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The Miracle Teacher, Revisited


Dear Deborah,

I was about to move on to a new topic but on Sunday read a column in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof titled "Our Greatest National Shame." Well, as you must surely realize, it is American education that is "our greatest national shame." Kristof says that "...we do know that the existing national school system is broken, and that we're not trying hard enough to fix it." I believe that when he uses the collective noun "we," he is referring to himself and other newspaper columnists, not to people working in America's schools, who are working very hard "to fix" the problems.

Kristof then moves on to repeat the very things that I wrote about in my previous blog, about the search for teachers who produce miracles.

He says "there's a real excitement at what we are learning about K-8 education."

"First, good teachers matter more than anything; they are astonishingly important. It turns out that having a great teacher is far more important than being in a small class, or going to a good school with a mediocre teacher. A Los Angeles study suggested that four consecutive years of having a teacher from the top 25 percent of the pool would erase the black-white testing gap."

His second revelation is that "there is no correlation between teacher certification and teacher effectiveness...[and] it doesn't seem to matter if a teacher has a graduate degree or went to a better college or had higher SATs." He concludes that we should scrap certification, that we should measure which teachers are effective by testing (not clear whether he means testing the teachers or observing the test scores of their students), and then pay more to those who teach in "bad" schools.

So, let's deconstruct a bit.

Kristof approvingly cites the economists who say that four consecutive years of a great teacher would close the achievement gap. Unfortunately he does not seem to realize that the economists were writing theoretically (and the relevant studies actually say that five consecutive years of a great teacher would have this result). This happy outcome has NEVER been demonstrated in any school or school district. It is a projection of an econometric speculation.

If I read Kristof correctly, a "great" teacher is one who can produce higher test scores. We know that this can happen through relentless test-prepping. Is that what a great teacher does?

But if that is the definition of a great teacher, then we can't possibly identify them until they have had at least three, or better yet, five years in the classroom, so there is sufficient data showing that they produced dramatic gains in their classroom.

So, that means that no new teacher—certainly no Teach for America teacher—could possibly be a great teacher, because we don't know whether they are great teachers until they have created a consistent record of big test score gains over three-five years.

Let's suppose that a district uses its data to identify the teachers who consistently produce big gains. What happens next? Do these teachers get assigned to the lowest-performing schools? Which children in those schools are assigned to these teachers? What happens to these teachers if they don't get the big gains in the next years? No one has tried to explain how this would be implemented, whether successful teachers would be willing to go wherever they are assigned, and how their services would be parceled out among many needy students.

As for entry into teaching, it sounds as though Kristof is saying that anyone should be accepted as a teacher. He is ready to scrap certification, graduate degrees, SAT scores. Maybe you don't need to be a college graduate to be a great teacher. Why not hire college freshmen as teachers? or high school seniors?

Isn't it wonderful that we have economists with tons of data (but no practical experience) to tell us how to find and reward great teachers?




You have raised some very valid points regarding the "miracle" teacher and how this potentially relates to improving US schools.

On a related note, I'm thrilled that papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times find education worthy enough to continue covering it. We all remember last year's presidential campaign which did a miraculous job of placing education on the back burner (or should I say, the invisible burner) for seemingly the entire campaign.

Staff reporters as well as op-ed columnists from each of these papers seem to think education still merits national attention.

To say that education is "broken" and we need to "fix it", I think, is not good thinking, and is not helpful. When a car is broken and needs fixing, we usually have a very clear picture of when it was not broken, how it worked before, and how it doesn't work now. We also have the means to obtain very detailed technical knowledge of how it should work, why it doesn't, and what needs to be done. We know the costs and the trade offs to be made. And when it is fixed we know it, and can put it out of our mind. None of this scenario translates to education. To say that education is "broken" is like taking a car to a shop, and when the mechanic asks what's wrong with it, we say, "It's not a Cadillac." That frame of mind - if my car is not a Cadillac it's not acceptable - does not strike me as helpful in any way.

I'm all for improvement in education, but I don't know just where improvement will come from. A good many people seem to use "reform" in a generic sense, not specifying just what reform they are talking about, and seeming to assume that it is obvious what reform means. I don't think this is helpful at all. There are some ideas that can definitely be called "reform", but there are also competing ideas, mutually exclusive ideas, that can be called "reform", and many of those ideas that can legitimately be called reform can also be called, "ill advised", "untested", "controversial", or "unacceptable to _____".

