit” also has a great impact on teacher effectiveness

Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.

So how does all of this impact teacher tenure?  In the article Ripley asserts that school systems would benefit from the Teach for America model of hiring, training and rewarding teachers. Indeed,  yet another Teach for America alum, Jason Kamras, has developed a system of evaluation that will be used to with all faculty and staff in Washington D.C. schools starting this year.

Each will receive a score, just like the students, at the end of the year. For teachers whose students take standardized tests, (…) half their score will be based on how much their students improved. The rest will be based largely on five observation sessions conducted throughout the year by their principal, assistant principal, and a group of master educators. Throughout the year, teachers will receive customized training. At year’s end, teachers who score below a certain threshold could be fired.

While none of this seems wildly off base the premise does begs few questions. Teach for America teachers represent less than 2% of the teachers in the United States. By their own reckoning they draw from a pretty unusual pool of talent. The prestige attached to the program prompts some 35,000 applicants, chiefly from Ivy League universities, to vie for just over 4000 positions each year. The basic commitment is just two years and it looks very nice on a resume. This observation may not warrant the cynical generalization that all Teach for America applicants are in it for less than altruistic reasons, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t matter. Teach for America has the highly desirable extrinsic benefit of its cachet and the opportunities it affords alumni. What would be the rewards for the nearly 4 million teachers who enter the profession by more common routes and are then evaluated according to the Teach for America tenets? Aside from the threat of unemployment if they don’t deliver , and the career development benefits of customized training, where are the tangible rewards of remaining effective? If they will not be rewarded in the form of tenure, then there must be some other form of compensation.

It’s worth noting here that the push to end teacher tenure and the call for increased teacher accountability is not occurring in a vacuum. The desire to qualify for the funding available through Arne Duncan’s Race To The Top program cannot be discounted.  There are lots of reasons that states are now reconsidering teacher effectiveness and tenure – 4.3 billion dollars worth. The motivation of money in education is something that often goes unspoken for a variety of reasons, but it is real. Not only for states and school districts but individual teachers. Even if teacher tenure is vastly modified and we place a greater emphasis on teacher accountability a familiar issue will remain that both predates and underscores these concerns. How do we drive more talent into teaching and encourage them to maintain drive and momentum if they are not regarded and paid on a professional scale?

  • I think the extrinsic reward that you pointed out… that’s really the key.

    I agree that real improvement will come by trying to develop hero teachers who relentlessly drive for success at all costs. It’s just unsustainable for the majority over the lifetime of their career. We need to increase standards for everyone, while at the same time, increasing extrinsic reward (pay them a lot more).

    Take dentists as professionals, for example. We (the general public) don’t expect dentists to be relentless and heroic. We just expect them to do a good job. We have reasonable faith that there are only a few really bad dentists out there, and there are mechanisms in place to kick them out of the profession. And dentists’ degree of job satisfaction is not something we agonize over, because we know they’re paid fairly well.

    • Paid extremely well, it seems for a lot of them.

    • Plus, dentists repeatedly come up on the lists of occupations with high suicide rates.

  • The best teachers are usually the ones who wanted to teach in the first place, instead of looking at teaching as a good gig to have until their __________ career takes off.

    The problem with that outlook on the job is if your ________ career never catches fire, people end up feeling “stuck” in teaching, not satisfied, and resentful of students and parents who call ’em on their less than stellar efforts in the classroom. I’ve seen it often here in LA. Everyone wants to be in show business, and teaching is one of those “gigs” like waiting tables that entertainment wanna bees with degrees and emergency credentials do until that script sells, writing job pans out, or the casting director calls back.

  • Oops, meant to write, “I agree that real improvement will NOT come by trying to develop hero teachers who relentlessly drive for success at all costs.”

  • Ajua

    Teach for America is the devils organization as far as I’m concerned…I’m being dramatic, but I do actually hate them as an organization. I’m therefore reallllllly skeptical of any research and data they produce.

    • now you gotta explain why.

