What Kinds of Teacher Knowledge Matter Most?

James Herriott was a veterinarian who wrote very popular books about his experiences in a small town in Yorkshire, England. In his first book he described his veterinary education at the University of Edinburgh, in the 1930s. One day, he came out of class and saw an old, sway-backed horse hitched to a cart. Proud of all he was learning in his program, he decided to check out the horse. He located all of its major muscle groups, identified some old injuries, and thought what he might recommend if he were the horse’s vet. In the midst of his happy explorations and daydreaming, however, the horse unexpectedly whipped around and grabbed him by the shoulder, hoisting him two feet off the ground. Herriott was completely helpless, flailing around ineffectually to try to get free. He was also mortified by this comical predicament, which drew a crowd. Finally, the horse’s owner came running up, cursed out Herriott for disturbing his horse, and finally commanded the horse to put him down, which he did.

James Herriott learned an important lesson that day. There is a big difference between knowing things and knowing how to do things. Herriott could know absolutely everything about every aspect of equine anatomy and function. But none of this was of much help unless he also know how to manage horses in real life, not in books.

blog_9-12-19_horsecart_500x338

I was reminded of this story when I read an article in Education Week about a recent report, “What Teachers Know About the Science of Learning,” by my friend Ulrich Boser of The Learning Agency. The main point of the report was that teachers believe in a lot of long-debunked ideas, such as the concept that there are “left brain” (e.g., good at math) and “right brain” (e.g., good at art) learners. The report focused on a survey of 200 educators about these and other mistaken but widely held ideas.

If you want to be appalled, there was plenty in the report that was appalling. 77% of educators believed that “right brained” and “left brained” people exist, and that they learn differently. A whopping 97% believe that students can be categorized by their learning styles (e.g., auditory, visual, and kinesthetic), which has been soundly debunked for decades.

Because of these kinds of misconceptions, a substantial enterprise has grown up around debunking them. In many universities, it is possible to take a whole course in “neuromyths.” However, I have to admit, I have trouble getting too excited. For teachers, I wonder how much it really matters whether or not they believe in right/left brain or learning styles. Every teacher is aware of the fact that students learn differently, and have various learning strengths and difficulties. As long as teachers believe that these learning differences in no way limit student learning, then how much does it matter if they believe in right- or left-brained people? As long as teachers do not try to match their instruction with students’ supposed “learning styles,” who cares if they think learning styles exist? Whether or not you believe in learning styles, it is surely beneficial to teach using visual, auditory, and tactile methods, to all students, whatever their supposed learning styles.

Imagine for a moment that every teacher disavowed every neuromyth, and learned how brains truly functioned. Learning the truth is always a good thing. But would their students actually learn more?

What really matters is what teachers do. Give me a teacher who knows how to make content exciting and comprehensible, one who knows how to manage diverse classrooms so that students are eager to learn, self-motivated, productive, and able to work effectively with peers. Give me a teacher who models curiosity, kindness, and flexibility, one who accepts and builds on student errors, one who helps all students believe in themselves and their potential, whatever their backgrounds. If a teacher can do all of these things, do we really care if they think there are learning styles? All of the attributes of this ideal teacher can be taught, practiced, observed, and learned by ordinary teachers. Given a fixed amount of time and money to provide professional development and coaching, should we be worrying about the language teachers use to describe student diversity, or should we be working to enable teachers to use proven approaches to enhance their effectiveness?

What James Herriott learned hanging from the jaws of a draft horse is that he wished that in addition to all his science courses, someone had thought it worthwhile to teach him how to manage horse behavior. Children are a lot more forgiving than draft horses, but to succeed with them, teachers must know how to create effective environments for children and respond to their behavior in productive ways. Learning this takes outstanding, ongoing professional development and a whole career of practice. Do we truly have time for neuromyths, or even for their correction?

Reference

Boser, U. (2019). What do teachers know about the science of learning? Retrieved September 9, 2019 from https://www.the-learning-agency.com/insights/what-do-teachers-know-about-the-science-of-learning

Picture by Henry Walter, 1822 via Wellcome Library [CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Evidence For Revolution

In the 1973 movie classic “Sleeper,” Woody Allen plays a New York health food store owner who wakes up 200 years in the future, in a desolate environment.

“What happened to New York?” he asks the character played by Diane Keaton.  She replies, “It was destroyed.  Some guy named Al Shanker got hold of a nuclear weapon.”

