That’s exactly right, and it’s partly why I shifted my views of the relative importance of education and health. One of last year’s smartest books was “The Race Between Education and Technology,” by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, both Harvard professors. They offer a wealth of evidence to argue that America became the world’s leading nation largely because of its emphasis on mass education at a time when other countries educated only elites (often, only male elites).
They show that America’s educational edge created prosperity and equality alike — but that this edge was eclipsed in about the 1970s, and since then one country after another has surpassed us in education.
Perhaps we should have fought the “war on poverty” with schools — or, as we’ll see in a moment, with teachers.
Read on. He points out what I picked up in a New Yorker article several months ago, that a new teacher's effectiveness is not correlated at all with his or her background in education, or SAT scores.
The article in the New Yorker, written by niche-dweller Malcolm Gladwell, focused on a kind of teachiness, to coin a phrase. It's the ability of a teacher to work a room. We don't seem to do enough in this country to aggregate resources to discover potential teachers with a sixth sense for teaching. Nor do we seem to reward them enough to keep them interested in teaching as an economic choice.
The article is called "Most Likely to Succeed.". The commentary about teachers not being paid enough is mine, but his reporting did remind me of what makes teaching satisfying. It's the ability to read students, to focus on their learning minds and to craft a space in the room that allows any kind of mind to grapple with an abstract idea and produce a cerebral result. For me, it was about giving students abstract tools with which they could build an abstract platform, upon which they could launch into other ideascapes.
After thirty seconds, the leader of the group—Bob Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education—stops the tape. He points to two little girls on the right side of the circle. They are unusually active, leaning into the circle and reaching out to touch the book.
“What I’m struck by is how lively the affect is in this room,” Pianta said. “One of the things the teacher is doing is creating a holding space for that. And what distinguishes her from other teachers is that she flexibly allows the kids to move and point to the book. She’s not rigidly forcing the kids to sit back.”
Pianta’s team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is “regard for student perspective”; that is, a teacher’s knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom. Pianta stopped and rewound the tape twice, until what the teacher had managed to achieve became plain: the children were active, but somehow the class hadn’t become a free-for-all.
“A lesser teacher would have responded to the kids’ leaning over as misbehavior,” Pianta went on. “ ‘We can’t do this right now. You need to be sitting still.’ She would have turned this off.”
Bridget Hamre, one of Pianta’s colleagues, chimed in: “These are three- and four-year-olds. At this age, when kids show their engagement it’s not like the way we show our engagement, where we look alert. They’re leaning forward and wriggling. That’s their way of doing it. And a good teacher doesn’t interpret that as bad behavior. You can see how hard it is to teach new teachers this idea, because the minute you teach them to have regard for the student’s perspective, they think you have to give up control of the classroom.”
The lesson continued. Pianta pointed out how the teacher managed to personalize the material. “ ‘C’ is for cow” turned into a short discussion of which of the kids had ever visited a farm. “Almost every time a child says something, she responds to it, which is what we describe as teacher sensitivity,” Hamre said.
The teacher then asked the children if anyone’s name began with that letter. “Calvin,” a boy named Calvin says. The teacher nods, and says, “Calvin starts with ‘C.’ ” A little girl in the middle says, “Me!” The teacher turns to her. “Your name’s Venisha. Letter ‘V.’ Venisha.”
It was a key moment. Of all the teacher elements analyzed by the Virginia group, feedback—a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student—seems to be most closely linked to academic success. Not only did the teacher catch the “Me!” amid the wiggling and tumult; she addressed it directly.
Sensitivity. But they don't pay you to be sensitive in American K12 public education. They pay you for results.