What DOES Effective Teaching Look Like?

I’ve spent a bunch of time recently engaged in webinars with a bunch of brilliant members of the Teacher Leaders Network who have been providing feedback to the Department of Education on all kinds of education policies. 

One question that keeps coming up again and again is:

What does effective teaching look like? How would an outside observer know if he/she were in an effective teacher’s classroom?

The problem with this question is that education's stakeholders—parents, policymakers, business owners, students, teachers, community leaders, public interest groups—all have different expectations for our schools.

"Effective teaching" to a policymaker—especially in today's accountability culture—is defined by results on standardized tests.  That requires nothing more from me than a strict adherence to a scripted curriculum and drill-and-kill lessons emphasizing memorization of the kinds of basic facts that we are currently testing.

"Effective teaching" to a parent is more balanced.  While it would certainly include a measure of focus on basic skills and abilities, it would also leave students inspired to wonder and prepared for the world of work.  It would focus on the development of the habits that make people successful—things like organization and work completion—instead of a singular focus on narrow curricula.

"Effective teaching" to a community leader would leave students prepared to participate in a democracy.  Students would study the kinds of moral questions that members of communities are forced to answer.  They'd develop positions on things like taxation, welfare and social justice.  They’d think through the role that governments should play in the lives of people. 

"Effective teaching" to a business owner is even more complicated.  Business owners working in knowledge-driven fields would be less interested in content mastery and more interested in seeing students develop the skills necessary to collaborate with colleagues and to think innovatively across domains.  Business owners working in the skilled trades would be more interested in seeing students develop basic competencies and skills.

Now can you understand why I'm so discouraged by the reform efforts in our country. 

Clearly—if we're going to meet every expectation that education's varied stakeholders have for our schools—we're going to need to redesign teaching significantly.  It's going to cost us a ton—both in human capital and in dollars and cents. 

But because our society isn't ready to make this investment, we'll never make every stakeholder group happy and we'll always be buried under criticism from someone who isn’t satisfied with our work towards THEIR priorities.

What I'd like is for all of education's stakeholders to agree on what they think effective teaching looks like.  Make clear and manageable decisions—based on the resources you are willing to invest—about what exactly you want schools to be responsible for.

Give me one target to shoot for and I'll hit it every time.  Give me a dozen targets and one arrow, and I'm screwed.

10 comments

  1. Parry

    Bill,
    You repeated your original assertion that stakeholders have no clear definition of what good teaching looks like, and you argue that “If communities could craft their own reasonable definitions, wouldn’t we have a better chance of creating systems where good teaching was easier to identify and to replicate?”
    I believe we do, in fact, have a community definition. Each state has a defined set of standards, or has adopted the new Common Core standards: teaching those standards is what society has deemed to be the primary goal of teachers. One can argue that the standards are too many, too few, not right, or absolutely perfect, but the fact remains that public school teachers are public employees, and stakeholders/communities—through their elected and appointed public officials—have defined a set of knowledge and skills that students should acquire. I think that is as close as you’re going to get to any kind of stakeholder definition of what teachers should be teaching towards, and therefore, at its simplest level, effective teaching means first and foremost getting students to successfully acquire that knowledge and set of skills.
    You can make a strong argument (which you have in previous posts) that standardized tests are imperfect measures of students’ mastery of that knowledge and set of skills, that standardized tests only measure a fraction of the standards, and that individual student test scores can vary tremendously from one iteration of a test to the next. But right now, as imperfect as they may be, standardized test scores represent the only semi-objective, large-scale, comparable measures of student learning we have at district and state levels (at least, that I’m aware of).
    I agree with C’s point that simply trying to quantify proficiency, and using proficiency levels as proxies for teaching effectiveness, is highly problematic. Some kids come ready to pass the test before they’ve been taught a thing, some kids aren’t going to pass that year’s test no matter how effective the teacher is. That is why I am a big fan of looking at growth, and not proficiency as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Effective teachers may not get every kid to clear the bar, but they get every (or at least most) of their students to jump significantly higher by the end of the year than they did at the beginning of the year.
    For me, the bottom line is that you are never going to get perfect clarity and agreement around exactly what knowledge and skills kids should master in school, but a state’s standards are the closest approximation we’ve got (which is not to say that we shouldn’t be working to improve states’ standards). Standardized tests only measure a fraction of the written curriculum, they fail to measure a lot of complex skills and habits, and they are only used in a few subjects, but they are still the closest approximation we have on a large scale for what students are learning (which is not to say that we shouldn’t be working to improve standardized tests, and is further not to say that standardized tests should be the only—or even primary—measure of student learning).
    Parry