I think every member of the American Federation of Teachers knows this line.  Firebrand educator Al Shanker, founder of the AFT, would never have hurt anyone.  But short of that, he would do whatever it took to fight for teachers’ rights, and most importantly, for the rights of students to receive a great education.  In fact, he saw that the only way for teachers to receive the respect, fair treatment, and adequate compensation they deserved, and still deserve, was to demonstrate that they had skills not possessed by the general public that could have powerful impacts on students’ learning.  Physicians are much respected and well paid because they have special knowledge of how to prevent and cure disease, and to do this they have available a vast armamentarium of drugs, devices, and procedures, all proven to work in rigorous research.

Shanker was a huge fan of evidence in education, first because evidence-based practice helps students succeed, but also because teachers using proven programs and practices show that they deserve respect and fair compensation because they have specialized knowledge backed by proven methods able to ensure the success of students.

The Revolutionary Potential of Evidence in Education

The reality is that in most school districts, especially large ones, most power resides in the central office, not in individual schools.  The district chooses textbooks, computer technology, benchmark assessments, and much more.  There are probably principals and teachers on the committees that make these decisions, but once the decisions are made, the building-level staff is supposed to fall in line and do as they are told.  When I speak to principals and teachers, they are astonished to learn that they can easily look up on www.evidenceforessa.org just about any program their district is using and find out what the evidence base for that program is.  Most of the time, the programs they have been required to use by their school administrations either have no valid evidence of effectiveness, or they have concrete evidence that they do not work.  Further, in almost all categories, effective programs or approaches do exist, and could have been selected as practical alternatives to the ones that were adopted.  Individual schools could have been allowed to choose proven programs, instead of being required to use programs they know not to be proven effective.

Perhaps schools should always be given the freedom to select and implement programs other than those mandated by the district, as long as the programs they want to implement have stronger evidence of effectiveness than the district’s programs.

blog_6-27-19_delacroix_500x391

How the Revolution Might Happen

Imagine that principals, teachers, parent activists, enlightened school board members, and others in a given district were all encouraged to use Evidence for ESSA or other reviews of evaluations of educational programs.  Imagine that many of these people just wrote letters to the editor, or letters to district leaders, letters to education reporters, or perhaps, if these are not sufficient, they might march on the district offices with placards reading something like “Use What Works” or “Our Children Deserve Proven Programs.”  Who could be against that?

One of three things might happen.  First, the district might allow individual schools to use proven programs in place of the standard programs, and encourage any school to come forward with evidence from a reliable source if its staff or leadership wants to use a proven program not already in use.  That would be a great outcome.  Second, the district leadership might start using proven programs districtwide, and working with school leaders and teachers to ensure successful implementation.  This retains the top-down structure, but it could greatly improve student outcomes.  Third, the district might ignore the protesters and the evidence, or relegate the issue to a very slow study committee, which may be the same thing.  That would be a distressing outcome, though no worse than what probably happens now in most places.  It could still be the start of a positive process, if principals, teachers, school board members, and parent activists keep up the pressure, helpfully informing the district leaders about proven programs they could select when they are considering a change.

If this process took place around the country, it could have a substantial positive impact beyond the individual districts involved, because it could scare the bejabbers out of publishers, who would immediately see that if they are going to succeed in the long run, they need to design programs that will likely work in rigorous evaluations, and then market them based on real evidence.  That would be revolutionary indeed.  Until the publishers get firmly on board, the evidence movement is just tapping at the foundations of a giant fortress with a few ball peen hammers.  But there will come a day when that fortress will fall, and all will be beautiful. It will not require a nuclear weapon, just a lot of committed and courageous educators and advocates, with a lot of persistence, a lot of information on what works in education, and a lot of ball peen hammers.

Picture Credit: Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain]

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Do Different Textbooks Have Different Effects on Student Achievement?

The British comedy group Monty Python used to refer to “privileged glimpses into the perfectly obvious.”

And just last week, there they were. In a front-page article, the March 13 edition of Education Week reported that a six-state study of the achievement outcomes of different textbooks found . . . wait for it. . . near-zero relative effects on achievement measures (Sawchuck, 2019).

Really!

The study was led by Harvard’s Thomas Kane, a major proponent of the Common Core, who was particularly upset to find out that textbooks produced before and after the Common Core influenced textbook content had few if any differential effects on achievement.

