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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/29/2012

The mistake policymakers make about teaching

This was written by Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His latest book is “As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin.” This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

As a result of inhabiting a different world than teachers, policymakers make a consequential error. They and a cadre of influentials confuse teacher quality with teaching quality, that is, the personal traits of teachers — dedicated, caring, gregarious, intellectually curious — produce student learning rather than the classroom and school settings.

Both are important, of course, but policymakers and their influential camp followers have accentuated personal traits far more than the organizational and social context in which teachers teach daily. So if students score low on tests, then who the teachers are, their personal traits, credentials, and attitudes come under close scrutiny, rather than the age-graded school, neighborhood demography, workplace conditions, and resources that support teaching. The person overshadows the place.[i]

In attributing far more weight to individual teacher traits rather than seriously considering the situation in which teachers teach, policymakers and civic and business leaders end up having a cramped view of teaching quality.

Quality teaching is complex because an essential distinction is masked: the difference between “good” teaching and “successful” teaching. Both “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of quality instruction and student learning. To lead us through the thicket of complexity, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson’s analysis of quality teaching.[ii]

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching.

“Successful” teaching, however, is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the other. How can that be?

Fenstermacher and Richardson point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning.

“Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching.

In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning. In making this mistake, policymakers unintentionally snooker the public by squishing together “good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, support of family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school.

“No excuses” reformers (see above) glide over these other factors critical to learning. Current hoopla over paying teachers for their performance based on student test scores is an expression of this conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning and the ultimate deceiving of parents, voters, and students that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

Not only does this policymaker error about quality classroom instruction confuse the personal traits of the teacher with teaching, it also nurtures a heroic view of school improvement where superstars (e.g., Geoffrey Canada in “Waiting for Superman,” Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver,”, Erin Gruwell of “Freedom Writers”) labor day in and day out to get their students to ace AP Calculus tests and become accomplished writers and achieve in Harlem schools.

Neither doctors, lawyers, soldiers, nor nuclear physicists can depend upon superstars among them to get their important work done every day. Nor should all teachers have to be heroic. Policymakers attributing quality far more to individual traits in teachers than to the context in which they teach leads to squishing “good” teaching with “successful” learning doing even further collateral damage to the profession by setting up the expectation that only heroes need apply.

By stripping away from “good” learning essential factors of students’ motivation, the contexts in which they live, and the opportunities they have to learn in school–federal, state, and district policymakers inadvertently twist the links between teaching and learning into a simpleminded formula thereby mis-educating the public they serve while encouraging a generation of idealistic newcomers to become classroom heroes who end up deserting schools in wholesale numbers within a few years because they come to understand that “good” teaching does not lead automatically to “successful” learning.

Fenstermacher and Richardson help us parse “quality teaching” into distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning while revealing clearly the error that policymakers have made and continue to do so.

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[i] Mary Kennedy, “Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality,” Educational Researcher, 2010, 39(8), pp. 591-598. Earlier blog: “Great Teachers, February 28, 2010

[ii] Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson, “On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching,” Teachers College Record, 2005, 107, pp. 186-213.

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