I can't accuse Kristof of being quite this indiscriminate in his use of the term "reform". He does tell us some of the things he has in mind, but neither is he very specific. I do agree with him on the idea of scrapping certification, but I also suspect that he would immediately put something in its place that I wouldn't care for. He suggests "measuring better through testing which teachers are effective". Well, sure. Testing of either students or teachers has never been controversial before, has it?

For what it's worth, I have always thought, and continue to think, that real educational improvement will be a gradual process of refinement, not revolution. It will primarily come by better analysis of what actually goes on in real classrooms. But this analysis is impossible without description. Simple, accurate, and comprehensive description of what actually happens in real classrooms is hard to come by. Educational research, such as it is, is guided by educational theory, and educational theory, in my humble opinion, is mostly lofty rhetoric, wishful thinking, and good intentions.

Call me a grinch once again, but I can’t see that Kristof has written anything helpful in this piece.

As a former teacher, I consistently find it hard to believe that a teacher may be deemed "good" or "bad" without considering their circumstances. A "good" teacher may become "bad" if given different students, a different principal, different resources and different subjects to teach. Likewise, a "bad" teacher may become good with additional experience, different administrators, different students, an easier courseload, etc.

Studies show that most teachers have a steep learning curve in their first 3-5 years of teaching. So, how to evaluate new teachers? Are they "good" or "bad" or neither?

Diane, if we have to have a national shame, what would it be?

Last night I attended a meeting of 85 programmers, drawn from Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Michigan, and parts in between. We were there to learn to program the web faster, more efficiently.

We can't recall seeing one person of African/Black decent.

That persistent 50% dropout rate shows up in so many places. Not just programming, but any gathering of web workers, writers, media makers. Why?

What we do know about teaching is that it continues to try to defy the normal laws of economic relationships. And that the worst effects of this denial shows up in the biggest districts, or those of the old-line cities.

Do you have to have a four year degree to teach reading? Hardly. Mothers did it for centuries. Is a college degree a fair starting point? Yes. An education degree? Over-rated for sure.

The elite programmers I was meeting with? A mixed bag of education experiences. What matters is their passion for the job.

The broad spectrum of those people working in education should include far more people who have mixed backgrounds. When we get rid of the rigid structures, we'll begin to find out how that might play out.

Hi Diane,

I would pay to see you in a room with Kristof. It'd be like Tyson versus Spinks, over in the first round but entertaining nonetheless. Your critique was on point, and I will borrow from it in the future.

On the other hand, I give Kristof credit for taking a more humble tone than many of the folks he is parroting. I can understand how he would be impressed by data--even if he did not analyze it sufficiently--showing that the effects of good teachers supercede all other factors. On his blog, he asked to hear from teachers and admitted that he is new to writing about education. And it shows, but at least he has some awareness of that fact.

That said, I wonder what you'd say to him if you chose to be more constructive with your criticism. I think he'd listen. Clearly, there's room for improvement, so how would you suggest that he redirect himself? You've offered plenty of proposals on this blog before; what would you propose to Kristof, given his excitement about the power of teaching?

What's alarming to me is that some of what Kristof said seems to be becoming received wisdom among a class of elite non-educators (Kristof, Gates, Gladwell). These people have clout in terms of audience power, because they have access to general media. If these ideas--students test scores define teacher success, we know nothing about how to predict or develop good teachers, all teacher credential programs are equivalent and all are ineffective, teachers are the only factor in the ed system that matters, an effective teacher is like an effective widget, all we need to do is identify them and then plug them in anywhere, etc.--get repeated enough in the general media, a lot of people are going to just accept it all as true and proven. That educators with some actual knowledge and background in education and education research refute these ideas in education media will have little or no impact. Diane, how about using some of your own star power, and writing your response to the Times, where it might be seen by people other than educators?

Jean, I would add to your list, great teaching is evident by how actively a teacher monitors a classroom. Gladwell wrote it, Gates said it at TED. I give credit to the Education Trust for many of the talking points about teachers (though not the one I just mentioned), as they parse and report data as effectively as anyone. I second your call for Diane to write a response.