I doubt that I am the only person who is profoundly unsurprised by these findings. For the past 12 years, I’ve been doing reviews of research on programs’ effects on achievement in rigorous research. Textbooks (or curricula) are usually one of the categories in my reviews. You can see the reviews at www.bestevidence.org. Here is a summary of the average effect sizes for textbooks or curricula:

Review No. of Studies Mean Effect Size
Elementary Reading

(Inns et al., 2019)

9 +0.03
Elementary Math

Pellegrini et al., 2018)

16 +0.06
Secondary Math

(Slavin et al., 2009)

40 +0.03
Secondary Science

(Cheung et al., 2016)

8 +0.10
Weighted Average 73 +0.04

None of these outcomes suggest that textbooks make much difference, and the study-weighted average of +0.04 is downright depressing.

blog_3-28-19_sleepingstudent_500x333

Beyond the data, it is easy to see why evaluations of the achievement outcomes of textbooks rarely find significant positive outcomes. Such studies compare one textbook to another textbook that is usually rather similar. The reason is that textbook publishers respond to the demands of the market, not to evidence of effectiveness. New and existing textbooks were shaped by similar market forces. When standards change, as in the case of the Common Core State Standards in recent years, all textbook companies generally are forced to make changes in the same direction. There may be a brief window of time when new textbooks designed to meet new standards have a temporary advantage, but large publishers are extremely sensitive to such changes, and if they are not up to date in terms of standards today, they soon will be. Still, as the Kane et al. study found, changes in standards do not in themselves improve achievement on a substantial scale. Changes in standards do change market demand, which changes the content of textbooks, but fundamentally, the changes are not enough to make a measurable difference in learning.

Kane was quoted by Education Week as drawing the lesson from the study that perhaps it isn’t the textbooks that matter, but rather how the textbooks are used:

“What levels of coaching or more-intensive professional development are required to help teachers use rigorous materials at higher levels of fidelity, and does that produce larger benefits?” (Sawchuk, 2019, p. 17).

This sounds logical, but recent research in elementary mathematics calls this approach into question. Pellegrini et al. (2018) examined a category of programs that provide teachers with extensive professional development focused on math content and pedagogy. The average effect size across 12 studies was only +0.04, or essentially zero. In contrast, what did work very well were one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring (mean effect size = +0.29) and professional development focused on classroom management and motivation (mean effect size = +0.25). In other words, programs focusing on helping teachers use standards-based materials added little if anything to the learning impact of textbooks. What mattered, beyond tutoring, were approaches that change classroom routines and relationships, such as cooperative learning or classroom management methods.

Changing textbooks matters little, and adding extensive professional development focused on standards adds even less. Instead, strategies that engage, excite, and accommodate individual needs of students are what we find to matter a great deal, across many subjects and grade levels.

This should be a privileged glimpse into the perfectly obvious. Everyone knows that textbooks make little difference. Walk through classrooms in any school, teaching any subject at any grade level. Some classes are exciting, noisy, fully engaged places in which students are eager to learn. Others are well, teaching the textbook. In which type of class did you learn best? In which type do you hope your own children will spend their time in school, or wish they had?

What is obvious from the experience of every teacher and everyone who has ever been a student is that changing textbooks and focusing on standards do not in themselves lead to classrooms that kindle the love of learning. Imagine that you, as an accomplished adult educator, took a class in tennis, or Italian, or underwater basket weaving. Would a teacher using better textbooks and more advanced standards make you love this activity and learn from it? Or would a teacher who expresses enthusiasm for the subject and for the students, who uses methods that engage students in active social activities in every lesson, obtain better outcomes of every kind? I hope this question answers itself.

I once saw a science teacher in Baltimore teaching anatomy by having students take apart steamed crabs (a major delicacy in Baltimore). The kids were working in groups, laughing at this absurd idea, but they were learning like crazy, and learning to love science. I would submit that this experience, these connections among students, this laughter are the standards our schools need to attain. It’s not about textbooks, nor professional development on textbooks.

Another Baltimore teacher I knew taught a terrific unit on ancient Egypt. The students made their own sarcophagi, taking into the afterlife the things most important to them. Then the class went on a field trip to a local museum with a mummy exhibit, and finally, students made sarcophagi representing what Egyptians would value in the afterlife.  That’s what effective teaching is about.

