For those of you looking for some big picture professional reading as we head into the new school year, there are a couple of books out this month on teaching and teacher policy that are generating buzz (at least to judge by Education Week inboxes). Both are written by talented education journalists, and both aim to put teacher practice and development at the heart of school-improvement discussions. They sound like good, immersive reads—though they are bound to provoke counter-arguments, too.
In Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green explores the science of teaching, highlighting disparate efforts to isolate the mechanics of good classroom instruction. From the publisher’s description:
Building a Better Teacher introduces a new generation of educators exploring the intricate science underlying their art. A former principal studies the country's star teachers and discovers a set of common techniques that help children pay attention. Two math teachers videotape a year of lessons and develop an approach that has nine-year-olds writing sophisticated mathematical proofs. A former high school teacher works with a top English instructor to pinpoint the key interactions a teacher must foster to initiate a rich classroom discussion. Through their stories, and the hilarious and heartbreaking theater that unfolds in the classroom every day, Elizabeth Green takes us on a journey into the heart of a profession that impacts every child in America.
Green’s book originated in a much-talked-about 2010 New York Times Magazine article chronicling charter school director Doug Lemov’s quest to document the “magical ingredients” of good teaching. This spring, she published a follow-up piece in the Times Magazine, an excerpt from her book, on schools’ persistent failure to give math teachers the training they need to follow through on innovative instructional programs. Green’s central message is that good teaching should be viewed as a complex craft that can be learned and taught—something that seems to get lost or badly watered down in U.S. school systems.
Meanwhile, Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars examines the eventful history of the teaching profession in America. What she finds is a profession that has been consistently “embattled” and stigmatized even as it has been expected to meet impossible demands. She also confirms that—at least in education policy—history has a tendency to repeat itself. From the publisher’s release:
From the genteel founding of the common schools movement in the nineteenth century to the violent inner-city teacher strikes of the 1960s and '70s, from the dispatching of northeastern women to frontier schoolhouses to the founding of Teach For American on the Princeton University campus in 1990, Goldstein shows that the same issues have continued to bedevil us: Who should teach? What should be taught? Who should be held accountable?
She uncovers the the surprising roots of hot-button issues, from teacher tenure to charter schools, and finds that recent popular ideas to improve schools#&151;instituting merit pay, evaluating teachers by student test scores, ranking and firing veteran teachers, and recruiting 'elite' graduates to teach—are all approaches that have been tried in the past without producing widespread change.
Goldstein’s proposed solution is try something that hasn’t been done before in any consistent, large-scale way: “Conceive of teachers as intellectuals and allow them to collaborate to exercise real professional discretion and leadership.”
In a review of The Teaching Wars in the New York Times Book Review, Claudia Willis highlights its thematic similarity to Green’s book and suggests this may signal a shift in the thinking on school reform:
Like Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World and Elizabeth Green's Building a Better Teacher ..., The Teacher Wars suggests that to improve our schools, we have to help teachers do their job the way higher-achieving nations do: by providing better preservice instruction, offering newcomers more support from well-trained mentors, and opening up the 'black box' classroom so teachers can observe one another without fear and share ideas. Stressing accountability, with no ideas for improving teaching, Goldstein says, is 'like the hope that buying a scale will result in losing weight.' Such books may be sounding the closing bell on an era when the big ideas in school reform came from economists and solutions were sought in spreadsheets of test data.
Time will tell. For now, happy reading.
Update: Stay tuned for interviews with each of these authors on Larry Ferlazzo’s Classroom Q&A blog.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.