    • Really hope you elaborate Ajua. I’m about 12-18 months away from career changing to be a school teacher in as bad a school as the one I went to H.S in. TFA is my planned entry point.

      • R.A.B.

        I’ve got friends with all sorts of TFA horror stories (about the organization management and about the teaching experiences themselves), but I also have lots of friends who seem to be thriving within the matrix. It’s going to be hard to make a decision like that by anecdote.

        • Yea, I’ve made the decision already but more information is always better. I know people who have been through TFA and have had great experiences. I’ve also heard some negative things but those have been aimed more at the revolving door aspect that you describe below, nothing earth shattering. The devil’s organization is a new one for me though.

  • R.A.B.

    You know what I’ve never gotten about TFA? Turnover; it’s a two-year commitment from kids who, whether they’re good at it or not, often aren’t primarily interested in teaching. From their perspective, so what. From the students’ perspective, though, it kind of sucks that their schools become revolving doors of teachers who are only hitting their stride on their way back out the door. From an ed observer perspective, isn’t the premise simply inefficient?

  • R.A.B.

    Maybe the whole point is that systems would retain a lot more of those teachers if their hiring/pay/tenure standards were a lot more competitive, but I doubt the extent given the high life standards of the applicant pool from which TFA recruits.

  • “When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.”

    In academia we call this “reflective practice.” (See Don Schon’s work.)

    I think teachers should be paid a lot more, along the scale of nurses – another indispensable career to society that pays pretty well. But I also think preventing burnout is essential for teachers; when I think about academia, the pause I have is how do I stay engaged if I have to teach the same thing year in and year out. I know very little about education from a policy perspective, but with the growth of standardized testing I’d assume there’s a corresponding lack of flexibility with curriculum development? Certainly at the secondary school level too, I’d imagine; everyone needs to learn some essential math, reading, etc. and there seems to me an inherent contradiction in looking for continuously motivated and innovative folks to grind out the same information for 30 years. Yes, having control over one’s own classroom gives a person some autonomy and freedom to be creative, etc., but are there things built into the educational system/teaching profession that allow teachers to rest, reflect and reinvent over their careers? Maybe sabbaticals, conferences, etc. are enough, but it seems there also need to be a real commitment to continuous professional development, not just better pay and reward.

    • R.A.B.

      But why not? Atlasien said it best: we don’t agonize over the monotony of dentistry because we understand the dentists, unlike many teachers, generally make good money. So really, isn’t it about the reward?

      • Dentists don’t have the same impact on people’s lives. Think about well paid cops who just phone it in, or fat cat professors who really don’t add much value. I think when you’re educating a person being fully engaged is essential and an enormous paycheck isn’t always an absolute motivator to a job well done. Don’t we see that on Wall Street?

        • A good dentist can save you from agonizing pain, and a bad dentist can kill you, so I think they have a pretty big impact on people’s lives. I’m just using them as a positive comparison because they’re a) rewarded well and b) have high standards.

          Wall Street investment bankers have high standards too. It’s just that the goal to which those standards are applied is really problematic. They’re judged at how well they make a lot of money in the short-term, even though the methods they use to make that money are often really bad for society in the long term.

          Police are a good comparison to teachers… we’re OK with giving police low salaries because their job satisfaction is supposed to make up for the low salary. That’s a terrible idea. It means a lot of people become police just because they get excited about bossing people around and beating them up. I’m sure some join because they want to help people, but plenty join for the wrong job satisfaction reasons. If we pay police too little money, then they have to get extra jobs and work ridiculous hours which makes the good ones burn out and makes the bad ones start being corrupt.

          There’s a whole group of low-pay, supposedly-high-satisfaction jobs out there… policing, social work, teaching. But they all have in common a high burnout rate and serious standards issues. I think a lot of them are gendered, too. We expect social workers to have high job satisfaction because they’re almost all women and women are supposed to have a deep drive to be caregivers. And men are supposed to have a deep drive to carry guns and do dangerous things.