The great 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus took his students on walks into forests, fields, and lakes around Uppsala University. Whatever they found, they brought back held high singing and playing conch shell trumpets in triumph.  That’s what effective teaching is about.

In England, I saw a teacher teaching graph coordinates. She gave each student’s desk a coordinate, from 1, 1 to 5, 5, and put up signs labeled North, South, East, and West on the walls. She then made herself into a robot, and the students gave her directions to get from one coordinate to another. The students were laughing, but learning. That’s what effective teaching is about.

No textbook can compete with these examples of inspired teaching. Try to remember your favorite textbook, or your least favorite. I can’t think of a single one. They were all the same. I love to read and love to learn, and I’m sure anyone reading this blog is the same. But textbooks? Did a textbook ever inspire you to want to learn more or give you enthusiasm for any subject?

This is a privileged glimpse into the perfectly obvious to which we should devote our efforts in innovation and professional development. A textbook or standard never ignited a student’s passion or curiosity. Textbooks and standards may be necessary, but they will not transform our schools. Let’s use what we already know about how learning really happens, and then make certain that every teacher knows how to do the things that make learning engage students’ hearts and emotions, not just their minds.

References

Cheung, A., Slavin, R.E., Kim, E., & Lake, C. (2016). Effective secondary science programs: A best-evidence synthesis. Journal of Research on Science Teaching, 54 (1), 58-81. Doi: 10.1002/tea.21338

Inns, A., Lake, C. Byun, S., Shi, C., & Slavin, R. E. (2019). Effective Tier 1 reading instruction for elementary schools: A systematic review. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, D.C.

Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. E. (2018). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Sawchuk, S. (2019, March 13). New texts failed to lift test scores in six-state study. Education Week, 38(25), 1, 17.

Slavin, R.E., Lake, C., & Groff, C. (2009). Effective programs in middle and high school mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 79 (2), 839-911.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

 

On Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

When I finished college, I had an Oregon teaching certificate to teach secondary social studies. However, since the only sport I could coach was chess, I took a job teaching in a self-contained school for children with intellectual disabilities. I happened to know what I was doing, because I’d taught such children in summer jobs throughout college, but I had a strong feeling that my teaching certificate, plus the ability to fog a mirror, was all my school required.

In mid-year, however, my school moved all of its children into local elementary schools. I refused to go. I had the lowest-functioning kids, and I had to change diapers. The school I was slated to go to could only offer the boys’ bathroom, whose only source of water was a fountain in the middle that gave out an unenthusiastic mist.

My principal agreed, so I was left with the only class still operating in my original school. The school phone was put in my classroom.

Answering the school phone gave me an unexpected insight into one aspect of schooling I had not known about. Every day, people would call to offer to donate things to the school. Things like used shoes or clothing, or old toys. Once someone offered fresh flowers. I accepted these, thinking they might be nice. But when hundreds of lilies appeared (they turned out to be from a funeral), my kids immediately pounced on them and started eating them.

In addition to useless stuff, I had regular visits from people sent by our county, such as an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. These were all very nice people, but I just met with them an hour or two each month only to discover, each time, that there was nothing they could do for my kids.

Skip forward many years, and I’m still astounded by how much of the time of principals is taken up nurse-maiding well-meaning people who want to help disadvantaged children. Recently, I heard from some Maryland principals that the State Department of Education sent them dozens of coaches and experts of all sorts. They were not there enough to provide any useful services, but each visit required valuable time from the principal or other staff. Further, they said these coaches never had the remotest idea what the other coaches were doing, and rarely if ever coordinated with them, so redundant or contradictory services were offered.

I remember being in a school in Memphis where a local men’s service club had some of its members reading to kids. These men were very nice, and the kids and teachers were glad to see them. But their presence in the building tied up the principal and much other staff just helping the men find classrooms and materials. Our staff were in the building to discuss specific, proven strategies for helping students learn to read, but this activity was greatly disrupted by these well-meaning men.

blog_3-7-19_3rdgraders_500x333 (2)

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing.

The well-meaning chaos I’ve observed many times speaks volumes about one of the structural reasons that schools for disadvantaged students have so much trouble making progress. Such schools are in communities that care deeply about them and want to help. Some of this help is helpful, but much of it interferes with the school’s core mission, which is to ensure that all children are succeeding in all academic subjects, especially reading and math.