What is your favorite academic study or studies that show a statistically significant positive relationship between certification/graduate-degrees and teacher effectiveness?


Keenan Thompson plays a character on SNL named Oscar Rodgers who semi-regularly appears as a consultant on Weekend Update. His suggestions for correcting huge problems mostly consist of repeatedly yelling "fix it!" It's pretty funny.

SNL should write an education piece for this character.

Ken, the problem with that research is that the "grain" of the measure is so crude as to not reveal anything. It's as though a nuclear scientist were to shoot BBs at a substance hoping to learn something about its atomic structure. Education matters for teachers--both content knowledge and preparation for teaching. But the KIND of education, and what they learn from it, matters more than just the fact of having a degree or a state-issued credential. Until and unless the research looks below the level of degree or certification, it's unlikely to discover just what does help a person become a good teacher and how we can suport that as a society.

I know you'll want to know my basis for these claims. I point you to the work of Linda Darling-Hammond. I personally also believe it because I'm a teacher educator, and I see for myself every year what my students learn during the course of their teacher preparation. Which of course will have no influence on your belief, and there's no reason it should, but it's very convincing for me. Our students learn rather a lot from what we put them through. We could do better, given more time and resources, but even our 1-year program does have effects.

It would be very helpful if people would stop asking "Does teacher certification make a difference?" (or, for that matter "Does ____ make a difference?") and start asking the question that promises to be useful: "What does make a difference?" For teachers, specifically, what helps a person learn to be a better and even a good teacher, for the broadest possible teaching context? (Because teaching context does matter to a person's effectiveness as a teacher. No one is effective for all students under all circumstances.) Unless you believe good teachers are born, not made--and some people do seem to believe that--there exist people out there who do learn to teach well, and that's what we need to know about--what helps them do so?

It is impossible to demonstrate the value of certification because almost all teachers are certified. Almost all have graduate degree.
That means there is no comparson group.

At the risk of introducing something perilously close to "economists with tons of data (but no practical experience)," Hanushek does some number play looking at ways in which various factors (including teacher quality, but also various other resources) together impact achievement, given the appropriate circumstances.

Hanushek, Eric A. 2004. "What if there are no ‘best practices’?." Scottish Journal of Political Economy 51, no. 2: 156-172. Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 18, 2009).

His statistical analysis goes a bit beyond my understanding, but I do understand that what his is looking takes a systems view, rather than looking for a linear relationship between isolated resources and achievement. I think that in the end, this kind of view is important because it speaks to the conditions that are supportive of bringing out (I think) the best in all good teachers. Some form of external accountability is generally supportive, as is some local autonomy about certain decision-making. He suggests that it may take local observation to tune into the, as yet poorly identified, combinations of qualities that make for good teachers, and to match them appropriately to needs of students and the right programs. Without some central, driving factor, such as accountability, or agreed upon outcome standards, it is likelihood of slippage at the local level--but within that context, it allows for needed flexibility.

Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Foundation also objects to the Kristof editorial...


The objections are a bit different however--Mike thinks that it would be good for education if 500,000 teachers were to be laid-off for economic reasons.

There is certainly a huge contradiction in the argument that certification doesn't guarantee quality? Isn't the pedagogical methodology put forward by the reformers a certification process? In the certification process students take courses with standardized (or accredited) curriculum and are required to be assessed by standardized exams before they can teach. That's exactly what reformers are doing to elementary students. Why will it work for kids if it doesn't work for teachers? Could it be that a good education, like the teacher training process, can't be created with a menu and a test?

As a teacher in a NYC public school I can tell you that we aren't in this for the money. Good schools attract quality teachers because they have excellent leadership, well rounded programs of study and a strong support system for teachers and students. Without those features no amount of merit pay will attract quality teachers. Visit a failing school here in NYC and imagine what it would be like to teach there. Kristof should do the type of investigative reporting in a school that he does in the Third World, and then get back to us.

If teacher quality were the paramount factor, then Jamie Escalante (Stand and Deliver) would do well regardless of the school or the students.

Why did Jamie Escalante do so well at Garfield High School and so poorly at another high school? Escalante was a master teacher, he had years of experience, he had great results, yet when he went to a new high school he did not do well. Was/is Escalante a good teacher or not? Did he just get lucky at Garfield high school?