  2. C

    If you watch The Simpsons, you may recall an episode called “You Only Move Twice” where the family is relocated and Bart and Lisa get to attend a new and presumably better school. When the teacher realizes Bart cannot read cursive writing he is placed in a remedial group. After the class begins, he asks the obvious question: “Wait, so you’re telling me we are going to catch up by going slower?” Good question.
    Parry wrote: An effective teacher is defined first and foremost by his/her ability to get all of his/her students to master the subject-area content and skills defined in a state’s and district’s curriculum standards. Take away the disparities between what various stakeholders want and expect, and take away the enormity of the curriculum, and you still have an impossible situation. How can an effective teacher get all students to master grade level content when some are clearly less prepared to master the content than others? There is a fallacy to this logic. As Bart so poignantly asked, how can we catch up by going slower? Shy of a complete brain transplant, how can a child grow 3-4 grade levels in a single year? Using this definition, I would be hard pressed to find an effective teacher…anywhere. If there is one, I would love to observe him or her! Maybe there is a secret to teaching I don’t know about.
    Bill, you make a good point that the accountability system currently in place does not measure those aspects of teaching which often distinguish a great teacher from a good teacher. I agree with you that shooting one arrow at multiple targets is almost always going to miss. Of course, there are those teachers who subscribe to their own ideology about what good teaching looks like, regardless of test scores, but again, there is no consensus or continuity for students. If we want more great teachers, we must have an accountability system in place that will promote greatness rather than mediocrity. Which leaves us with your original topic: What is great teaching? Who gets to decide? And, what happens to students in the meantime?

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Robert wrote:
    I think you really missed an opportunity to educate us with this blog entry…My recommendation is to try again. Answer the question that is important, at least attempt to answer it.
    Thanks for the feedback, Robert, but I think you missed the point of my entry completely.
    My argument is that our system struggles because our STAKEHOLDERS have no clear definition of what good teaching looks like.
    We can craft our own definitions all that we want—and if you spend any time poking through my blog, you’ll see that I’ve described my vision of good teaching about a thousand times—but our definitions are irrelevant because we serve so many different groups of stakeholders.
    And on my more radical days, I’m not even sure that educators—including the list of researchers and thinkers that you share—have the right to define what good teaching looks like.
    After all, we’re public servants. Our salaries are funded by the communities that we serve. As a result, those communities have the right to define what good teaching looks like. They are buying our services after all.
    The problem—which is spotlighted in the last two paragraphs of this entry—is that they haven’t come to any kind of consensus.
    They each hold on to their own visions and grumble when we can’t meet the marks that they’ve set for us, failing to recognize that collectively, they’re setting impossible expectations for our schools.
    Bill

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Parry wrote:
    To my mind, the real difficulty comes when you try to define what types of teacher behaviors are most likely to get students to successfully master subject-area content and skills.
    I actually think, Parry, that there are a few other problems.
    First, while you’re right that many of the skills I mention in my post are included in the standard course of study for our state, few of those skills are actually measured in any significant way—so when it comes to defining effective teaching, we have—or more accurately, report—evidence on only a few of the things that we say that we care about.
    That causes all kinds of problems when you start talking with stakeholders beyond the schoolhouse because schools can be described as failing based on nothing more than evidence of performance on a small fraction of what it is that we want our kids to learn.
    Add in the notion that we need to hold teachers accountable for performance but that we make no effort to look at accountability in areas beyond the simple measures we currently have and the accountability movement looks pretty useless, doesn’t it?
    Another problem is that the curriculum we’re asked to teach our students is too big to realistically teach in one year. Heck, Marzano’s research shows that it would take 16 years of education to get through the curriculum we expect students to master in 12 years.
    That leaves teachers in the position of having to pick and choose what they do and don’t teach—and educational thought leaders in the position of recommending that teachers identify “essential standards.”
    If we were serious about the idea that effective teachers teach the required curriculum, wouldn’t every standard be essential?
    As soon as teachers begin making those choices—emphasizing some objectives over others—we get to the point where we’re guessing at what effective teaching looks like.
    If communities could craft their own reasonable definitions, wouldn’t we have a better chance of creating systems where good teaching was easier to identify and to replicate?
    Bill

