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Chapter 1: Good Teaching Trumps All

Brett Pangburn’s sixth-grade English class at Excel Academy in East Boston is a pleasant enough place. There’s nothing particularly striking about it at first glance. Student work decorates the wall. The classroom is neat, orderly, and welcoming.

But linger in the back of the classroom for a minute and you soon start to see extraordinary things. On a mid-September morning, just a few weeks into the school year, none of these preteens stare out the window at the row houses defining the area. None of them seem to be mentally transporting themselves anywhere else. Instead, the sixth graders track their English teacher as he moves around the classroom—the whole classroom—gliding between desks as if he owns the place. This possession of the classroom’s physical space is all the more interesting given that at Excel, a charter school serving primarily Latino and lower-income children, the teachers change classrooms between periods, not the students. Pangburn has just walked into the class a few minutes before; the kids have been here all morning. Still, the classroom is his, and two dozen sets of eyes stay on him as he discusses language clues.

Great teaching can close achievement gaps. That’s why smart philanthropists are so anxious to make teachers more effective.

Pangburn asks one child for the answer to a multiple-choice question. The child answers correctly. Pangburn nods—and then he ups the classroom engagement level by pivoting to another child to ask a follow-up question on why the other multiple-choice options weren’t right. The girl’s hand wasn’t raised, but it doesn’t matter, because in Pangburn’s class, everyone will be called on. Everyone has to think. That’s what great teaching ensures.

As a middle-school tutor years earlier, Pangburn recounts in an interview, he discovered that his first preteen charges “seemed like really bright kids. But they didn’t know anything. The work they were doing was a joke. You think, huh, these kids sound really bored. They’re not being challenged.”

While student-teaching at dysfunctional Boston schools, he likewise observed that “there were issues. But in my mind the issues weren’t with the kids. It was the adults in front of them.”

After transitioning to teaching from a legal career, Pangburn “humbly accepted that I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to figure out who’s good and go watch them.” After observing expert teachers, he’d try their techniques. Then he’d have these expert teachers come watch his class.

“It’s about being reflective,” he says. “I’m hungry for feedback.” If something doesn’t go well, he wants to fix it.

Excel students show up with various disadvantages. More than half speak a language other than English at home. Only 16 percent of their parents have pursued any education beyond high school. About a quarter of the children receive special-education services. More than two thirds of Excel’s fifth graders arrive reading three or more years below grade level.

Yet by seventh grade, the year after many of these students have had Pangburn, 100 percent will score proficient or advanced on the English-language section of Massachusetts’ state test. This is all the more remarkable given that Massachusetts has one of the harder achievement exams in the country. Excel students’ advanced and proficient ratings means they can truly compete with the rest of the world.

Great teaching can close achievement gaps. That’s why smart philanthropists are so anxious to make teachers more effective. As Sid Richardson Foundation president Pete Geren puts it, “the three most important factors in quality education today are, number one teachers, number two teachers, and number three teachers.”

Changing the quality of education often becomes a question of who. Who is in front of our children, working to stretch their brains? How do these people get there? And how do they get better at what they do?

Of course, great teaching cannot succeed in a vacuum. Excel is a high-performing charter school with a strong school culture. Pangburn recalls walking in for the first time and seeing that the students “were smiling, and nobody was yelling.” Better yet? “The adults in the room clearly thought the children could do rigorous work, and were helping them to do that work, and pushing them to do that work. I was blown away, and thought this is the kind of place I want to be.”

There are teachers with the capacity to be excellent in schools around the country. These teachers work hard to challenge their students, only to see their work undermined in some cases by ineffective teachers in subsequent years. They see their precious planning periods eaten up by pointless meetings and paperwork. Getting master instructors and mentors in to offer helpful feedback and coaching isn’t part of the culture. Colleagues don’t share lesson plans and collaborate to meet student needs. And they lack the data to know how they’re doing.

Good teaching can exist on its own, but great teaching requires great systems. And great systems are often about school leadership—principals who no longer see their jobs as managing a building and following district rules, but as nurturers of human talent, with a hard-nosed focus on operational excellence. Great school leaders can turn intelligent and hard-working teachers into educators who change the trajectory of children’s lives.

Not for love or money

There’s no doubt that many children’s life trajectories need changing. Philanthropists who work for educational excellence quickly learn that one reason powerful schools are so important is because children from impoverished circumstances often deal with bleak conditions in the rest of their lives. If schools don’t set high expectations, and train children in habits of study and discipline, and help them dream of a bigger life, many children will grow up without these things.

We have a long way to go. In Philadelphia, for instance, the public schools recently celebrated that 61 percent of students who began high school in 2008 graduated on time in 2012. This was the first year in ages that the number had surpassed 60 percent.

That’s common in urban areas across the country, despite massive spending in the educational sector. The U.S. spends far above the industrial-nation average on primary and secondary education. Our average spending per pupil rose from about $2,835 in the early 1960s (in 2009-2010 dollars) to well over $13,000 now. In Newark, New Jersey, a district that graduates fewer than 70 percent of its students on time, the figure is at least $17,000 by conservative measures, and $24,000 by other calculations. Much of the increase in per-pupil funding across the country stems from the billions districts have spent keeping class sizes small. But small class sizes don’t help if the teachers are mediocre. Many parents would actually prefer a larger class with an amazing teacher over a smaller class with a subpar instructor.

What’s more important than money, we’ve learned, is the quality of the educators working in schools. “People focused on transformative solutions realize that human capital has to be improved,” says Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation. “There is no workaround to the challenge of attracting, selecting, developing, and advancing” top teachers and principals.

No doubt the vast majority of people who choose to work in education do so because they love and care about children. Caring is great, but caring by itself is insufficient. Teacher and principal quality is as much about tools and strategies as it is about how much people care. Coaxing high performance from children is a skill, and like all skills it can be taught, practiced, and improved over time.

So how can that be achieved? How can philanthropic investment help bring about a world where every child has a string of great teachers—not an occasional lucky assignment, but a reliable relay of good instruction every year, with each teacher building on the work of the last? How can donors help make sure that teachers are nurtured and held accountable by school leaders with a commitment to excellence, and the management skills to make their vision a reality?

 

The key is to focus on what helps children, not on what is most convenient for teachers and principals.

There are organizations applying new approaches to teacher and principal recruitment, training, retention, and evaluation today, generally thanks to philanthropic support. These innovators bring more untraditional teachers like ex-lawyer Brett Pangburn into the classroom. They train teachers in practical methods like the roaming and questioning techniques Pangburn uses. They use classroom video recording and online instruction to hone instructional skills. They score and mentor and re-train teachers who are already in the classroom to help them improve, and sometimes adjust their salaries accordingly. A few dozen cities and states have let go of tenure in an effort to improve teaching.

In all these things, the key is to focus on what helps children, not on what is most convenient for teachers and principals. Good schools put children first, and find educators with the same priorities. And when this happens, new horizons open. “Before Excel, I didn’t think about my future,” recalls one student in an essay posted on Mr. Pangburn’s wall. “But now I do, because I know I want my dream job.”

Wise giving involves taking risks that others won’t, and it requires some patience. Leo Linbeck III, a Houston area businessman and philanthropist, notes that “It’s taken a long time to get into this mess. We’re not going to get out of it overnight.”

Wise giving also means learning from others’ experiments, so money isn’t wasted. Donors need to know what peers have tried, what they’re excited about, and what hasn’t worked as well as intended. “If it’s not moving the needle on student achievement, it’s not worth a long-term investment,” says Lisa Daggs, chief program officer of the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund. This guidebook will help you make those kinds of practical investments—in teachers and principals who can change lives.

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