In my district, a teacher won “Teacher of the Year” for the state of CA, but when he was assigned a classroom of low performers, he had feet of clay. Jim has taught for over 10 years, he has excellent results and lesson plans, yet when the school gave him a classroom full of low performers he did not do very well. His results with the low performers were not any better than any of the teachers (good/bad) at the school. To put it mildly, he sucked, yet he was teacher of the year. Was/is he a good teacher or not? Why did he have such mixed results? Escalante and Jim’s results are the norm not the exception.

Does the Hanushek study tackle the issue of highly successful teachers who go to a new school and fail? What about teachers who do poorly in one district and then are named teacher of the year in another district? Are they superstars or not?

If it is just the teachers, then why do high achievers do well regardless of their teachers and why don't low achievers do well even with superstars.

Reshuffling bad students to different schools/teachers changes nothing. They are still bad students, and they will continue to fail unless they change their behavior.

Going back to the quarterback analogy, if a quarterback has no one to throw to then the quarterback will not do well. If students are not receptive to what the teacher is teaching and have no desire to learn, then the teacher will look like a bad teacher. It is not the teacher; it is the students and their parents.

We cannot have a functioning society when we disconnect behavior from consequences. We have disconnected behavior from consequences in our schools and that is why we cannot close the achievement gap. We are seeing the problems of disconnecting behavior from consequences in our housing market and on Wall Street too. When we disconnect behavior from consequences, we create a moral hazard in our schools and in our society.

I do not know when we will stop blaming the teachers for the lack of work ethic of the students, but as long as we continue to blame the teachers (treat the symptoms) we will never close the achievement gap (find a cure). When we start holding students accountable for their work or lack thereof, when we teach students that they get out of school what they put into it, then the achievement gap will begin to close.

For those who claim we need to end poverty, abuse, etc., before change can happen, I recommend you study the background of many, many successful people. You will find most successful people have had tremendous hardship, but figured out a way to rise above it because no one made excuses for them.

esl says...

"Reshuffling bad students to different schools/teachers changes nothing. They are still bad students..."

What a thing to say! Such ignorance! I certainly hope esl occupies a position of no authority in his/her organization!


I don't know that Hanushek "attacks" the problem of teachers doing better or worse in various situations--but he does discuss it and attempt to account for it. My understanding of what we know, is that there is a "teacher effect" that shows up repeatedly in research. It is quantifiable. It is frequently larger than "school effect." In other words, the difference between average scores of students by teacher varies more than average scores of student by school. Now the fact that we can observe this difference, does not mean that we understand what causes it. Some studies have plucked out such teacher characteristics as we have data on, or can get (teacher's SAT, teacher certification, graduate degree, years of experience, etc). Based on this research, no identifiable characteristics have yet been identified that account for the difference. This does not mean that there are no differences between teachers that account for differences in student achievement. Hanushek suggests that perhaps this difference, in addition to being too subtle or too complex for previous research to have identified, may also be a combination of factors surrounding the teacher--such as a good match between teacher, program, student. He also suggests that this would lead us away from centralized policies that seek to identify best/good teachers in some broad brush ways, and allow more localized/building level decision-making to accomplish centralized goals (such as bringing students to standard levels of achievement).

My reading of Hanushek is that he tends to look at systems and models, rather than individual pieces, to account for impacts. That's where he generally leaves me behind statistically speaking.

Just one more comment--as I cannot help myself on this one. You suggest that "the problem" is the disconnect between behavior and consequences. Oughtn't this apply as well to the actions of teachers, principals, administrators?

I had dinner with Eric Hanushek a few years ago and at that time he was thinking that since we really cannot predict who will be a good teacher based on inputs we are better off measuring who it effective in the classroom. He thought that good teachers are dramatically underpaid for the good they do for society but that bad teachers are dramatically overpaid.

He had calculated that if we could improve the quality of the teaching corps such that the average teacher then was 1 standard deviation better than today (at about today's 85 percentile--not easy but not inconceivable) that the resulting growth in GDP would be large enough to pay for our entire school system (~500B/ year).