In schools serving disadvantaged students, the mission is not just a way to improve school test scores. Success in reading and math is a survival skill for students whose only way out of poverty may be success in school. Principals should have the right, indeed the mandate, to decide (with their staff) which external services support their core mission, and which are unlikely to do so in any meaningful way. External services that provide frequent, targeted, reliable assistance that is well-aligned with the school’s efforts to advance its core mission, such as volunteer tutors who commit to substantial time working with children using methods and materials closely aligned with the school’s curriculum, can be a godsend. Occasional tutors who are unlikely to show up on all scheduled days or are unable or unwilling to use proven methods aligned with the school’s needs? Not so much.

Knowing when to encourage and even solicit help and when not to do so is an important part of school leadership. Principals and their staffs need to have clear goals and plans for how to achieve them. That has to be job one for the whole staff. External assistance that helps schools achieve their goals is great. And assistance to help achieve other valued goals, such as after school art or music or theater programs, may be fine if it does not interfere with job one. But external assistance that takes time and adds complexity? Maybe later.

Every superintendent, principal, and school staff has to have a laser focus on the core mission of their school. They have only so many hours in the day to accomplish this core mission. The government and private entities who support schools have to learn that schools must focus their energies on the main thing, academic achievement, and then help school staff to accomplish this goal if they can, and help schools keep the main thing the main thing.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Programs and Practices

One issue I hear about all the time when I speak about evidence-based reform in education relates to the question of programs vs. practices. A program is a specific set of procedures, usually with materials, software, professional development, and other elements, designed to achieve one or more important outcomes, such as improving reading, math, or science achievement. Programs are typically created by non-profit organizations, though they may be disseminated by for-profits. Almost everything in the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) and Evidence for ESSA is a program.

A practice, on the other hand, is a general principle that a teacher can use. It may not require any particular professional development or materials.  Examples of practices include suggestions to use more feedback, more praise, a faster pace of instruction, more higher-order questions, or more technology.

In general, educators, and especially teachers, love practices, but are not so crazy about programs. Programs have structure, requiring adherence to particular activities and use of particular materials. In contrast, every teacher can use practices as they wish. Educational leaders often say, “We don’t do programs.” What they mean is, “we give our teachers generic professional development and then turn them loose to interpret them.”

One problem with practices is that because they leave the details up to each teacher, teachers are likely to interpret them in a way that conforms to what they are already doing, and then no change happens. As an example of this, I once attended a speech by the late, great Madeline Hunter, extremely popular in the 1970s and ‘80s. She spoke and wrote clearly and excitingly in a very down-to-earth way. The auditorium she spoke to was stuffed to the rafters with teachers, who hung on her every word.

When her speech was over, I was swept out in a throng of happy teachers. They were all saying to each other, “Madeline Hunter supports absolutely everything I’ve ever believed about teaching!”

I love happy teachers, but I was puzzled by their reaction. If all the teachers were already doing the things Madeline Hunter recommended to the best of their ability, then how did her ideas improve their teaching? In actuality, a few studies of Hunters’ principles found no significant effects on student learning, and even more surprising, they found few differences between the teaching behaviors of teachers trained in Hunter’s methods and those who had not been. Essentially, one might argue, Madeline Hunter’s principles were popular precisely because they did not require teachers to change very much, and if teachers do not change their teaching, why would we expect their students’ learning to change?

blog_8-23-18_mowerparts_500x333

Another reason that practices rarely change learning is that they are usually small improvements that teachers are expected to assemble to improve their teaching. However, asking teachers to put together many pieces into major improvements is a bit like giving someone the pieces and parts of a lawnmower and asking them to put them together (see picture above). Some mechanically-minded people could do it, but why bother? Why not start with a whole lawnmower?

In the same way, there are gifted teachers who can assemble principles of effective practice into great instruction, but why make it so difficult? Great teachers who could assemble isolated principles into effective teaching strategies are also sure to be able to take a proven program and implement it very well. Why not start with something known to work and then improve it with effective implementation, rather than starting from scratch?

One problem with practices is that most are impossible to evaluate. By definition, everyone has their own interpretation of every practice. If practices become specific, with specific guides, supports, and materials, they become programs. So a practice is a practice exactly because it is too poorly specified to be a program. And practices that are difficult to clearly specify are also unlikely to improve student outcomes.

There are exceptions, where practices can be evaluated. For example, eliminating ability grouping or reducing class size or assigning (or not assigning) homework are practices that can be evaluated, and can be specified. But these are exceptions.

