Summer 2014 – Excellence in the Classroom

How donors can help teachers acquire the skills they need.

This article is excerpted from The Philanthropy Roundtable’s guidebook, Excellent Educators: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Cultivating Great Teachers and Principals. You can read the entire book here.

There’s nothing particularly striking about Brett Pangburn’s sixth-grade English class at Excel Academy in east Boston. 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 surrounding row houses. 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.

Pangburn asks one child for the answer to a multiple-choice question. The child answers correctly. Pangburn nods—and then pivots 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.

After transitioning from a legal career to teaching, Pangburn says he “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. “I’m hungry for feedback,” he says. 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 the Massachusetts state test. This is all the more remarkable given that Massachusetts has one of the hardest achievement exams in the country. Excel students’ advanced and proficient ratings mean they can truly compete with the rest of the world.

A growing research consensus finds that teacher quality is the most important school variable in student achievement. Great teachers can close achievement gaps. Great teaching is more important than other things that school authorities obsess over—and pour huge amounts of money into—such as class size. As Sid W. 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.”

So how can we get great teachers? How can philanthropic investment help bring about a world where every child has a string of good teachers—not an occasional lucky assignment, but a dependable relay of excellent instruction every year, with each teacher building on the work of the last?

Thanks to philanthropic backing, new organizations are offering fresh approaches to the processes of training, evaluating, and compensating teachers, with an eye to improving all practitioners and keeping good ones on the job. New channels are pulling non-traditional teachers like ex-lawyer Brett Pangburn into classrooms. Existing instructors are being offered chances to learn from masters, to be videotaped and critiqued, to be drilled in practical methods like the roaming and questioning techniques Pangburn employs. Some novel graduate schools and online offerings are popping up to hone instructional skills. In some states, automatic tenure is being tightened or eliminated. Teachers are beginning to be mentored and scored to encourage them to improve, and sometimes their salaries are adjusted accordingly.

Today’s sadly ineffective profession

America’s need for better teachers stands out in sharp relief in cities like Chicago. In 2011, only 21 percent of Chicago eighth graders were proficient or better on national reading standards, and only 20 percent were proficient or better at math. Yet under their longstanding evaluation system, 93 percent of Chicago teachers earned “superior” or “excellent” ratings. This defies common sense. “If students are not learning in class, that teacher can’t be considered a great teacher,” says Howard Paley, chief operating officer of the Rodel Foundation of Arizona. As a former educator himself, he notes that the job is not just about showing up and delivering material. “Our job is to ensure students learn.”

The conventional methods of defining and rewarding teaching quality, however, don’t consider whether students are learning. Instead, districts generally look at input, such as certification, graduating from an official school of education, getting a master’s degree. These are easy to see and cite, and they are what almost all states lean on. Unfortunately a teacher’s performance, not to mention the performance of his or her students, turns out to have little connection to these kinds of credentials.

The teacher colleges that churn out most of today’s public-school instructors often offer training in educational theory rather than subject knowledge, and much of the coursework covers topics such as the role of public education in society that, however fascinating, have nothing to do with the practical matter of successfully imparting information to wiggling fourth graders. Teacher colleges “don’t believe it is their job to train,” says Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “If teachers need a tool kit to manage a classroom, that’s frowned upon. It’s frowned upon that the institution would teach an approach to reading”—as opposed to guiding teachers to develop their own philosophy of reading instruction.

Meanwhile, student teaching tends to be much less helpful than it could be. Few colleges provide much oversight of the feedback and technique-training that student teachers get, and few programs ensure that students will be assigned to master teachers who get results. One former principal recounts an instructor asking for a student teacher because she had so little control of her class that she needed a second adult present to mitigate the chaos.

Because teacher-college training and student teaching are generally so unproductive, most starting teachers are not effective. For students, “the learning loss under first-year teachers is striking and measurable,” says Walsh. “We’ve come to accept a system in the U.S. that says the first year is trial by fire. We don’t think that’s necessary. We think we’ve settled for far less than we could expect.”

Once teachers are on the job, incentives and training to become better are also scant. Districts generally compensate teachers based on years of experience. This is easy to measure, and most teachers improve during their first few years on the job. But then many level off—yet continue to earn pay increases as they age. Veteran teachers can easily be earning twice as much as entry-level teachers (well into six figures, in larger districts), though there’s no evidence that they achieve twice the results.

Many school districts also define a high-quality teacher as one who has a master’s degree. Districts in the U.S. spent about $15 billion in additional compensation for master’s degrees in the 2007-2008 school year, though in most subjects there’s no link between a graduate degree and student achievement.

The reality is that most current systems for accrediting and paying teachers make no meaningful distinctions between good instructors and poor ones. An important 2009 report called “The Widget Effect,” published by TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project), used data to illustrate how teachers are essentially treated as interchangeable units by school districts today, rather than as individual talents. Today’s rating systems rank almost all teachers good or great. Fewer than 1 percent of teachers, the report showed, receive unsatisfactory ratings—even in schools where students fail to meet basic academic standards year after year.