Just pointing out that Hanushek does his research on behalf of the highly partisan Hoover Institution, which is a vigorous opponent of public education and is the heart of the privatization movement. I'm sure a skilled wonk can look at his work and say "oh, but despite that, this research is totally professional and unbiased and reflects no point of view at all."

I can't do that, so I just have to say he is coming from a strong advocacy position, predisposed to be strongly anti-public-school-teacher. So there needs to be a big disclaimer every time his work is mentioned, as far as I'm concerned.


I can't hold that opinion against you because I once held it myself. The first evening I met Eric at a cocktail party I had a nice buzz-on and decided to play "Goad the right-wing nut job" (a favorite pastime of mine.)

He deeply surprised me with some of his thoughts and ideas. I am too tired to relate all the ways how I was surprised--but take my (anonymous) word on it that though he and I will never reside on the same side of the political divide, I follow his research with great interest now.

I, and presumably you, are hanging out here because we are interested in "bridging differences." I happen to believe that the only way to save public education in our nation is to find a way past the right-left impasse to real reforms.

If you think that he is knee-jerk anti public school teacher you have misjudged. I think that he would support salaries for some teachers that would cause certain physicians to consider whether they had made a mistake in their career choice. But, he would insist on the ability to fire bad teachers instead of inflicting them on 30 years worth of school children.

I agree with esl's comments regarding the interaction between a teacher and his or her environment (students and school setting). As a former teacher, I personally found myself to be more successful in some settings than in others. A lot depends on the fit between the teacher and the subject, students, school and administration. Some teachers are better at handling discipline issues, some are better at teaching high level subjects to AP students. Teachers have different backgrounds and experiences that may equip them to teach certain classes more effectively than others. And all teachers benefit from a well-structured school with clear rules for the students and a supportive school administration. That is why I am wary of claims that we should reward "good" teachers and fire the "bad" ones - I think determining teacher quality is a more complex task than people may realize.

Measuring teacher effectiveness has been somewhat enigmatic for researchers and school administrators.

Are there some subjective variables regarding teachers that have been difficult to measure in determining their worth? Is it passion, sense of humor, personality, empathy, reputation, ability to relate to students or their parents, etc., or a combination thereof? And if this is true, how can Escalante be a great teacher in one school and ineffective in another? Good or bad, these types of measures have been the primary variables in evaluating teachers in our schools in the past. No one has ever examined a bottom line. Yeh, I know, kids aren’t widgets. Please just continue reading.

To measure teacher effectiveness today schools seem to be on the cusp of resorting to assessments. It’s being opposed at many turns but it also appears to be gaining acceptance, even with one of the major teacher unions, the AFT. It’s quantitative and people can get their hands around test scores (good or bad). It will continue to be controversial but by factoring in value-added assessment and employing growth models in the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind schools will soon have a more quantitative handle on evaluating their teachers.

A major problem with this method is it usually occurs after the fact, at the end of a unit of study or the end of the semester. In many situations there is only a minimal attempt (quizzes, homework, questions in class) to ensure learning has taken place along the way. That doesn’t do the kids who didn’t “get it” much good after they flagged the final exam or the course itself. It also doesn’t help those kids who “passed” the course, even though they never learned enough of the material and were “awarded” a grade by the teacher simply to move them along in school.

Now is that really what some teachers do to be effective? It has been.

On the other hand, many in the business community use inspections throughout the process. It coincides somewhat with what the education community refers to as programmed instruction. To insert a dashboard in an automobile Toyota might have seven inspections along the way. They will not proceed to step four in the installation if there was a problem in step three (or one and two). They don’t wait till the end of the assembly line to figure out there’s a problem with the installation of the dashboard. It has proven to be a much more effective and cost efficient method for many businesses. By the way, this is one of the reasons the Detroit has produced such costly and terrible products. They wait till the dashboard gets to the end of the assembly line before they label it deficient.

To see how this model translates into the classroom I recommend you read Clayton Christensen’s new book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. While I don’t think it’s very well written, it could open your eyes to a completely new way of looking at how effective our teachers and schools really are/are not.

Are there problems with this model for schools? Of course there are, but again, read it. It’s a completely different perspective on what teachers and schools could/should be doing to become more effective.

I suspect that Kristof associates "great" teaching with personality: the ability to "manage" a class, spark student interest, and demand and encourage good work. If so, he is both right and wrong.