The squishiness of most practices is the reason that they rarely appear in the WWC or Evidence for ESSA. A proper evaluation contrasts one treatment (an experimental group) to a control group continuing current practices. The treatment group almost has to be a program, because otherwise it is impossible to tell what is being evaluated. For example, how can an experiment evaluate “feedback” if teachers make up their own definitions of “feedback”? How about higher-order questions? How about praise? Rapid pace? Use of these practices can be measured using observation, but differences between the treatment and control groups may be hard to detect because in each case teachers in the control group may also be using the same practices. What teacher does not provide feedback? What teacher does not praise children? What teacher does not use higher-order questions? Some may use these practices more than others, but the differences are likely to be subtle. And subtle differences rarely produce important outcomes.

The distinction between programs and practices has a lot to do with the practices (not programs) promoted by John Hattie. He wants to identify practices that can help teachers know about what works in instruction. That’s a noble goal, but it can rarely be done using real classroom research done over real periods of time. In order to isolate particular practices for study, researchers often do very brief, artificial lab studies that have nothing to do with classroom practices.  For example, some lab studies in Hattie’s own review of feedback contrast teachers giving feedback to teachers giving no feedback. What teacher would do that?

It is worthwhile to use what we know from research, experience, program evaluations, and theory to discuss what practices may be most useful for teachers. But claiming particular effect sizes for such studies is rarely justified. The strongest evidence for practical use in schools will almost always come from experiments evaluating programs. Practices have their place, but focusing on exposing teachers to a lot of practices and expecting them to put them together to improve student outcomes is not likely to work.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Great Tutors Could Be a Source of Great Teachers

blog_4-19-18_tutoring_500x329In a recent blog, I wrote about findings of three recent reviews of research on tutoring, contained within broader reviews of research on effective programs for struggling elementary readers, struggling secondary readers, and math. The blog reported the astonishing finding that in each of the reviews, outcomes for students tutored by paraprofessionals (teaching assistants) were as good, and usually somewhat better, than outcomes for students tutored by teachers.

It is important to note that the paraprofessionals tutoring students usually had BAs, one indicator of high quality. But since paras are generally paid about half as much as teachers, using them enables schools to serve twice as many struggling students at about the same cost as hiring teacher tutors. And because there are teacher shortages in many areas, such as inner cities and rural locations, sufficient teachers may not be available in some places at any cost.

In my earlier blog, I explained all this, but now I’d like to expand on one aspect of the earlier blog I only briefly mentioned.

If any district or state decided to invest substantially in high-quality paraprofessional tutors and train them in proven one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring strategies, it would almost certainly increase the achievement of struggling learners and reduce retentions and special education placements. But it could also provide a means of attracting capable recent university graduates into teaching.

Imagine that districts or states recruited students graduating from local universities to serve in a “tutor corps.” Those accepted would be trained and mentored to become outstanding tutors. From within that group, tutors who show the greatest promise would be invited to participate in a fast-track teacher certification program. This would add coursework to the paraprofessionals’ schedules, while they continue tutoring during other times. In time, the paraprofessionals would be given opportunities to do brief classroom internships, and then student teaching. Finally, they would receive their certification, and would be assigned to a school in the district or state.

There are several features worth noting about this proposal. First, the paraprofessionals would be paid throughout their teacher training, because at all points they would be providing valuable services to children. This would make it easier for recent university graduates to take courses leading to certification, which could expand the number of promising recent graduates who might entertain the possibility of becoming teachers. Paying teacher education candidates (as tutors) throughout their time in training could open the profession to a broader range of talented candidates, including diverse candidates who could not afford traditional teacher education.

Second, the whole process of recruiting well-qualified paraprofessionals, training and mentoring them as tutors, selecting the best of them to become certified, and providing coursework and student teaching experiences for them, would be managed by school districts or states, not by universities. School districts and states have a strong motivation to select the best teachers, see that they get excellent training and mentoring, and proceed to certification only when they are ready. Coursework might be provided by university professors contracted by the district or qualified individuals within the district or state. Again, because the district or state has a strong interest in having these experiences be optimal for their future teachers, they would be likely to take an active role in ensuring that coursework and coaching are first rate.