  5. Robert Ryshke

    I think you really missed an opportunity to educate us with this blog entry. What do you think good teaching looks like? By commenting on what you think different constituencies expect or want from a “good teacher,” you over generalized or stereotyped the constituency. I think good teaching can be defined by experienced, respected, and thoughtful educational thinkers in our midst. Good teaching has been defined by many educators: Charlotte Danielson; Robert Mazano; David Mallery (now deceased); Parker Palmer; and many others. Why not reference them and look for common threads? Why not draw on your experience and let us know what you think?
    You raise a good question, but don’t try to answer the important question. “what does effective teaching look like?” Sandra Curtis and I wrote a piece for the Westminster magazine that drew on the work of these thinkers, as well as interviews with Westminster students. Why not ask the constituencies you reference what they think and report back. I believe that would add significantly to the conversation.
    I disagree with those who have responded that it is a question that we can’t answer or get agreement on. Personally, I don’t think getting agreement is the end we should strive for. Qualities of good teaching do not have to be a checklist that all constituencies have constructed together. Good teaching is as much an art as it is a science. Strive to respond to the question with art and science.
    My recommendation is to try again. Answer the question that is important, at least attempt to answer it.
    Robert Ryshke
    Center for Teaching

  6. Naomi Epstein

    I believe there will never be an agreement on this topic. It is more of a questions whose “voice” or “weilding power” is stronger at a given period of time. I don’t think the swinging pendulum effect in education can be stopped in a democratic country. The teacher must take this into account when deciding on the degree in which to invest in each new demand that is passed down, not letting the pendulum stray too far away from what really works.
    In regards to “hitting the target” there is a quote that comes to mind here: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it, you will land among the stars”

  7. Parry

    Bill,
    I agree with the basic premise of your post—that there is no clear definition of what effective teaching looks like—but I don’t think that the difficulty in defining good teaching is a result of having multiple audiences/stakeholders in K-12 education.
    While I do believe that different stakeholders (policymakers, parents, school administrators, business leaders) might have slightly different flavors to their definitions, I think that just about any stakeholder would agree with this statement: An effective teacher is defined first and foremost by his/her ability to get all of his/her students to master the subject-area content and skills defined in a state’s and district’s curriculum standards.
    Many of the varying expectations you mention, such as mastery of basic skills, civic knowledge, and critical and creative thinking, are part of the K-12 curriculum standards in North Carolina, and are part of the new Common Core standards that North Carolina (and most other states) have moved to adopt. I’m not convinced there’s really that much daylight between the expectations of policy makers, parents, community leaders, and business owners for what teachers should try to accomplish.
    To my mind, the real difficulty comes when you try to define what types of teacher behaviors are most likely to get students to successfully master subject-area content and skills. In other words, to quote the title of your post, what does effective teaching look like? Is “strict adherence to a scripted curriculum and drill-and-kill lessons emphasizing memorization of basic facts” likely to help all students in a class learn successfully, or is a looser, discovery-approach to learning more effective (a false dichotomy, if you ask me)? Do effective teachers focus on student work habits, do they ask lots of big-picture questions, do they emphasize student collaboration?
    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is currently funding a national research project to look at this specific question, called Measures of Effective Teaching (http://www.gatesfoundation.org/united-states/Pages/measures-of-effective-teaching-fact-sheet.aspx). While there is some research out there on the characteristics of effective teaching, it remains a somewhat elusive and under-understood issue.
    Parry