He is right that personality is part of good teaching. Knowledge of the subject is not enough. A teacher must be able to convey it to the students and respond to what the students do and say. A teacher is the "ambassador" of the subject in a certain sense.

But as others have noted, there is no personality that works across the board. Nor should we fall into the trap of regarding personality too highly, of placing it above other qualifications. For then we fulfill our own formulas. We make schools into places of social functioning and little else.

On various education blogs I have read the same comment by different commenters: "No one wants to talk about classroom management. It is the elephant in the room." This is true. Anyone will tell you that you need to have good classroom management in order to teach effectively. But they do not ask how this requirement constrains teaching, or how classroom management has become increasingly difficult.

It is many teachers' secret shame. It drives novice teachers out of the profession and overwhelms even veteran teachers at times. Even the teacher with apparent control may have conceded to many pressures from the students: keeping everyone "active" and "engaged," switching the activities frequently, etc.

I have seen situations where all the specialty teachers (those who taught a given class once a week) had trouble with certain classes. The classroom teacher might have established some control, but as soon as someone else walked into the room to teach, havoc would begin.

I have had classes that worked like a dream, and others that made for a continual struggle. I have had days of thinking I was an awful teacher and that I would do all my students a favor by clearing out. And then the opposite would prove (also) true.

There are more problems with behavior than anyone wants to admit. The blame usually falls on the individual teacher--yet if we looked at the problem throughout the system, we'd find it alarming. It shapes how we view teaching itself. Yes, there are teachers who can manage most of their classes. But there are others who would do very well if the school's overall behavior and responsibility standards were higher.

I recently spoke with a cousin who raised her children in France. She was telling me about a preschool teacher in Paris who worked wonders with the children (ages 3-5). In those three years, she said, the teacher taught these children to be "autonomous" students. I was struck by her use of the word "autonomous." She explained that when the children entered first grade, they were capable of sitting still and listening--that is, behaving responsibly. In the U.S., being "autonomous" means doing whatever you please.

Unless we require our students to behave responsibly in school, teachers will have to function largely as managers. Kristof (as I interpret him) will be right. Teachers' educational background will not matter as much as their social smarts. School would be a place of group socialization more than anything else.

Once during a grammar lesson (pairing adjectives with nouns) a student called me a "dreamy teacher." That was one of the best compliments I received from a student. Unfortunately dreaminess may work against a teacher when the social demands of the classroom are especially high. There will always be social demands. But we must not get carried away with them. We must offer a counterbalance. Children, too, need a chance to get lost in thought.

Diana Senechal


As I've suggested to John (Thompson) on more than one occasion; inner city teachers should be paid as least twice as much as their suburban counterparts. It's a completely different job.

Have you read Christensen’s book?

A few comments:

Regarding Hanushek--I had not associated him with the Hoover Institute, most of his work that I read was coming out of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international group that has put out a good bit of study on education (and other) systems. The international perspective brings in an ability to move away from our own boxiness and see other possibilities. I would also hold that it is badly needed right now because the comparative systems within the US are somewhat limited.

But, I also wanted to throw some wholehearted agreement in Diana's direction. Not only is the "classroom management" or discipline piece so frequently overlooked (or blamed on students, parents or administrators), but looking at such things systemically rather than individually is also paramount. Atty DC had suggested last week that some teachers fall short in this area because they are not "backed up" by their administrators. Certainly this is on point of view. The point of view I prefer is that the adults are not all on the same page, and need to get it together. As John Thompson has pointed out elsewhere, there are limitations to what any one teacher can do in their classroom while the hallways remain places of chaos.

Sugai has studied systemic approaches to changing the behavior in schools and published quite a bit under the heading of Positive Behavior Support. This is too frequently interpreted as being 1) only for kids on IEPs and 2)just a matter of giving out rewards for good behavior (along with punishments for bad behavior). It is really unfortunate, because PBS really deals with looking at student behavior sytemically and in ways that involve students in becoming "autonomous" (btw--I hadn't heard that about the French, but I recall a reference long ago that suggested that it was a focus of the Japanese social point of view). I absolutely agree that we tend to see autonomy in a "do your own thing" way, rather than an ability to self-regulate.