As a result, schools neither recognize nor encourage excellence. In this environment, few teachers develop as professionals as fully as they should. In their last evaluation, almost three out of four U.S. teachers received no specific feedback on improving their performance. Low expectations across the board, a toothless tenure process, no connection between merit and pay, and the near impossibility of being dismissed mean that teachers receive neither the support nor the prods that other professions use to lift practitioners toward excellence.

So the need is great. But if certification, master’s degrees, and school compensation systems don’t help teachers teach better, what can?

Teaching teachers

What do superior teachers do differently? What common techniques and approaches let them take children from all walks of life and help them absorb rigorous lessons? Can experts and philanthropists team up to expose poor and mediocre teachers to these techniques and help them improve?

Doug Lemov and Uncommon Schools have become famous in education circles over the last few years for their study of this question. Uncommon Schools—a network of high-performing charter schools in Newark, Boston, Brooklyn, and elsewhere—systematically evaluated its best-performing teachers to study their methods. Lemov’s team analyzed hours of videotape, as football coaches might do, to see how teachers kept students engaged, on task, and thinking hard. The resulting book, Teach Like a Champion, identified 49 specific skills that excellent teachers use. Among them:

• They “cold call” on students. The old tradition of hand-raising is ingrained in schools, but why should only children who want to be called on get engaged?

• They circulate. Moving around the room forces children to pay attention, and keeps people in the back from daydreaming.

• They narrate positive behavior. (“I see Daniel thinking. Carlos made a reasonable guess…”)

 They make maximum use of classroom time. Losing just five minutes a day in paper shuffling or cajoling children to gather in a circle wastes 15 hours in the course of a school year.

• They push students to add depth to their answers. Requiring students to take their thoughts one step further strengthens and extends understanding.

• Rather than presenting predigested information, they pull kids into the process of instruction. Great teachers avoid straight lectures and make their kids do much of the cognitive work in class.

• They plan lessons intensively—not only what they’ll do, but what the students will do. Teachers prepared for things that could come up can make interesting diversions while meeting the original objectives.

Lemov found that these techniques and dozens of others he observed correspond with student gains. He and Uncommon Schools have now instructed more than 10,000 teachers on how to use them. They will train the teacher-trainers of any interested district. In about a dozen workshops per year, Lemov reports, “we do a two-day overview…classroom culture, reading, high academic expectations, pacing…Then they step back and reflect on how to use and adapt these things in their setting. They leave with 50-75 videos and an electronic binder of ready-to-use materials so they can lead workshops for teachers in their own districts.” Funders have given grants to school districts and charter operators so they can go through this program.

Another important effort to bring research rigor to the question of what good teaching looks like is the Measures of Effective Teaching project spearheaded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Researchers studied 3,000 teachers in cities including Charlotte, Memphis, and Pittsburgh. They used student surveys and student gains on achievement tests. They employed multiple trained observers to assess educators on how they managed behavior, created a culture of respect, engaged students in learning, and other factors. They combined these findings to create an overall measure of effectiveness for each teacher.

Then researchers assigned the teachers to new classrooms to see if their MET scores predicted how effective they would be with a different, randomly assigned group of students. They did. The study concluded that “it is possible to identify great teaching by combining three types of measures: classroom observations, student surveys, and student achievement gains.”

Schools serious about improving their teaching should be using these now-proven methods. The Gates Foundation is focusing many of its grants around MET principles. “It’s a big thing for us,” says program officer Ebony Lee. “Everything we do over the next couple of years will look at what systems can do to accelerate implementation.” How can districts get hiring and compensation right? How can their professional development help instructors improve? “Some places are more hostile to change than others,” says Lee. And most schools are just beginning to “hold teachers accountable and give them data that has consequences.”

It should be encouraging to see that the crucial elements of effective teaching are, for the most part, skills that can be learned. If teachers were “good” or “bad” based on some inherent qualities of personality, then options for improving performance would be limited. Ineffective teachers would be reduced to keeping their heads down and just hanging on until retirement. School leaders could only try to fire poor teachers, which can be almost impossible in districts governed by union agreements. But if good teaching is a skill, more positive prospects open up—provided parties will commit to making necessary improvements. Even if you’ve already been on the job for a while, the skills that yield effective teaching can be learned and practiced. Constructive reformers are acting on that discovery and creating new programs that help instructors hone their abilities.

Putting it into practice

Because most education schools have proven so resistant to change, many funders have concentrated on creating alternate ways of giving teachers the practical knowledge they need to succeed in the classroom. The most well-known of these groups, Teach For America, is the direct product of philanthropic support, built on major and sustained donations from stalwarts like the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and many others. TFA trains new teachers at its summer institute and then offers additional instruction throughout the two-year commitment of each TFA participant.

