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Will 49 Techniques Make You a Champ?

What defines a great teacher? How do we know which ones are great and worthy of emulation?

Doug Lemov thinks he has the answer, and has written a book, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, with methods that mark the difference between the great and the not-so-great. I have not read the book yet, so I will hold my comments about the specific recommendations.

A report on his work appeared in the New York Times magazine two months ago, and this week he appeared on NPR's Talk of the Nation to discuss it. I was intrigued by the following exchange. A caller named Scott, said:

The premise is that the scores are what make the teacher great. The entire premise seems to be that the scores are the judge of a good teacher.
And I've got tell you from personal experience, I've taught at Hillsborough School District, now I'm teaching at San Mateo, and Hillsborough is always one of the top economically performing or I mean SAT-performing schools in the country, and I would challenge anyone to say, okay, take that entire staff and put them over to Hunters Point in San Francisco and have them teach over there - which is one of the consistently low-performing schools - and see if they can bring up the scores. Because I've got to tell you, it's socioeconomics that make the student, not the scores.
Mr. LEMOV: Sure, two things. The data set that we looked at to determine the teachers who we thought were game-changers controlled for socioeconomic factors. So we basically, we geeked out on a big regression set where we put -we plotted every school based on the percentage of kids in that school living in poverty on the X-axis, percentage of kids proficient on the state tests on the Y-axis, and we looked for schools that were in the upper right-hand corner, schools that had 90 percent of their kids in poverty and were still finding a way to work the magic.
And, in fact, one of those schools is in Hunters Point. It's Kipp Bayview Academy. It's an incredible school. It was founded by Molly Wood, who is someone I've had the luck to learn a ton from.
And the other you know, the thing I would say about that school is if go into any one of those neighborhoods - and I don't want to underestimate how incredibly challenging it is to teach or to try and run a school in those neighborhoods - there is always one teacher who's a champion. There's always one teacher who can do it, and that proves that it can be done.
Do you notice anything about this response? It actually only responds to the second point the caller made, that socioeconomics is the primary determinant of student success. Mr. Lemov skips right over the big question the caller posed. Is greatness defined by the ability to raise test scores? Until we answer that central question, we cannot really determine the value of these techniques.

Mr. Lemov is a bright individual. I can understand the drive for improvement and excellence that compels him. Under Bush's (now Obama's) NCLB, excellence is clearly defined for us all - the ability to move test scores upwards. This greatly simplifies the discussion. But there is one problem - this focus does not always serve our students.

I became National Board certified while teaching science at an urban middle school in Oakland. This process required me to carefully examine how my students were learning, and provide evidence in the form of student work over time, my feedback to them, and videos of my instruction. I had to write about how my instruction had moved them forward, and reflect on what I might do differently. We do need to pay attention to what our students are learning, and test scores are one form of data that should be heeded. But I think we oversimplify our task when this becomes the definition of greatness.

But I also must say I appreciate the idea that we can learn by watching effective teachers. While I may not agree that high test scores should be the only definition of effectiveness, that does not mean the techniques are all bunk. Classroom procedures may seem trivial, but they can make the difference between a quick-paced engaging lesson and a dull one.

The second issue, which Lemov actually does address, is whether socioeconomics determines the success of a school. The schools he cites in his book are charters, and that seems to be his primary reference point, which raises some questions about the broader application of his ideas.

There are two Facebook groups related to this project. The first is the official one, Teach Like a Champion, which features video clips of teachers demonstrating the techniques. The second one is Teach Like a Champion, Really? which asks members who are teachers in "regular" schools to share their experiences applying techniques from the book. It will be interesting to see how teachers respond to this challenge.

What do you think? How should we define (or measure) great teaching? What is the role of socioeconomics in student achievement? And how valuable are techniques like these?

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