By John Morton
The appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has intensified passions on both sides of the school-choice debate. Lost in the politics of this debate is the idea that school reform ultimately depends on improving instruction. I have taught for 50 years. Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I think I’m teaching. My experience tells me that academic and social advancement comes down to a teacher and a student in a classroom. So what makes a great teacher?
- What teachers know and can do is the most important influence on what students learn.
- Recruiting, preparing, and retaining good teachers is the central strategy for improving our schools.
- School reform cannot succeed unless it focuses on creating the conditions under which teachers can teach and teach well.
Nothing has changed since then. We need to identify, recruit, and retain good teachers and encourage the bad ones to find another way to make a living.
How can we spot great teachers? In a September 4, 2014, op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (available at wsj.com and danagoldstein.com), Dana Goldstein made at good start at describing the qualities that make a teacher great. The next part of this essay will consist of her points followed by my thoughts on the issues.
- “Great teachers have intellectual lives outside the classroom. Economists have discovered that teachers with high SAT scores or perfect college GPAs are generally no better for their students than teachers with less impressive credentials. But teachers with large vocabularies are better at their jobs because this trait is associated with being intelligent, well-read and curious.”
Great teachers love the subjects they teach and know how to communicate their subject matter in a way that students understand. It always irks me to hear a teacher say, “I teach kids, not a subject.”
- “Great teachers believe intelligence is achievable, not inborn. Effective educators reject the idea that smarts are something that only some students have: they expect all children to perform at high levels, even those who are unruly, learning disabled or struggling with English.”
A great teacher views every student as a unique human being, not as a member of a race, ethnic group, or economic or social class. Great teachers go way beyond offering students sympathy and do not use victimization as an excuse for lack of achievement. Teachers who constantly complain about their students in the teachers’ lounge should look for another job.
- “Great teachers are data-driven. Effective teachers assess students at the beginning of new units to identify their strengths and weaknesses, then quiz students again when units end to determine whether concepts and skills have sunk in.”
I would go further. Students should be assessed every week. Students and their parents should know exactly how grades are determined, and the grading system should be quantified. Students (and their parents) should know where they stand in relation to the class and in relation to their course grade.
- “Great teachers ask great questions. According to the scholar John Hattie, when teachers focus lessons on concepts that are broader than those on multiple-choice tests, children’s scores on higher-level assessments--like those that require writing--increase.”
Good questions test for conceptual understanding, not factual definitions. For example, students learn little useful information if they can only identify that the equilibrium price and quantity are where supply equals demand. Conceptual questions are why this happens and what forces might prevent this from happening? Great teachers focus first on the facts but then put those facts in a conceptual framework. Great teaching involves asking why several times during a class period and constantly asking students to back up their opinions.
In addition to Ms. Goldstein’s four attributes of a great teacher, I will offer two more.
- Great teachers use active-learning methods. Students in the class of a great teacher are actively engaged. A teacher mumbling over 50 PowerPoint slides doesn’t cut it. Activity-based learning challenges students to take responsibility for their learning. The students are doing, not just hearing and seeing. A great teacher uses simulations, group decision-making, problem-solving, classroom demonstrations, role-playing activities, and group presentations.
- Great teachers promote mutual respect and create a civil mini-society in their classroom. They show respect for their students by valuing their opinions, being knowledgeable about their subject, being prepared for class, refraining from comments that might demean students, and demanding that students respect other students and teachers. Great teachers value freedom of speech and encourage debate of ideas.
Now that I’ve finished the rant I’ve wanted to write for several years, I must admit it comes with caveats. Teachers and their unions have been among the worst enemies of educational reform. They spend millions on lobbying to protect their members and prevent competition to public school monopolies. Students become foils in this political game. As Al Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, once said, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” This discourages many fine teachers who deeply believe that teaching matters. Today’s highly politicized educational environment has created Gresham’s Law of teaching: “Bad teachers drive out good teachers.”
[John Morton has a long and distinguished career teaching economics and training teachers how to teach economics. If John says it, it is probably true! --JW ]