As TFA studies its most effective corps members, its summer institutes are constantly evolving. One change involves zeroing in on subject content. “Five years ago, very few corps members were trained in the specific content areas they’d be teaching in in the fall,” says Michael Aronson, TFA’s vice president. TFA mostly offered general teaching techniques. But the new thinking is that “teachers need to know their content. So we’re invested heavily in content-specific training, from early-childhood information for our pre-K folks to mathematics instruction for secondary-school teachers. We’re going to continue to invest in content pedagogy. It’s critical.”

TFA has also made its training more hands-on. “We’re continuing to invest and put energy into making sure that the teaching experience in the summer is authentic and resembles the type of experience corps members will have in the fall,” Aronson says. The bulk of a corps member’s time at the institute is devoted to student teaching, and TFA is making a point of inviting more kids into the summer-school classes where its teachers practice, so teachers can gain experience with both the subject and the grade level they’ll handle later.

Finally, TFA is gradually rolling out a powerful in-class system for critiquing and advising members as they instruct children. TFA and the Center for Transformative Teacher Training have collaborated on what is called the Real Time Teacher Coaching model. It allows new teachers to receive steady individual feedback from master coaches (sometimes immediately via earbud) on how they can improve their performance. Together, these elements offer an intense learning experience to TFA’s rookie teachers.

Another well-established teacher training program, TNTP, gets high marks and heavy support from donors seeking to bring its high-quality instruction to their homes, such as the Joyce Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, and the Sid W. Richardson Foundation. Founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997, TNTP has recruited, trained, and placed tens of thousands of new teachers in multiple states. TNTP runs high-powered summer training programs for its fellows, typically in partnership with a university that can credential the graduates. In Indianapolis, for instance, students train from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Marian University during June and July. Then TNTP provides coaching during the graduates’ first years in the classroom, while these new teachers simultaneously complete master’s degrees through Marian.

In other regions, like Washington, D.C., the organization operates a TNTP Academy—its own instructing and certifying entity. Students do coursework and training directly through these academies, under the guidance of master teachers. In all cases, final certification requires evidence of effective classroom practice.

As at TFA, TNTP’s training is hands-on. “We take a skills-first approach,” says president Tim Daly. Teachers practice skills until they are second nature. “How you have kids enter the classroom. How you collect papers. Do stuff without kids present over and over again until they’re fluent. That is almost never done in schools of education.” These skills give TNTP teachers firm control of their classrooms, so they can focus each day’s energy on instruction rather than restoring order. The results are impressive. A study of TNTP teachers in Louisiana over several years found that, on average, students in their classes advanced five percentage points higher in math than those taught by other teachers.

Something from nothing

Since rigorous training programs like TFA and TNTP create fewer new teachers than many would like, some organizations feeling pinched for well-trained instructors are creating their own teacher colleges from scratch—like the Relay Graduate School of Education, profiled in the Fall 2013 issue of Philanthropy. Founding an institution is not a minor undertaking, but when sharp school reformers form alliances with motivated donors, it can be done. High Tech High, a very successful charter-school network in southern California that needed more math and science teachers, established its own state-approved degree-granting teachers college, supported by the Amar Foundation, the Simon Foundation for Housing and Education, and the James Irvine Foundation. Match Education, which operates a string of superb charter schools in the Boston area, has done likewise. At both Match’s graduate school and Relay, teachers will receive their master’s degrees only after test results demonstrate that their students have made good yearly progress. 

Match gives its graduate students rigorous training in classroom performance and management. “We believe strongly that what’s required for entry-level teachers is how to teach a basic lesson, how to control the environment. They need to develop automaticity about basic teaching techniques,” says Match CEO Stig Leschly. The goal is to help rookie teachers quickly become competent “in real challenges they will face,” he says. “That differs drastically from conventional graduate schools of education, where you ask noble questions, but not in our view the ones that matter in the first 12 to 18 months.”

To hone automatic problem-solving classroom responses, degree candidates go through “north of 500 teaching simulations through their first year,” says Leschly. To make these lifelike, the test students will sometimes “randomly misbehave. They’ll walk out unannounced.” These things happen in real classrooms, and teachers need to be prepared.

But Match’s graduate school teaches much more than how to keep order. “We spend a lot of time coaching our teachers how to check for understanding,” says Leschly. They learn techniques for engaging students throughout a whole class, and for steadily increasing the rigor of the subjects discussed. Prospective teachers go through a natural progression: “They practice moves, they scrimmage, then they get their own classrooms.”

Funding teacher improvement is some of the most influential  work that philanthropists can accomplish today. Children need excellent schools because those from impoverished circumstances often deal with bleak conditions at home. If schools don’t set high expectations, train students in habits of study and discipline, and help them dream of a bigger life, many children will grow up without these things. Teachers can open up new worlds of possibilities in a way that few others can. But the system needs stimulation and pressure from outside the educational establishment—and the most successful examples of that happening in recent years have almost all been driven by dedicated donors.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of The Philanthropy Roundtable’s new guidebook, Excellent Educators: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Cultivating Great Teachers and Principals.

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