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Which Kind of Teaching?

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In his back-to-school message last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that states with waivers from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act could delay for one year the use of assessment results in teacher evaluations. Secretary Duncan said that states and school districts are making a number of changes in standards, assessments, and teacher development and evaluation, and that teachers should not have to make these changes "in an atmosphere of worry."

Many educators applauded this announcement. They had been concerned that they are being asked to change instruction to reflect new standards that ask students to think critically, solve complex problems, and communicate effectively, while being accountable for results on tests that don't measure those competencies. The simultaneous introduction of teacher evaluation systems and new standards have placed teachers in an uncomfortable dilemma, and have left some soured on the standards as a result.

While the announcement can alleviate some of teachers' concerns, test results are only one part of evaluation systems. Observations of practice are also a factor. And unless the criteria for teaching practice reflect the new standards as well, teachers will be on the horns of the same dilemma--whether to shift to teaching practices that reflect deeper learning, or teach in shallower ways that the observation rubrics expect.

The different visions of teaching practice appear in sharp relief in Elizabeth Green's new book, Building a Better Teacher. One is the approach to teaching mathematics used by Deborah Ball, now the dean of the college of education at the University of Michigan, and Magdalene Lampert, now with the Boston Teacher Residency program. Their approach, which they called simply "This Kind of Teaching," or TKOT, engages students in lengthy and deep examinations of a single problem--for example, is zero even, odd, or something else? Students have to solve the problem, defend their answers, and critique those of others. The result is a much deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. This is the approach used in Japan, Green notes, a country that performs very well in mathematics on international assessments.

Another approach is one that Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools, a charter school network, has codified in his best-selling book, Teach Like a Champion. These techniques enable teachers to manage classrooms and keep students focused on their tasks. This approach has been used in many successful charter networks, like Uncommon Schools, that have seen dramatic improvements in test results.

But as Green notes, the Lemov approach does not appear to foster deeper learning. She writes:

Doug and his colleagues had advanced far beyond the chaos of the average urban school, creating schools where studying was possible and achievement was valued--no small feat. They had even eliminated the tyranny of the unannounced PA interruption. But in many other respects, their classrooms looked no different from any other in the United States. Like their fellow Americans, the no-excuses teachers used the "I, We, You" structure (I explain, we try an example, and then you practice) for most or all of their lessons, asked questions designed mainly to generate simple answers rather than to "explain how or why," and devoted most of their students' work time to practice, rather than the equally common Japanese activity, "invent/think." It was no wonder they valued quiet, "eyes on me"-style attention so highly; for them, as for so many American teachers, attention held the key to learning.

Green notes that Lemov and his colleagues are continually learning and revising their approach. They are, as she points out, relentless in their commitment to following data.

However, evaluation systems that place an emphasis on their original taxonomy could undermine teachers' shifts to deeper learning. And there is some evidence that states have not incorporated deeper learning into their standards for teaching evaluations. States can take Secretary Duncan up on his offer to postpone the use of test scores in teacher evaluations for a year. But they need to look at how they judge teaching practices as well. 

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