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Better Teachers or Better Programs?

This post originally appeared on Education Nation's The Learning Curve blog.

Several years ago, I happened to be visiting a third grade reading class in a suburban, middle class school. The teacher, I will call her Ms. Fields, had just been named Teacher of the Year for the district, and she was truly outstanding: Enthusiastic, inspiring, a real delight to watch as she taught her high reading groups. However, as is my habit, I wandered over to see what the low reading group was doing. They had two pages from their basal's workbook. Each had words arrayed on it inside puzzle-piece shapes. Their assignment was to cut out the puzzle pieces on one page, paste the words on synonyms on the other, and then color in the outline, which depicted a cat.

The kids were working happily. They quickly saw that this was a cat puzzle, so they paid little attention to the synonyms. So the task, for them, was a cutting-coloring-puzzle task, not a synonym task. These are not the skills a low-achieving third grader needs. This kind of assignment communicates to the kids in the low group that they are never going to be good readers, but as long as they are quiet and busy, no one was going to ask much of them. Of course, I've seen this kind of meaningless time-filling, motivation-deadening activity in traditional reading classes throughout the U.S.; this was only remarkable because it was Ms. Fields, Teacher of the Year, doing it.

You won't find many teachers better than Ms. Fields, but even she could have profited from programs or professional development to use any of many proven alternatives to the grouping strategy that made the cat puzzle necessary.

I bring up this painful memory to make a point about an important question of educational policy: Should policies focus on better teachers or on better programs? Any sane person would say "both." Clearly, we want the most capable, intelligent, caring, and hard-working people we can find teaching in every classroom. Current policies strongly emphasize this goal, with an increasing focus on policies such as value-added accountability, new sources of accomplished individuals to enter teaching (as in Teach for America), and higher standards for schools of education. Evidence for the effectiveness of these policies is minimal right now, but if they do result in a more capable teaching force on a large scale, that would be terrific.

Yet better teachers is only half of the equation. We also need better programs, meaning better professional development, textbooks, software, and other supports to help current teachers make a bigger difference.

The current administration is investing in several initiatives designed to improve the programs available to educators. One is Investing in Innovation (i3), which is supporting the development, evaluation, and scale-up of promising programs, and there are parallel efforts at the Institute for Education Sciences and NSF. Another is School Improvement Grants (SIG), where very low-achieving schools receive substantial professional development and coaching.

Yet the headlines focus on policies based on the idea that if we could only recognize good teachers and get rid of bad ones, all would be well. The problem is, almost all of the teachers I know or see in my work are already doing the best they know how to do. They are getting up early, working hard all day, and then spending their evenings grading papers, reading compositions, and planning for the next lessons. As in any profession, there are some bad apples who need to be weeded out, and we'd love to have more good ones entering and staying in the profession. Yet right now, we have 3 million teachers already in our schools, and what they need are opportunities to learn about, choose, and implement proven, effective strategies.

Education policy needs to continue to find ways to attract and retain the best teachers, but without an equal focus on helping teachers learn and effectively apply new ways of teaching, kids in third grade will be coloring in cats for a long, long time to come.

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