I’ve been reading Amanda Ripley’s piece in the Atlantic Monthly about the work of Teach for America, a charity which funds successful college graduates in the States to work in challenging schools for two years after graduation. Teach for America has pioneered the assessment of individual teachers thanks to its access to data about teachers in its programme, and has learned (apparently quite recently, in the last decade) that the individual qualities of the teachers themselves have dramatically greater impact on children’s achievement than any other factor, far more so than even the socioeconomic circumstances of those children, which had been assumed (in America, at least) to have been the single biggest issue.
Even more importantly, these qualities can be described and identified in the recruitment process. They include relentlessness (aka “grit”) and, perhaps most resonantly for this most unionised of middle-class professions, a tendency to see problems as being within oneself rather than in the system:
Other teachers I interviewed spent most of our time complaining. â€œWith the testing and the responsibility and keeping up with the behavior reports and the data, it has gotten so much harder over the years,â€ said one fourth-grade teacher at Kimball, the same school where Mr. Taylor teaches. â€œItâ€™s more work than it should be. They donâ€™t give us the time to be creative.â€
A 23-year veteran who earns more than $80,000 a year, this teacher has a warm manner, and her classroom is bright and neat. She paid for the kidsâ€™ whiteboards, the clock, and the DVD player herself. But she seems to have given up on the kidsâ€™ prospects in a way that Mr. Taylor has not. â€œThe kids in Northwest [D.C.] go on trips to France, on cruises. They go places and their parents talk to them and take them to the library,â€ she says one fall afternoon between classes. â€œOur parents on this side donâ€™t have the know-how to raise their children. Theyâ€™re not sure what it takes for their child to make it.â€
When her fourth-grade students entered her class last school year, 66 percent were scoring at or above grade level in reading. After a year in her class, only 44 percent scored at grade level, and none scored above. Her students performed worse than fourth-graders with similar incoming scores in other low-income D.C. schools. For decades, education researchers blamed kids and their home life for their failure to learn. Now, given the data coming out of classrooms like Mr. Taylorâ€™s, those arguments are harder to take. Poverty matters enormously. But teachers all over the country are moving poor kids forward anyway, even as the class next door stagnates. â€œAt the end of the day,â€ says Timothy Daly at the New Teacher Project, â€œitâ€™s the mind-set that teachers needâ€”a kind of relentless approach to the problem.â€
The really effective teachers, on the other hand, were constantly questioning their own approaches, and their default position when faced with something that wasn’t working was to change their approach to it, not to blame it on external factors.
I know a lot of teachers. My wife is a primary school head, one of my best friends is a deputy at a comprehensive, my wife’s best friend is a head at a special school within a secure psychiatric unit. All of them are relentless and all of them assume, before they step through the door of their school, that any child inside is capable of as much as any other child. And they plan and they plan and they plan.
Parents know this, of course, particularly at primary school, where children have to spend a whole year with a single teacher. But they are badly served by the media, which focusses on shadowy cohorts of “failing teachers” in their hundreds and thousands, as against a small handful of “super teachers” who take home awards and appear on magazine show sofas and then disappear. What we need is a crunchy, statistically demonstrable and relentless (that word again) approach to identifying the best teachers at the point of recruitment, and less talk about “free school dinners” and “class sizes.”