One important advantage of this system would be that it would give school, district, and state leaders opportunities to see future teachers operate in real schools over extended periods of time, first as tutors, then as interns, then as student teachers. At the end of the process, the school district or state should be willing to guarantee that all who succeed in this demanding sequence will be offered a job. They should be able to do this with confidence, because school and district staff would have seen the candidate work with real children in real schools.

The costs of this system might be minimal. During tutoring, internships, and student teaching, teacher candidates are providing invaluable services to struggling students. The only additional cost would entail providing coursework to meet state or district requirements. But this cost could be modest, and in exchange for paying for or providing the courses, the district or state would gain the right to select instructors of very high quality and insist on their effectiveness in practice. These are the schools’ own future teachers, and they should not be satisfied with less than stellar teacher education.

The system I’m proposing could operate alongside of traditional programs provided by universities. School districts or states might in fact create partnerships in which all teacher education candidates would serve as tutors as part of their teacher education, in which case university-led and district-led teacher education may essentially merge into one.

This system is more obviously attuned to the needs of elementary schools than secondary schools, because historically tutors have been rarely used in the secondary grades. Yet recent evidence from studies in England (http://www.bestevidence.org/reading/mhs/mhs_read.htm) has shown positive effects of tutoring in reading in the middle grades, and it seems likely that one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring would be beneficial in all major subjects and, as in elementary school, may keep students who are far behind grade level in a given subject out of special education and able to keep up with their classmates. If paraprofessional tutors can work in the secondary grades, this would form the basis for a teacher certification plan like the one I have described.

Designing teacher certification programs around the needs of recent BAs sounds like Teach for America, and in many ways it is. But this system would, I’d argue, be more likely to attract large numbers of talented young people who would be more likely than TFA grads to stay in teaching for many years.

The main reason schools, districts, and states should invest in tutoring by paraprofessionals is to serve the large number of struggling learners who exist in every district. But in the course of doing this, districts could also take control of their own destinies and select and train the teachers they need. The result would be better teachers for all students, and a teaching profession that knows how to use proven programs to ensure the success of all.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

How Is Standards-Based Instruction Standard in Classroom Practice?

Education policy, goes an old saying, is like a storm at sea. Crashing waves, thunder, lightning, and cross-currents at the surface, but 10 fathoms down, nothing ever changes.

In our time, one of the epic storms in education relates to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and other college- and career-ready standards that resemble CCSS. Common Core was intended to move instructional practices and student outcomes toward problem-solving, higher-order thinking, and contextualized knowledge, and away from rote learning, memorization, and formulas. We are now five years into this reform. How is it changing what teachers actually do in the classroom?

Fortunately, there is a research center working to understand this question: the Center for Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL) at the University of Pennsylvania. C-SAIL, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education, is carrying out several studies to examine how state policies more or less aligned with Common Core or college- and career-ready standards are changing teachers’ instruction.

Recently, C-SAIL researchers Adam Edgerton, Morgan Polikoff, and Laura Desimone, published an article on representative state-wide surveys of teachers in Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas. Kentucky and Ohio were early, enthusiastic adopters of Common Core, while Texas was one of just two states (with Virginia) that have always refused to adopt Common Core standards, giving up a shot at substantial Race to the Top grants for their obstinance. However, Texas has its own standards intended to be college-and career-ready.

In all three states, teachers reported teaching many objectives emphasized by their states’ standards, but a roughly equal number of objectives de-emphasized by the standards. This was true in reading and math and in elementary and secondary schools.

C-SAIL is doing studies in which they will obtain logs and other more detailed information on daily lessons. Perhaps they will find that teachers are increasingly teaching content aligned with their state standards. But from the C-SAIL survey, it seems unlikely that these differences will be profound enough to greatly affect students’ achievement, which is, after all, the ultimate goal.

There is a lot to admire in the Common Core and other college-and career-ready standards, and perhaps the best parts are in fact changing practices. However, turning around a country the size of the U.S., with 50 states, 14,000 school districts, 120,000 public schools, and a tradition of local autonomy is no easy feat. One big problem is that issues that rise to the stormy surface are buffeted by political currents, so they often don’t last long enough to make widespread change.

C-SAIL provides a useful service in monitoring how policy changes practice, so we can at least learn from the college-and career-ready standards movement (within which Common Core plays an important part). Journalists love to write about the crashing waves at the surface of education reform, but we need independent, scientific organizations like C-SAIL to tell us what’s really happening 10 fathoms down, where the kids are.