          I’ve heard a lot of positive things about TFA teachers. They’re a great bandaid but they’re not going to fix the disease. Things aren’t going to get better until we get to a place where we can stop expecting teachers to be heroes… when a regular run-of-the-mill kind-of-mediocre teacher can still be relied on to do a good job. There’ll still be a minority of awesome teachers, but the majority will be more stable.

          • I’m not arguing against higher pay. I begin my comment by saying I think it’s key. What I’m saying, and I’m thinking about it from the point of potentially becoming an educator, is that I think focusing solely on pay isn’t enough. If I go to teach full-time, I want to know that the system I’m joining is invested in my continual professional growth. On top of a high salary that recognizes the societal value of teaching.

            (Btw, of course dentists matter. And good oral care remains a luxury for too many, AFAIC. But I still think the potential impact of a teacher on a person’s life is of orders of magnitude greater than a dentist.)

            I’m mostly speaking from personal experience/perspective, but I feel that maybe I’m off topic anyway. But I think talking about higher pay means suggests we want to recognize the worth of teaching and if that’s the case, then surely we want to create an overall professional environment that fosters “relentlessness”, creativity, etc.? And that necessitates more than just large checks, but additional recognition of and commitment to the work teachers do.

  • The huge elephant in the room is that the “relentlessness” and “grit” that the article praises has a serious flip side: burnout. “Refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls” is a great strategy for the short term, and doubtless for a very few heroic individuals it’s maintainable over the course of a career, but realistically the problems teachers have to deal with–including constant public criticism about how most of them are bad at their jobs–are like a blueprint for high stress, frequent burnout, and rapid turnover. I suspect it’s significant that Teach for America hires mostly very young people and that most of them teach for a couple of years only before going on to another career. Usually one where they get a lot of praise for what they do well, and for which they’re probably paid a lot more and have a lot more control over how they do their jobs.

    • Yes, a point I was trying to make, more convolutedly, I think.

    • Alisa

      All of this, basically.
      By the time I was finished with this I was kind of tired and struggling for how to put it but I was thinking that supplies of “grit” are not inexhaustible. In the piece there was a comparison between a TFA teacher who had been in the classroom for 3 years and another who was 23 years deep and it was implied that she wasn’t doing as good of a job because she had given up. I thought that was pretty unfair – teaching is hard and we don’t know what she has been through. Her $80,000 salary was cited as if it should be enough to keep her going, but there’s so much we don’t know there.

      Also, while I was writing this a friend of mine who teaches mentioned something that I want to explore a bit further concerning TFA. He was saying that lot of people go from TFA to wanting to work admin or policy jobs. For reasons that are in the post and comments thread TFA fellows are atypical and may have atypical teaching experiences, but then that’s the experience they are using to inform the jobs they go on to do afterward. That could be dangerous.

  • R.A.B.

    I think all of Alisa’s most recent reply and the last two sentences of bitchphd’s most recent reply effectively sum up all that I wanted to say.

  • Nate

    I’ve taught for the last seven years in a big public high school, and now I’m taking the second semester off on parental leave to stay home with my infant daughter. But I’m also at home because I’m totally burned out. Teaching 150 kids means a ton of time spent planning creative yet diligent lessons, as well as a ton of time grading and following up with students who are falling behind. All this is done outside of the school day, when you are actually teaching.

    Understandably, during their first 3-5 years a lot of teachers start out spending extra hours at school and then at home to do a good job in areas like planning and grading, but over time they lose the fire and spend less time on these things. I know I have lost the fire I had five years ago, and it’s probably made me a less effective teacher.

    But I don’t see a way out of it. There are some superstar teachers who can do it, but for most people maintaining the grit inevitably consumes more of your personal and family time that you are willing to sacrifice. And so over the years you stop bring work home, and you don’t hand out your cell phone number to students, you use last year’s lesson plans instead of designing a whole new unit.

    I’m not saying it’s right, but it is what happens.

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