The quantitative measure that Sugai uses in implementing PBS is generally numbers of office referrals. The reality is that with effective whole-school discipline approaches office referrals decline--because problem behavior tends to be prevented. That translates into increase administrator time for other things (like instructional support). All good things. The danger, of course, is that without an understanding of what PBS entails, and actually implementing strategies to improve behavior, teachers (and perhaps administrators) only see that they are supposed to send fewer kids to the office (sort of the way that we have interpreted the need to increase academic achievement as a push to "teach to the test").

There are people, by the way, that look at behavior throughout systems, and it is alarming. Among the kids who receive "discipline" referrals, the numbers are disproportionately male, minority, disabled. I would suggest that it's no coincidence that these are also the groups that are giving people fits when it comes to AYP, and graduation rates, and in the juvenile justice system--and ultimately in the adult prison system.

Paul and Margo/Mom,

I will take a look at Christensen and Sugai. Thank you for the recommendations.


I agree, teachers need to work together to address student behavior. Often they do so informally, but there could be more formal coordination.

Teachers should then have the authority to make necessary adjustments, within reason. If it is distracting for students to sit facing each other, perhaps they should face the teacher (horrors!) instead.

Some students are focused on each other during class. Seating them in groups doesn't help. We should put them in groups when the lesson calls for it and when they can handle it. Otherwise, have them face the front of the room. Let there actually be one, with blackboard and all. We have teaching to do. The "workshop model" is only as good as the lesson it serves. It should never have become a mandate or an end in itself.

Diana Senechal


It sounds like it would be a luxury if NYC teachers had the authority to sit their students where and how they wanted, regimentation be damned.

There's also a piece in this morning's NYTimes about class size you might be interested in reading.

Diana: We used the Workshop Model when I taught in California about five years ago. It created a lot of distracting problems. As you said, it should have been a suggestion, not a mandate. In my district, the Workshop Model was used it up through 8th grade, including things like sitting in a circle on the floor for reading lessons. I'm sorry, but having 14 year olds (some in tight mini skirts) sitting on the floor in a circle was a bit tough to enforce. Do any of the people making these mandates have actual, current teaching experience themselves?

Wow--it's wonderful reading. I've just spent the past few weeks visiting schools in Chicago, Denver and DeKalb. And am full of image. How few practitioners have the time to do this--observe (even their own class), engage in well-structured teacher talk, visit other classrooms, etc etc etc. Nor are parents and family high enough on our agenda to think about the time it requires to really work with, not against, families. Building sufficient mutual trust is time-consuming, and we don't build in such continuities but instead create as many obstacles to it as possible!

I was puzzled, however, by the implication that classroom management gets shortattention--wow. It seems to me it's all I hear schools talk about. Everyone is either adopting or unadopting one scheme or another, often from the top-down, with "training" and all (ugh--re that work, which we once used only for trainers of animals. Maybe soon we'll be called "children trainers"?

Finally, I agree that our so-called "enemies" (Hanushek) are often the best provocateurs--which is what education in some ways is--a provocation! t build on to it but create as many discontinuities as possible.

Deb Meier

It is impossible to demonstrate the value of certification because almost all teachers are certified. Almost all have graduate degree.
That means there is no comparson group.

Wow, that's just not true. Not all teachers have graduate degrees. And some teachers are indeed uncertified (and growing numbers are alternatively certified in many states). Google "Dan Goldhaber" if you'd like to learn about the scholarly literature in this area.

Good stuff - your last line says it best.

"Isn't it wonderful that we have economists with tons of data (but no practical experience) to tell us how to find and reward great teachers?"

The practical world doesn't always match up to the theoretical world. Educational research has its place, but peer to peer collaboration with other teachers is often more fruitful.

Can someone point me to the source of Kristof's "factoid" ("having a great teacher is far more important...")?

Of course, the question I'd like answered is this one "What does make a difference?" (Jean, Feb 18) What is it the top 25% are doing differently?

To answer my own question, the Kristof factoid comes from this paper: http://www.brookings.edu/%7E/media/Files/rc/papers/2006/04education_gordon/200604hamilton_1.pdf

This post -- thanks to Leonie Haimson -- provides interesting discussion and a number of additional links: http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2009/02/myth-of-great-teacher-hopefully.html

Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago and have been reading it over the past few days.

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